New Delhi’s new government has a tough battle ahead in not only countering China and standing up to it in a hostile neighbourhood but also in making tough decisions on its strong ally and old friend Russia

by Vas Shenoy

The evolution of the China-Russia-India relationship will determine the fate of the Indo-Pacific

The defence establishment in India is sounding an alarm, which is growing louder by the day. India can no longer ignore the Russia-China bonhomie. The Indian Minister of Foreign Affairs, S Jaishankar, has defended the India-Russia partnership as unaffected by the newly found Russia-China “friendship with no limits”.

On May 24, Swasti Rao, Associate Fellow at the Institute of Defence Studies and Analysis (IDSA), a think tank of the Indian Ministry of Defence, published an op-ed calling for India to de-risk itself from Russia. This was an institutional first, and Rao was attacked on social media by veteran Indian diplomats. This also brought to light the amount of influence the Kremlin continues to wield in Delhi.

On May 27, Rao’s op-ed was followed by another piece , this time by retired Gen M M Narvane, India’s former Chief of Army Staff, cautioning the Indian government to sharpen its act. Narvane warned that India could no longer take Russia’s support for granted, especially in the Indo-Pacific, given Russia’s increasing dependency on China.

The Russia-China bonhomie and India’s balancing act between Moscow and Washington only reiterate what the 19th-century British statesman and Prime Minister Lord Palmerston apparently once said: “There are no permanent enemies and no permanent friends, only permanent interests," Naravane said, underscoring the need for India’s new government to keep Moscow on notice.

This demand by the defence establishment for India to pivot away from Russia was addressed on May 30 by Antara Ghosal Singh of the ORF Foundation. Singh, offering a counterpoint, argued that in the triangular dynamics between China, Russia, and India, China has little option but to accept deeper India-Russia ties, face the risk of losing Russia to Indo-Pacific geopolitics, or have India slip further into the arms of the US.

The rare public difference of opinion between the two pillars of India’s global outreach, its defence ministry and its ministry of external affairs, comes at a time when India is wrapping up its national elections and a Modi 3.0 government is expected to be declared on June 6. It also comes at a time when the world is distracted by the continuing war in Ukraine, the Israel-Hamas conflict, the political instability in Iran, which is a key belligerent in the Middle Eastern conflict, China’s war games with Taiwan, and its aggression in the South China Sea against the Philippines.

This also comes at a time when President Putin is making forays into the Sea of Andaman, taking over the port at Dawei, and forming the Squad, a new US-led grouping in the South China Sea that does not include India.

In all these conflicts, what is ignored is the India-China standoff on the Line of Actual Control (LAC). The countries share a 3,400-km border between India and Tibet, which has never been accepted by China. China continues to claim several Indian territories as its own, and the border is one of the most militarised areas in the world. India and China have had repeated skirmishes since 2020, and in March, India freed up 10,000 soldiers and moved them to better guard the border with China.

Adding to the tension, satellite imagery has shown that on May 27, China moved six J-20 stealth aircraft to Shigatse airbase in Tibet. Shigatse, at an elevation of over 12,000 ft, is one of the world’s highest altitude airports and is around 150 km from India’s Sikkim border. It is also close to Doklam at the strategic Sikkim-Bhutan-Tibet trijunction. While India’s ministry of defence has not commented on the latest Chinese move, it has increased alert levels in New Delhi, given Shigatse is around 300 km from the Indian Air Force’s (IAF) base in Hasimara, Bengal, which hosts the IAF’s second squadron of 16 Rafale aircraft.

China also continues to establish “ Xiaokang ” villages, adding to those already present. These prosperous villages, which mushroomed suddenly in contested Tibetan border areas with India, are dual-use with reinforced military infrastructure. They are probably watchpoints, but they also serve to back up the infrastructure along the India-China border to be used by armed forces in case of conflict.

As tensions rise, India continues to arm itself. India has begun negotiations with a French team from Dassault for the purchase of 26 Rafale Marine fighter jets to add strength to the INS Vikrant, India’s second and more advanced aircraft carrier.

While both India and China have two aircraft carriers, China has started testing its third as India lags behind. China’s spy vessels frequently sail close to India’s coasts, even though China has not sailed an aircraft carrier in Indian seas so far.

China continues to grow its influence in the Indian Ocean, first through its base in Djibouti and its presence in Gwadar, Pakistan. India must catch up to maintain the security of its economic zones as well as its projection power from the Gulf of Aden to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.

While the US, Quad, and Europe prepare for a conflict in the oceans and guard sea lines of communication, key to any war effort, India’s war with China will be mostly fought inland. In these battlefields, India stands alone against China’s might in some of the world’s most treacherous terrain, where both countries are at a disadvantage. China is further weakened as it is seen as an occupying power in both Tibet and Xinxiang, regions oppressed by Beijing, where neighbouring India is viewed as a friend and China’s Han majority as an oppressor.

New Delhi’s new government has a tough battle ahead in not only countering China and standing up to it in a hostile neighbourhood but also in making tough decisions on its strong ally and old friend Russia, which seems to lose trust from India’s defence establishment. With an uncertain Europe that is divided over its China approach and a turbulent US election that will distract further along with the two wars the world is facing, it will be India alone. It will have to stand up to the aggression of the Chinese dragon. At the end of the day, the war in the Indo-Pacific begins at the McMahon line.

The author is an Indo-Italian entrepreneur and writer, has worked closely and continues to advise various governments in Europe, Middle East and Africa