by Vinay Kaura

Russian president Vladimir Putin’s red-carpet welcome by Chinese president Xi Jinping in Beijing on the occasion of the second Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation earlier this month has not surprised anyone. At a time when Xi’s ambitious project – Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) – has alarmed the Western countries and Asian and African nations, including India, by fuelling indebtedness to expand Beijing’s political and military influence around the world, Putin has come to his friend’s rescue.

Putin has not only showered praise on the BRI by terming it as an “extremely important initiative” but has also said that it “fits perfectly into our plans”. His reference to “our plans” is about Eurasian Economic Union, which seeks to integrate Russia, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan into a common market, and has often been viewed as BRI’s rival. Putin had also remarked that the BRI “is to strengthen cooperation and to provide harmonious development in Eurasia, and these goals bring us together here in Beijing".

This is a transformative turnaround. Although there is no near-term possibility of Moscow and Beijing forming a military alliance, Russia’s growing coordination and cooperation with China is not without consequences for India.

There is no doubt that both leaders are investing a great deal of time and energy in cementing their countries’ ties with each other. In 2017, Xi was awarded the Order of St Andrew the Apostle, Russia’s highest national honour. Returning the favour in 2018, Xi awarded Putin China’s first friendship medal. Underscoring the close ties between Moscow and Beijing, Xi had said, “No matter what fluctuations there are in the international situation, China and Russia have always firmly taken the development of relations as a priority.” Praising Putin for his leadership qualities, Xi further remarked that, “President Putin is the leader of a great country. He is influential around the world. He is my best, most intimate friend.”

A few months later, when Russian forces held the domestic Vostok 2018 military exercise in the Far East and Eastern Siberia, Putin did not forget to invite China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Vostok 2018 was declared as the largest military drill in Russia’s post-Soviet history and the PLA’s participation in it sent a strong message about the evolving relationship between Russia and China

However, it was not the first time that Russia and China held joint military exercises. They have conducted joint exercises for more than a decade under the aegis of the Shanghai Security Cooperation Organisation (SCO), adding a naval component in 2012. These drills have substantially grown in scale and sophistication. Similarly, what was unique about Vostok-2018 was the PLA’s participation in a Russian military exercise, of which the military forces of countries that are members of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) had never been made a part of.

Although China’s participation did not carry much operational importance, its strategic importance could not be missed. The Putin regime gave a significant political message that Russia no longer considered China as a military threat bordering the largely uninhabited areas of Siberia and the Far East. It needs to be mentioned that even after the two countries finalised a border demarcation in 2008, there are many in Russia who have continuously sounded alarm bells about China’s serious threat to the deserted but resource-rich regions of Russia.

It is worth noting that the disintegration of the Soviet Union was followed by a rapid decline in Russia’s military exports as many of its major clients for weapons disappeared. Coinciding with this disturbing development, China was seriously modernising its armed forces and acquiring advanced weaponry. The survival of Russia’s arms industry was greatly ensured due to its exports of newly produced combat aircraft, armoured vehicles and warships to China and India during this period.

But the sale of advanced weapons to China was not smooth. There were warnings that Russia would be arming a future rival. Concerns were also expressed that Chinese would stealthily copy whatever Russia delivered to them. There were additional concerns of serious competition from China in the global arms market. However, China’s willingness to buy a variety of weapons and ability to pay in cash silenced all critics.

China was the first foreign buyer to sign a government-to-government deal with Russia in 2015 to procure the S-400 air missile system, which is known as Russia’s most advanced long-range surface-to-air missile system. Currently, Beijing is reported to be seriously considering purchasing Russia’s new Sukhoi Su-57 stealth fighter jet which is capable of both aerial combat and hitting ground and naval targets. Though China can boast of having its own fifth-generation aircraft, its dependence on Russian engines for the planes is a well-known fact. Even the China-Pakistan jointly produced JF-17 Thunder aircraft rely on Russian engines.

