India and China have separately frustrated and angered many in the West by refusing to condemn Russia’s military action on February 24. The two BRICS member countries’ neutrality is driven by their respective and conflicting national interests. It is a gross error to assume that the two mutually ‘hostile’ Asian neighbors will be further encouraged by the war in Ukraine to reboot their bilateral relationship and move toward forging a tripartite Russia-China-India front to challenge US hegemony.
Though India and China have been abstaining from voting against the Kremlin over Russia’s war on Ukraine at the United Nations, and both New Delhi and Beijing have refused to condemn Moscow, the two hostile Asian neighbors’ “neutrality” cannot be viewed as “shared”. What is of even greater significance is that the two countries – both extremely friendly to Moscow – do not positively view one another’s friendship with Moscow. Besides, a common missing element in both Chinese and the West’s understanding of India’s neutrality in Russia’s war in Ukraine is that New Delhi’s response to the conflict is determined by “India’s need for strategic partnerships and not for friends with common values.”
Interestingly, on the one hand, there are few commentaries in the Indian media about how Indian and Chinese “neutrality” in the Russia-Ukraine war may have the potential to help New Delhi and Beijing make a fresh start amid prevailing hostility and border standoff with one another. But there are Op-Eds underscoring how India-China cooperation can help ease tensions between Washington and Moscow. On the other hand, signals emitting out of Beijing are more affirmative and encouraging toward rapprochement with India. The expectations in both Beijing and New Delhi were high on a possible “ice-breaking” tête-à-tête between the two foreign ministers on the sidelines of the foreign ministers’ meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in Tashkent in September last year.
Echoing the statement of China’s foreign ministry spokesperson on the issue, and hoping for an early resumption of “normal” day-to-day bilateral ties between the two sides, a Chinese IR professor at Beijing’s prestigious Tsinghua University opined: “China and India share similar stances on the Russia-Ukraine conflict. If the bilateral talks happen, the two foreign ministers may discuss cooperation.” Furthermore, much to the West’s frustration, without wasting time the Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi immediately flew into New Delhi “uninvited” on March 25th, as soon as Beijing realized India “refused even to criticize President Putin, let alone countenance sanctions”.
The “China Factor” and India’s Strategic Relations with Russia
As mentioned, driven by their own subjective national interests, both China and the West have failed to fathom India’s geopolitical calculations and strategic dimensions behind standing firm on New Delhi’s neutrality in the raging war in Europe. Besides short-term gains of easy and cheap access to the Russian energy supply, the reason why India “stubbornly” and “rigidly” withstood the mounting pressure on it exercised by the US and allies and refused to condemn Russia is none other than the “China factor.” From the long-term strategic viewpoint, because of the real China threat, India is deeply dependent on Russia for its military and defense needs.
The roots of decades-long strategic rivalry between India and China to gain the upper hand in Asia lies in their 3,488-kilometer disputed Himalayan border. What is worse is that the 1962 border war, which could have ensured normal bilateral relationship, eluded the two hostile neighbors. Recently, the so-called peaceful or lying-dormant border dispute suddenly erupted into a physical brawl between Chinese and Indian troops in the Galwan Valley – at the southeastern edge of Aksai Chin along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in the high plateau Ladakh region (the size of Switzerland) – that has been under Chinese occupation since the 1962 India-China War.
In mid-June 2020, amid the high wave of the Covid-19 pandemic spreading across India (but by late April the Chinese Communist Party was already celebrating China’s “victory” in the country’s fight against the virus), an estimated 4 Chinese and nearly 20 Indian soldiers had been brutally killed in the gruesome brawl. At the time of the Russian assault on Ukraine, tensions were still running high on the Indian-Chinese border. Today, after nineteen rounds of negotiations between the two militaries, the situation remains tense, and bilateral relations are far from normal. Under these circumstances, lagging behind China both economically and in military preparations, India more than ever feels a greater need to have ready access to Russian arms. In the words of a security affairs expert: “Were the India-China border tensions to escalate into a full-scale conflict, India would all the more need to have good relations with Russia”.
