Squeeze on India’s options

The Sino-Russian Entente

Russian President Vladimir Putin shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping during their meeting on the sidelines of the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok, Russia on September 11, 2018. REUTERS

Two weeks ago, Russia joined hands with China to conduct one of its largest military exercises since the Soviet times. Chinese President Xi Jinping was in Russia, too, to attend the eastern economic forum in Vladivostok and he bonded with Russian President Vladimir Putin over pancakes with caviar and shots of vodka. They were sending messages to multiple audiences: to those back home in Russia and China, as the two leaders use military nationalism to consolidate their positions at home, and to the West and the US in particular that two major powers are joining hands.

The Russian defence ministry claimed that some 3,00,000 soldiers were involved in all stages of the five-day exercise, which involved helicopter and parachute landings by Russian infantry forces. Though Russian and Chinese forces have exercised before in multi-national drills, mostly under the auspices of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, the inclusion of 3,200 Chinese troops, along with 30 aircraft, into the Russian military manoeuvres gives these exercises an altogether new dimension. Where last year’s exercise, Zapad 2017, was focused on Russia’s western frontier with the NATO, in a sign of changing times, this year’s drill saw Russia and China exercising together in a region not far from where China and the Soviet Union fought a real border war in 1969.

The US, of course, would have watched it closely as it came months after the Trump administration unveiled its new national defence strategy that underlines “strategic competition” with Russia and China, and as its ties with both countries have deteriorated under spiralling sanctions and trade tariffs. US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis dismissed these drills saying, “I see little in the long term that aligns Russia and China.”

For his part, Putin justified these exercises by underscoring Russia’s credentials as “a peace-loving country” that was ready to defend itself. “Our duty to our country, our motherland, is to be ready to defend its sovereignty, security and national interests and, if necessary -- to support our allies,” he said in his address.

China has today emerged as an important partner of Russia despite their continuing differences in certain areas. As Russia’s ties with the West have deteriorated, it has moved remarkably closer to China, with trade and military cooperation between the two flourishing, something unthinkable just a few years back. Chinese investment in Russia is growing. Russia is China’s largest oil supplier and is likely to emerge as its biggest source of natural gas in a year’s time. At a time when Russia’s trade ties with most nations are on a downward trajectory, China is a rare bright spot for it.

For China, there is much to learn from Russia’s operational experience in warfighting. Though China’s military modernisation is leaving Russia behind, its real-time operational experience is rather limited. Russia’s experience in the Syrian conflict, where it has sharpened its informational warfare and combined arms warfare techniques, is something that Chinese military generals are eyeing with great interest. As Maj. Gen. Shao Yuanming, deputy chief of the Joint Staff Department of China’s Central Military Commission, made it clear during the Vostok-18 exercise: “The Russian army has very vast experience in conducting practical combat operations and a powerful combat capability,” and “for us, it’s been very useful to learn from the Russian army and get this very valuable experience.”

By involving China in its exercises in the Far East, Russia has indicated that it doesn’t see Beijing as a short to medium-term threat in the region, a big change from even just a few years ago. The two may not be allies yet, but their relationship has grown to an extent that such exercises become possible and a relationship can be developed to take on the US together.

Limits to partnership

There are clear limits to this partnership. Both Russia and China are also independently trying to frame their responses to the Trump administration. China’s primary interest is in stabilising its economic relations with the US at a time when its economy is beginning to face the adverse effects of sanctions. It has little interest in expanding the ambit of its disputes with the US by supporting Russia in the latter’s confrontation with the US-led North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). Russia, too, is cognizant of the limits of its power. It is the junior partner in this Sino-Russian entente and would want limited exposure to the South China Sea dispute, for instance.

But to look at the Sino-Russian relationship primarily through the prism of its limitations is to miss the point altogether. The fact that this relationship has grown to this extent where the two are now participating in joint military exercises underscores the rapidly evolving nature of this relationship. Both are now more united than ever before in posing a challenge to the US-led global order. For India, this poses a real challenge. New Delhi has long maintained that it needs a close relationship with Moscow so that the Beijing-Moscow relationship could be dented. But India’s Russia outreach seems to have had a rather insignificant impact so far on the Russia-China dynamic. Russia is also reaching out to Pakistan despite Indian reservations and is changing its tune on the Afghanistan issue. It is now a strong votary of negotiating with the Taliban and has given short shrift to Indian reservations in this regard. Russia has been at the forefront of advising India not to challenge China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Given the challenge China poses to India on multiple fronts, this growing Sino-Russian collusion should ideally be at the top of the agenda when Russian President Putin visits India next month.

(The writer is a Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi and Professor of International Relations, King’s College, London)

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