Russia is not oblivious to China’s growing influence in Central Asia and that the BRI is rapidly expanding Beijing’s footprint in the region, which is Moscow’s traditional sphere of influence. Hence, Moscow attempts to revive balance in the relationship. India prominently figures in Russia’s geopolitical schemes as part of Russia-India-China (RIC) summits as well as the SCO. Russia has considered itself as the centre of its bilateral security partnerships with India and China that could be used to counter American influence in areas of mutual concern. However, the deepening of strategic convergence between New Delhi and Washington has coincided with rising geopolitical tensions between the US and Russia, and now a raging trade war between the US and China. Consequently, the RIC trilateral has not served any useful purpose other than issuing periodical declarations critical of America.

Russia’s suspicion over China’s growing influence seems to have subsided somewhat in recent years. Beijing and Moscow are deepening their cooperation in areas that are likely to pose challenges to both Indian and American interests. The past several years of deterioration in US-Russian relations differ sharply with the persistent enhancement of the economic, political and strategic relations between India and Russia. In fact, the Western economic and military sanctions against Russia are not only promoting Moscow-Beijing intimacy but also undermining a key American policy objective of driving a geopolitical wedge between Russia and China.

Russia and China are opposed to the international order shaped by the alliance of Western powers. Combined efforts of these two permanent members of the United Nations Security Council are already influencing the transformation of many regional conflicts. It may also be mentioned here that Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conti participated in the second BRI summit in Beijing on 26 April. Disregarding concerns that Chinese loans may lead towards a debt trap and unsustainable trade deficits, Italy has become the first western country to come on board the BRI.

Even Turkey, which took part in the first BRI summit, did not participate in the second summit, citing rejection of debt-trap diplomacy and China’s treatment of the Uighurs, a Turkic Muslim minority in Xinjiang province, as two key reasons behind its non-attendance.

Russia-China's Cordial Relations And The Impact On India

As the world is seeing more conflicts, putting global rules and institutions under severe strain, Indian diplomacy faces many challenges. The most consequential challenge for India is the growing power, wealth and influence of China. Beijing’s anti-India position is driven by the Chinese desire to exercise unchallenged supremacy over Asia and beyond. Beijing’s intolerable role in shielding Pakistan’s security establishment at important global platforms and spoiling New Delhi’s chances of a seat at the UN Security Council is too visible to be ignored. Under such circumstances, the steady drift of Russia towards the strategic embrace of China is becoming a new strategic headache for India.

India’s strategic response has reflected the hedging strategy. India’s foreign policy has involved a number of strategic partnerships, particularly with the US, Russia and Japan. Though the India–US partnership tops the list, India has also cultivated a ‘special and privileged partnership’ with Russia. Between India and Russia, there are some specific areas of convergence including a robust defence partnership. Russia is reported to have regained the top position in Indian arms purchases this year, after having lost it to the US for four years. Despite the threat of American sanctions, the Modi government recently signed a $5.2 billion pact with Russia for procuring five S-400 air defence systems. India is also planning to buy four Krivak-III class frigates, and has signed a contract for the lease of an Akula-1 class nuclear submarine.

Russia continues to be preferred by India for procuring its weaponry due to Moscow’s flexibility in offering transfer of technology. Putin recently signed an executive order conferring the highest Russian national honour to Modi for “his distinguished contribution to the development of a privileged strategic partnership between Russia and India and friendly ties between the Russian and Indian peoples.” This decision may be seen as the renewed push by Russia to strengthen ties with India. But growing disagreement over the role of China is a worrying sign which may slow down the momentum. Russia playing a second fiddle to China in the multilateral institutions that promote China’s interests is something that India cannot ignore.

Russia’s accommodation of China’s economic and strategic interests has severe consequences for India’s interests. When Russia and China seem to be in a close embrace, New Delhi has no option but to seek closer ties with Washington and to strengthen the India-Pacific strategy through the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue to mitigate its strategic vulnerabilities.