Russia wants to play a bigger role in South Asia now. Even if it clouds relationship with China

As the India-China tussle raged in the Himalayas through this year, both sides scampered to stockpile missile systems and aircraft. But while Russia confirmed that it was on track to deliver five squadrons of S-400 Triumf air defence systems to India, it didn’t give the same promise to China. Moscow decided to suspend the supply of the S-400s to China.

The S-400 is a modern surface-to-air missile defence system capable of intercepting and destroying enemy missiles and aircraft up to a range of 400 km.

In 2018, despite the US’ threat of sanctions, India correctly chose Russia’s S-400 over the American Patriot Advanced Capability (PAC-3) and THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defence) missiles. A predictably outrageous outburst from President Donald Trump against India’s decision followed. This year, however, under a slew of arms deals, was buried a piece of news that raised a few eyebrows. The S-400s promised by Russia to China did not arrive. Rumours thrived that Covid-19 may have been the reason for delay. But it looks like Moscow took a deliberate stand.

In February 2020, Valery Mitko, one of Russia’s leading Arctic scientists, was arrested on charges of allegedly passing secrets on submarine-detecting technology to China. Later, in June, after investigations, a court in Russia extended his house arrest. Russian scientists have been under a cloud because of links to China in the last couple of years and the Mitko incident aggravated a growing suspicion that hangs over a collaboration of convenience between China and Russia. A month after the court’s decision on Mitko, Russia chose to suspend the supply of missiles to China.

China-Russia Rivalry

In Asia, China finds itself in an unfriendly neighbourhood of littoral states on the South China Sea, made worse with the US entering the Indo-Pacific with its allies. The talk of revival of Quad involving the US, Japan, India and Australia is an example. Given its isolated status, a stable relationship with Russia has assumed critical importance for China. A suspicious China, however, senses that its dependence on Russian weapons technology makes it vulnerable. Which might have led to espionage on Russia and probably the Mitko case. Moscow, on the other hand, needs Chinese investments to develop ports and infrastructure in the Arctic region and yet fears that Beijing might cut into its influence in the defence industry and Central Asia.

In the early 1990s, the collapse of the Soviet Union coincided with the rise of China. As the US consolidated its sole superpower status, Beijing and Moscow came together to challenge the American hegemony. Russian interests, though, were restricted to Central Asia and the Middle East – given that the nature of military posturing in the region suited the typically intrusive Russian playbook. Their interests in East Asia, dominated by China, remained mostly marginal. However, deteriorating relations in the neighbourhood around South China Sea and South Asia might see an interested Russian arms industry tiptoeing in. As a lurking rivalry lines its collaboration with China, Russia has quietly increased its stakes of negotiation in East Asia.

Instead of its archetypal politico-military outreach that could upset China, Russia has used a soft-power route of trade to strengthen its rapport with Japan and South Korea. In 2017, Japan and South Korea comprised 7 per cent per cent of Russian exports (versus 11 per cent to China).

According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), Russia has substantially increased its supply of arms to Southeast Asia in this decade. Former PM Dmitry Medvedev used multilateral platforms like ASEAN to meet leaders from Laos, Thailand and Cambodia last year. Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte called Vladimir Putin “my favourite hero”. And to authoritarian regimes such as Cambodia, Russia is a less demanding presence than the West.

The Only Go-Between Now

An ambitious China, under Xi Jinping, has asserted itself in geographies outside East Asia. Any such push towards Central Asia and the Middle East worries Russia, which would like to retain a stronger East Asian card. That explains Russia’s relations with countries in East Asia, where China has new enemies. That also explains why Russia is likely to keep India on its side. On the US front, Joe Biden’s new government could reopen past differences with Russia, including on Ukraine and Belarus. Moscow’s silence on Biden’s election win is a pointer, just as Beijing’s silence indicates the anticipation of a steady, hard-nosed American line.

Russia and China have come a long way in their historical relationship and, today, share what Parag Khanna refers to as “an axis of convenience than a real alliance”. Fifty years ago, Chinese patrols deceived a Soviet outpost at an island off the River Ussuri. The Soviets retaliated, obliterating an entire Chinese military brigade. The beneficiaries then were the Americans, who believed that an enemy’s enemy was their friend, and sided with the Chinese. Half a century later, while the Russians are suspicious that a now powerful China might deceive them again, the latter needs them against America and its allies. Vasily Kashin of the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Far Eastern Studies says, “China can ill-afford to alienate a neighbour that’s an important military and resource power in its own right”.

Announcing itself as an active mediator between India and China is not quite Russia’s style, but it has never shied away from hosting peace summits (Tashkent in 1965 was an example). In September this year, the foreign ministers of India and China met in Moscow and agreed that military commanders of the two countries needed to continue the dialogue. Russia is aware that it can claim greater relevance in the region by being the go-between, since it is the only power acceptable to the two warring neighbours. In a fragmented and fractious region of Asia, a keen Russian hand is set to play a key role.