While the warming China-Russia partnership poses challenges for the Western-led international order, India faces its own dilemmas in how to handle relations between an old rival and an old friend, write Arun Sahgal and Anshita Shukla.
China-Russia relations are becoming the focal point of the emerging global order. The nature of this relationship will have a major impact on how contestations between the US-led West and China-Russia power blocs unfold. This contest over the balance of power has major global and Indo-Pacific significance.
China and Russia share a long and tumultuous history, marked by fluctuations in ideological alignment, diplomatic crises, and a border war in the 1960s. In the 21st century, their relationship is characterised by alignments and maladjustments driven by their respective national interests.
At the present juncture, the focal point of the partnership is solely and explicitly dictated by the perceived challenge posed by the US-led, Western-dominated global order. Importantly, contestation is in two different spatial domains. While the Atlantic alliance is shaped by the maritime domain, the China-Russia nexus is predominantly continental, constituting a formidable Eurasian nexus.
Let’s start by assessing the drivers of China-Russia relations from the separate perspectives of Moscow and Beijing.
For Russia, the key is the perceived existential threat posed by NATO’s progressive advance toward its borders. For China, the central driver is a perceived US-led Indo-Pacific strategy, as outlined in national security and defence guidance, that aims to contain and confront China and constrain its rise as a peer competitor.
Russia’s external environment has deteriorated. Relations with Europe and NATO are at a nadir. It is working hard to consolidate its domination over Eurasia, but the results are at best limited. Consequently, its strategic influence is severely stressed.
Stretched military resources and increasing costs of war with Ukraine have led to a perceptible decline in both Russian military and techno-military power. There are concerns within the Kremlin over its declining geo-strategic influence. This erosion of stature and power is pushing Russia to reach out to China, while remaining wary of its growing dependence on the relationship.
Russia views China as an equal partner, critical in jointly facilitating trade routes, and diversifying its export markets. Despite its weakening posture, the deployment of troops by Russia in Kazakhstan at the request of the Kazakh President reflects both its regional interest and the relevance of its continuing security role in the region. Moscow, however, is cautious of over-reliance on its pivot to the east due to an implicit awareness that China will not come to Russia’s rescue owing to conflicting interests.
Consequently, it avoids binding obligations of a formal alliance, particularly those that can draw it into potential conflict in the Indo-Pacific, such as over Taiwan. Nevertheless, it endorses the “One China Policy”, and Chinese positions on Taiwan and the South China Sea.
Russia rejects the label of “junior” partner and seeks to manage the relationship on mutually beneficial terms. Whether or not Russia can maintain equal status in the relationship is unclear, given its increasing isolation over the widening Ukraine conflict, and the severe impact of economic sanctions.
For China, the guiding principle of the relationship is flexibility, evident from its call to “form partnerships, not alliances,” which allows it to distance itself from some of Russia’s behaviour in the international arena.
China’s approach is dictated by its economic and trade priorities, especially access to the US and European markets, including their capital markets. China’s economic success is attributed to and contingent upon the open, liberal economic order. Idealogues in China believe that the extension of “without boundaries” support to Russian actions exposes the country to punitive sanctions deployed by the West against Moscow that could threaten Beijing as well. The result is that Chinese companies have abided by the West’s sanctions on Russian companies to continue doing business in Western markets.
Further, with Russia distracted by the Ukraine war, China has space to pursue its economic and connectivity goals in Central Asia and secure coveted resources and routes in the Arctic. The signing ahead of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation’s Samarkand Summit of a rail connectivity agreement between Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and China, previously stalled by implicit Russian opposition, reflects the shrinking regional influence of Moscow.
Advocates of the China-Russia entente further argue that in Beijing’s pursuit of global primacy, palliating a neighbour with which it has had a history of border disputes is crucial. In the absence of congenial relations with Moscow, China would be exposed to threats from two nuclear powers, the US and Russia, diverting Beijing’s attention and resources.
In their view, for Moscow, a new Cold War serves to deepen suspicion and fear in the international system and enable it to advance its immediate interests and project these to China as common challenges, while differences between Moscow and Beijing can be either papered over or managed. There is, however, a crucial difference between the two countries in their respective visions of the international order. While Moscow seeks to disrupt and flourish, Beijing aims to expand its sphere of influence within the international system from which it has drawn unprecedented economic growth.
Nonetheless, there is a recognition in Chinese Communist Party circles that Russia remains the primary supplier of China’s growing energy demands, critical raw materials, food grains, defence supplies and spares. Under current conditions, cooperation and good relations are a win-win.
The Sino-Russian relationship thus for the moment can be best described as a “marriage of convenience”. It is hard to predict the longevity and stability of this alignment. Without shared vision, goals, and approaches, will China and Russia align against a common enemy? Another big question is, how will China react to strategic reverses faced by Russia or its possible use of a nuclear weapons, upsetting the nuclear order?
In the prevailing strategic environment, the Sino-Russian relationship is likely to endure for the short to medium term, particularly till the disruption and disorder in global affairs starts to stabilise in a manner that is deemed advantageous to either side.
Another important variable in the strategic disposition on the Eurasian landmass is the role of India. India’s interests are largely driven by the impact of the Sino-Russian partnership on the India-Russia defence relationship, a critical fulcrum of relations between New Delhi and Moscow. The argument goes that the deepening of Sino-Russian strategic and economic relations, and India’s own strategic and security partnership with the US, could induce Russia to become indifferent to future defence supplies, and even stall essential transfers of equipment and spares during crisis situations.
An important lesson of the Ukraine conflict for India is to rebalance its defence imports to minimise the risk inherent in single source dependency.
On the geopolitical front, Central Asian nations, deprived of a regional anchor like Russia, are being thrust closer to China, which is attempting to shape the Eurasian landscape by promoting its Belt and Road Initiative to its advantage. This exposes a critical hiatus in the Sino-Russian partnership, showcasing Beijing’s unwillingness to compromise on its economic and political interests to sustain its relationship with Moscow.
Considering these developments, Indian foreign policy in Eurasia is guided by a need to constrain the expanding footprint of China in the region. Seen in this context, India’s Central Asia outreach and Russia’s Eurasian Economic Union agenda have many common economic and security convergences, including on the issue of counterterrorism.
Collaboration between India and Russia can provide a credible balance in the Eurasia-Afghanistan-Pakistan-Iran box, by maintaining pressure on radical Islamist groups operating in the region and by acting as a counter poise to China.
There is a perception that a pragmatic Moscow is unlikely to choose sides in any India-China conflict or support Pakistan. It can possibly be an honest broker in preventing escalation of Sino-Indian conflict. However, India must remain cognisant of the fact that while the two countries share convergent interests in continental Asia, balancing China in South Asia is not one of them.
As China becomes more important for Russia, it is important to maintain the vitality of the latter’s partnership with India as an alternative to economic dependence on Beijing. India has considerable potential to fill gaps in, and broadly support, the Russian economy. It also has its own interests in maintaining access Russian defence equipment and energy supplies. However, it remains to be seen how far this trade potential can be realised in view of unprecedented Western sanctions, and significant economic downturn in Russia.
Brigadier Arun Sahgal is Senior Fellow Regional and Strategic Security at the Delhi Policy Group. He was previously the founding director of the Office of Net Assessment, Indian Integrated Defence Staff and a member of Task Force on Net Assessment at the Indian National Security Council.
Anshita Shukla is Research Associate at the Delhi Policy Group, New Delhi. She recently graduated from the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, at National University of Singapore, with a Masters Degree in International Affairs.