China Seeking Advantage over India by Playing Psychological Games
Alarmed by India’s proactive participation in the US’s Indo-Pacific strategic measures to contain and isolate China – especially the Indian key role in the Biden-led revival of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad), China sensed in India’s refusal to align with the US-led West in condemning Russia a “golden opportunity.” As stated, in a shrewd diplomatic move, Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi landed in New Delhi almost uninvited. India maintained cultural etiquette and diplomatic protocol by scheduling two back-to-back meetings in a day – one with the Indian national security advisor and the other with foreign minister Dr. Jaishankar.
What is Quad? “Conceived in 2004 following the Asian tsunami, initiated in 2007, retired in 2008, and revived in 2017 amidst vastly changed strategic circumstances, the Quad presents an interesting case study of the role of interests-based mini-lateral diplomacy – and its success”. The former Indian ambassador further states, “Without India, there is no Indo-Pacific, only the Asia Pacific. Leveraging India’s strengths in constructing a stable Indo-Pacific balance is essential for the Quad. Recent progress of the Quad has been US-led, but the US and India are both key factors. The Quad is a test of their relations as partners, not allies, thus bringing them closer. The Quad also plays a role in the continuing enhancement of India’s relations with Japan and Australi.” (L6a).
It wasn’t hidden from anyone that Beijing was loving the sudden cracks – as perceived by Beijing – surfacing between Washington and New Delhi on Russian military aggression due to the latter’s unwillingness to condemn Moscow. The Chinese media was flooded with Op-Ed pieces focusing extra attention on India not budging from its “independent” foreign policy stance. It is significant to point out that a Chinese internal circulation, its only publication on foreign affairs, Cankao Xiaoxi cited a report in a leading Japanese newspaper on the day President Biden presided over Quad leaders’ summit in Tokyo in May, saying, “The US, Japan, and Australia are concerned that India’s presence in Quad could disrupt the pace of effectively ‘slowing down’ the fast-spreading Chinese economic and military influence in the Asia Pacific region”.
In India, however, no one was fooled by the Chinese attempts to entice India towards standing with China as “neutral” regarding the Russian invasion in Ukraine. In fact, a closer scrutiny makes it clear that there are several differences between the Chinese and Indian “neutrality.” As one Indian strategic affairs analyst recently expounded on the so-called China’s touting of Indian foreign policy neutrality in general and India’s “neutral” stance on the war in Ukraine in particular: “It is worth discussing questions around neutrality as a foreign policy choice in 2023, given that both India and China have repeatedly chosen diplomatically neutral stances at the UN in the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war”. Indeed, it is true both India and China have refrained from condemning the Russian invasion. However, it would be erroneous to equate their respective similar stances. Given their past history of relations with Russia (or the Soviet Union), what seems as inadvertently similar is actually arrived at and reflects a completely different as well as divergent trajectory. A commentary in the FPRI points out that there are historical reasons “for China and India’s different approaches in their past relations with Russia, and at the same time, their unique and evolving relationships with the United States”.
What? does the impact of the India-China border dispute have in arriving at differently routed “neutral” stance on the Russian-Ukraine war? As India’s and China’s ties with Russia evolve, could this fundamentally change the equation between India and China? Attributing the border war in the past and simmering tensions along the border today to deep “historical roots” may not be fully justified; however, most experts in both India and China, and abroad, agree: the main reason for the escalating tensions is that the national border is not yet clearly demarcated. Furthermore, calling history – in particular the colonial past – as too complicated a factor is only making matters worse between the two fast-growing Asian neighbors.
It is precisely this complex understanding of the “deeper and wider historical context” that has enabled both countries to remain stuck in the past. Not surprisingly, a recent book on how to understand the India-China border describes their territorial dispute as sui generis.
Furthermore, it is this inability to break free from the so-called “complicated history” mindset, as has been argued, that is preventing India and China not only from developing newer perspectives on how to resolve the stalemate but also is holding back the two countries’ ability to “get rid of the colonial past in the early days of their founding.” It was due to this failure to rise above their colonial-era worldview that, in spite of both the nations’ desire to maintain friendly relations, they could not sustain their sincere attempt at forging brotherly ties – and instead, went on to spill each other’s blood in less than six years after advocating fof “India and China brotherhood.”
To sum up, India’s firm and persistent stand to refuse to ally with the West on the events in Ukraine and Wang Yi’s presence in New Delhi have raised uncomfortable questions in the minds of several Western leaders (1).
- Saran S., “How China sees India and the world”, 2022.