The Un-love Triangle
THE INDIAN EXPRESS
APLN member C Raja Mohan writes on the state of China-Russian alliance and its implications for India. Read the original article here.
The triangular dynamic between the US, Russia and China has long been the principal factor shaping independent India’s geopolitics.
The unveiling of a new Sino-Russian alliance a year ago this week, the Russian aggression towards Ukraine, and the deepening confrontation between the West and Russia and China are compelling India to recalibrate its international relations.
Last February, Vladimir Putin travelled to Beijing to unveil a partnership “without limits” and with no “forbidden areas”. To be sure, Russia and China had a strategic partnership for a long time before Putin’s February 2022 visit. What the Beijing declaration did was lay out a solid basis for jointly confronting the West.
Until the turn of the 2010s, both Moscow and Beijing sought a productive relationship with the US. Russia’s accumulating grievances against the West and China’s new ambition to replace the US as Asia’s dominant power have brought them much closer now.
A few days after issuing the declaration on February 4, Putin invaded Ukraine. We do not know the nature of the consultations, if any, on Ukraine when Putin and Xi Jinping met in Beijing.
It is not unreasonable to presume that the Sino-Russian alliance added to Moscow’s confidence in risking a confrontation with the West in Europe. Putin had hoped that his multi-pronged military offensive would force a quick collapse of the regime in Kyiv and fold Ukraine’s sovereignty into Russia’s. Imagine for a moment he had gotten away with this in Ukraine. Putin, who had long complained about the European security order, would have driven a stake through its heart.
A quick, decisive and successful use of force in Ukraine would have deeply divided Europe and fractured the US-led trans-Atlantic security system that dominated the region for more than seven decades. Coming less than a year after the ignominious US withdrawal from Afghanistan, Moscow’s absorption of Ukraine would have further undermined the credibility of the US as a global power.
Putin’s victory in Europe would have had a dramatic impact on Asia too. It would have reinforced the sentiment that America is in terminal decline, weakened US alliances in Asia, and boosted China’s ambition to radically reshape its periphery. If Putin had successfully conquered Ukraine, Xi’s path to unification with Taiwan through the use of force or mere coercive diplomacy might have eased.
But the Sino-Russian project of building a post-Western global order went awry in Ukraine. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s defiant courage prevented the quick collapse of the regime in Kyiv and that, in turn, helped mobilise massive military assistance from the Western world.
Nearly a year after the invasion, Putin is locked in a grinding stalemate. He has lost nearly 50 per cent of the territory Russia gained in eastern Ukraine during the early phase of the invasion. Russia’s military material and manpower losses have been immense and Moscow faces a harsh regime of Western economic sanctions.
Where does this leave the Sino-Russian alliance and what are its implications for India? Several preliminary assessments can be laid out.
First, instead of delivering a final blow to the US primacy in the international system, Putin and Xi have facilitated the resurrection of Western unity under American leadership. The Ukraine invasion has also allowed the US to put simultaneous pressure on both China and Russia.
In Europe, Putin’s war has helped the US galvanise and expand NATO. The Russian invasion has also triggered the fear of Chinese territorial expansionism in Asia. This has led to the strengthening of US bilateral alliances with Australia and Japan. Washington has significantly raised its military and political support for Taipei and is making it harder for Xi to embark on an invasion of Taiwan.
Second, the Sino-Russian alliance and the Ukraine war have seen two reluctant and pacifist powers — Germany and Japan — join the battle against Moscow and Beijing. Japan and Germany happen to be the world’s third and fourth largest economies and their mobilisation significantly alters the so-called “correlation of forces” between the West and the Moscow-Beijing axis. Both Berlin and Tokyo are now committed to raising their defence spending to cope with the security challenges from Moscow and Beijing.
Despite their huge stakes in economic engagement with Russia and China, Berlin and Tokyo have had no choice but to join Washington in ramping up the commercial pressure against Russia and China.
Third, if Russia and China thought they could dominate Eurasia through an alliance, Washington is doing something similar to bring its alliances and partnerships in Europe and Asia closer. We saw the leaders of America’s Asian allies join for the first time a NATO summit last June in Madrid. NATO, in turn, has promised to take a greater interest in shaping the Indo-Pacific balance of power.
Fourth, while the jury is out on the future of the Sino-Russian alliance, there is a growing prospect that Moscow will become more beholden to Beijing after Putin’s military misadventure in Ukraine. The poor Russian strategic performance may have diminished Putin’s standing with Xi and complicated China’s plans, but Beijing is unlikely to abandon Moscow. A weakened Putin will remain a valuable asset for Xi even as Beijing seeks to blunt some of the new Western hostility to China.
Finally, India’s discomfort in the messy menage a trois with Russia and China will only grow. The Sino-Russian alliance puts India in a terrible predicament: China can ramp up, at will, the military pressure on the disputed border with India; Delhi depends on Russian military supplies to cope with the PLA challenge; and Moscow is now a junior partner to Beijing. This is certainly not a nice place for Delhi to be in.
To make matters worse, the dependence on Russian arms has severely constrained India’s position on Ukraine and cast a shadow over Delhi’s engagement with Europe and the US. If the Russian partnership was long seen as the key to India’s “strategic autonomy”, Delhi’s arms dependence on Moscow is now the biggest constraint on India’s freedom of action.
Nearly three decades ago, India turned to Russia and China to promote a multipolar world amidst a unipolar moment dominated by the US. As it faced the prospect of a unipolar Asia dominated by a rising and assertive China, Delhi has turned to the US and its allies to restore the regional balance of power. The transition, however, has at once become more urgent and complicated by the new Sino-Russian alliance and President Putin’s war against Ukraine.