A Sino-Russian counter to the Quad summit

China’s careful critique of the Quad about regional order or ideological elements gels with Russian interests

Srikanth Kondapalli.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s March 22-23 visit to Guilin in China to meet his counterpart Wang Yi was aimed at putting a spanner in the works of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) that held its first summit meeting of leaders of the US, Japan, Australia and India on March 12.

This is the 51st meeting between the two foreign ministers. Russia and China are under pressure from the US and others due to the imposition of a series of sanctions on them over the Crimea and Xinjiang issues. Both mentioned challenges from the revival of “coloured revolutions” and interference in their internal affairs.

As against the “rules-based order” that the West has been emphasising, the Lavrov-Wang joint statement mentioned “global governance” and the centrality of the United Nations. Of course, they did not mention UN Security Council reform.

Russia and China have their own axes to grind against the West. Western sanctions are crippling the Russian economy -- specifically the energy prices that Russia is heavily dependent on. The pandemic has aggravated its woes, with Russia having among the highest numbers of Covid infections globally. These are now further complicated by the sanctions over the poisoning of opposition leader Alexei Navalny. Then, of course, is the reckoning that Biden has warned Putin of for interfering in US elections and for the SolarWinds cyber hacking.

Speaking at the Russian International Affairs Council in December, Lavrov criticised the Quad for wooing India and weakening Russia-India relations. Lavrov also criticised the West for pushing the “rules-based order” and imposing sanctions on chemical and cyber-attacks.

Russia facilitated the foreign and defence ministerial meetings at Moscow between India and China, working to defuse the Ladakh border row. Moscow also sells arms to both China and India. In the event of a surge in US-India relations, Russia wants to open a window into Pakistan, too (by first selling armed helicopters, turbofan engines or participating in Indian Ocean exercises and in the Afghan reconciliation process), unnerving New Delhi as no specific US assurances are forthcoming either on Washington’s relations with Pakistan.

On China’s part, the Sino-US engagement process since 1971 has come to a crossroads on a number of issues – China’s militarisation of the South China Sea, escalation of Taiwan Straits and Senkaku islands crises, US criticism on Tibet, Xinjiang, Hong Kong and other issues. China’s rising tendency to use force, to kill Vietnamese, Indians, and recent orders to fire on the Japanese, is unnerving all its neighbours.

Russia is more aggrieved and for long over US policies and wants to build a coalition of “multipolar” initiatives (such as Russia-India-China, BRICS, Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and others), while China, dependent on the West for investments, technologies and markets, has been reluctant to associate closely with Russia or others against the West. However, with the US-China confrontation intensifying, Beijing has no choice but to move closer to Moscow.

Nevertheless, China shudders at the thought of either becoming another Soviet Union-like Cold War target for the US or having to enter into an explicit military alliance with Russia. Instead, China wants a loose coalition with Russia and others, like in the SCO or the BRICS, so that it can focus on its own “rejuvenation.”

China’s careful critique of the Quad about regional order or ideological elements gels with Russian interests. But while it finds the Russian shield useful to counter the US, Beijing does not want to play second fiddle to Moscow.

Differences between Russia and China are also on the rise, including due to China closing the gap with the US and the West on economy and technology, and due to Chinese migration to Siberia and a Russian fear of demographic change there.

In recent times three more issues have surfaced -- Chinese spying on advanced Russian military technologies, Chinese restrictions on Russian entry into China after Covid-19 eruptions, and vaccine diplomacy.

Two prominent Russian scientists, Valery Mitko and Alexander Lukanin, were arrested last year for passing on sensitive information on technologies to China. There is also suspicion of IPR theft on the S-400 missile systems that Russia sold to China.

As the pandemic spread, China restricted Russian seafood imports, which the latter saw as an “undeclared trade war”. Both countries are also competing in vaccine diplomacy for influence in the Eurasian region, with many seeking Sputnik V or AstraZeneca vaccines while Uzbekistan wants Chinese vaccines.

Clearly, India is caught in this vortex of Great Power relations and tectonic changes at the global and regional levels even as it is forced to strengthen defences on its borders with China and Pakistan. Geopolitical hedging and balancing appear to be the way forward in the short term.