The Russian invasion of Ukraine and the subsequent war may have played a crucial role in uniting most countries to condemn and even sanction Moscow. Still, it did not succeed in securing China and India’s support. China’s abstention at the UN Security Council resolution and the UN General Assembly’s emergency session was frowned upon, albeit expected. Conversely, India’s abstention took many world leaders by surprise. India’s return to a non-alignment position is a bold move by the Modi administration, which intends to balance its rapprochement with the US with its long-standing defence ties with Russia to offset China.
New Delhi has been at loggerheads with Beijing over asserting dominance in the region for years with little success. Trade imbalance, security concerns regarding Beijing’s ties to Islamabad, and the recurrent border standoffs along the Line of Actual Control are the main drivers of worsening India-China bilateral relations. Nonetheless, Moscow has effectively managed to build strong ties with both New Delhi and Beijing, much to the chagrin of the two regional powers, which are vying for Russia’s favour.
India’s ties with Russia
India is one of Russia’s long-standing allies, having signed their first friendship and cooperation treaty in 1971 and a strategic partnership treaty in 2010. One of the areas in which this partnership has proven more productive is providing arms and missiles. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), India was the primary purchaser of Russian weapons from 2012 to 2021. Despite New Delhi’s efforts to reduce its dependency on Moscow’s arms exports, Russia remains India’s primary weapon supplier, with a 46% stake of its total arms imports.
New Delhi’s wish to preserve its defence ties with Moscow and secure its supply of defence equipment is decisive to understand Modi’s abstention. India, currently the third-highest military spender globally with an estimated $73 billion budget, has relied on Russian weapons and military platforms for decades. According to Stimson Center researcher, Sameer Lalwani, up to 85% of India’s military consists of Russian weapons. India also has many pending transactions for more Russian military equipment like the S-400 air defence systems, worth $5 billion, and the recent $675 million deal to produce over 600,000 Kalashnikov AK203 rifles in Uttar Pradesh. Self-perceived threat perceptions of an arms race in its neighbourhood make New Delhi increase its military capabilities further and ensure good relations with Moscow.
There is a slight possibility that the US will impose sanctions on India to punish its abstention and Russia links under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA). CAATSA’s sanctions apply to any country dealing with Russia, Iran, and North Korea. Instead, it is more likely that the US will impose relatively less-harsher sanctions. After all, India is a strategic partner of the US and a member of the Quad. More importantly, ensuring that India remains on good terms with Russia benefits both the US and India as it offsets Chinese influence in Moscow.
China’s ties with Russia
Historically, ties between Russia and China can be described as opportunistic and serving a purpose. However, their announcement of a “no limits” strategic partnership, merely twenty days before the invasion of Ukraine, is a sign that bilateral relations between the two superpowers are at their peak. Bilateral trade has increased ever since 2014 Russia’s annexation of Crimea when international sanctions first hit it. Russia is China’s third gas supplier and second coal supplier. Both countries are bolstering their energy alliance by constructing Power of Siberia 2, a second pipeline that will supply gas to China for the next 30 years. Moreover, Russia is China’s leading arms supplier, with an 81% stake in China’s total arms imports in 2017-2021, per data collected by SIPRI.
For all its “limitless” partnership and support to Moscow, Beijing guaranteed that there were boundaries that would not be crossed, namely by providing military assistance to Russia. According to China’s ambassador to the US Qin Gang, “there is also a bottom line, which is the tenets and principles established in the UN Charter.” It is not in China’s interest for a protracted war, particularly during this year. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is already preparing for the 20th Party Congress in October, one of its most critical events that take place every five years and in which the next CCP leader is elected. Xi Jinping will probably secure his third mandate in this year’s congress, unprecedented in the Party’s recent history.
The prospect of a protracted war and sanctions runs counter to China’s wish of safeguarding its economy, and its ties with the EU are at risk. Trade between the EU and Beijing has steadily grown in the past years. So much so that in 2020, China became the EU’s largest trade partner. China was the third-largest partner for EU exports in 2021. Economic development ranks high for Beijing as well. During the CCP’s annual Two Sessions meeting in March, the Party announced economic development would be a primary focus. This decision comes after China’s economy slowed down in the last quarter of 2021, and the CCP published its 2022 economic growth target, the lowest since 1991.
So far, Russia has managed to strike a balance with the two Asian countries with certain success. However, the protraction of the war in Ukraine could prove dangerous for maintaining that balance. India and China are between a rock and a hard place: despite the economic and defence risks India and China are increasingly facing by supporting Russia, neither is willing to weaken its ties with the Kremlin and let Moscow slip further into the other country’s orbit. Nonetheless, if there is one thing both India and China agree on is the need for the war to finish soon. With any luck, both countries can set aside their distrust and work together to ensure Putin ends the conflict.