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India and China stay on sidelines as Russia invades Ukraine

New Delhi Protects Moscow Relations Despite Risk To Its Quad Standing

From left: Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping at the BRICS summit in July 2018 in South Africa.    © AP

NEW DELHI/TOKYO -- As Russia and the West face off on Ukraine in perhaps the biggest crisis on the European continent since World War II, the globe's two largest emerging powers, China and India, have remained largely on the sidelines.

China on Thursday refused to categorize Russia's actions as an "invasion," instead calling the move the result of a "complex historical background." India has been conspicuously cautious, eager not to burn bridges with Russia, a historical friend from which it buys much of its weaponry.

On Wednesday, India's permanent representative to the United Nations, T. S. Tirumurti, said at a Security Council meeting that the situation "is in danger of spiraling into a major crisis."

"We express our deep concern over the developments, which if not handled carefully, may well undermine the peace and security of the region," he said.

"We call on all parties to exert greater efforts to bridge divergent interests. I would like to underline that the legitimate security interests of all parties should be fully taken into account," Tirumurti said.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has not said much, except for an indirect reference to the crisis during a poll campaign on Tuesday. "The world is witnessing a [period of] turmoil currently and India needs to be stronger not only for itself but for the whole [of] humanity during such times," he said.

India is in a very tricky situation, Harsh Pant, head of strategic studies at the New Delhi-based Observer Research Foundation, told Nikkei Asia, having to strike a balance between its ties with Russia and the West.

Russia, he pointed out, is extremely important to India as a defense and strategic partner, and New Delhi values the historical relationship that exists with Moscow.

Read Also: Ukraine crisis: why India isn’t condemning Russia, unlike the rest of the Quad

"India doesn't want to abandon Russia at this point and jeopardize that relationship," he said. In the short term, Pant said, it needs Russia for defense equipment and supplies as it is 60% dependent on Moscow for these.

But in the long term, Pant said, "it needs the West's presence in the Indo-Pacific to manage China."

India's Brahmos supersonic cruise missiles, jointly developed with Russia, are seen during a full dress rehearsal for the a Republic Day parade in New Delhi.    © Reuters

Sanjay Kumar Pandey, a professor at the Centre for Russian and Central Asian Studies at New Delhi-based Jawaharlal Nehru University, noted that "not taking a position is also a position."

"Russia has certain legitimate points when it comes to its security and Ukraine joining NATO and NATO's expansion," Pandey said. "Russia has a very deep-seated grievance and anxiety. Perhaps India and many Indians believe that the issue is not so black and white as it looks."

But Derek Grossman, a senior defense analyst at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corp., said India's unwillingness to take a stand could in turn hurt its standing in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or Quad, with the U.S., Japan and Australia.

"If Australia, the U.S. and Japan -- all like minded democratic countries -- have all criticized Russia for what it's doing to Ukraine and India is the odd man out, that's pretty awkward," Grossman said. "It's about the rules-based international order. It's unconscionable for India to just sit there and not say anything.

"This is one sovereign country invading and destroying another sovereign country, or at least ripping apart what the international community recognizes as a sovereign country. It is going to make future Quad meetings a bit more uncomfortable," he said.

Pandey, however, noted that the Quad was formed with a different country in mind: China. It may cause some "irritants," but "I don't think it is going to affect in a major way India's bilateral ties and some of the groupings India has been part of," he said.

Pant of ORF said there will be concerns among India's Western allies and they will be raising it bilaterally and privately with New Delhi. "This is not the first time that India's ties with Russia are under scrutiny," he said, pointing to the S-400 anti-aircraft missile deal between India and Russia and the threat of CAATSA (Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act) sanctions. "That is something that can get aggravated ... because of this crisis."

"If the U.S. Congress, in particular, decides to take a negative view of this then it can make life difficult for India. So, there are costs here that India is cognizant of," Pant said.

Meanwhile, China also looks to be in an uncomfortable position in supporting Russia. When President Vladimir Putin met Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping in Beijing on Feb. 4, Beijing sided with Russia in a joint statement opposing NATO expansion.

Analysts were skeptical as to whether Xi had actually given his endorsement for a Russian invasion of Ukraine. If so, Xi could have been caught off guard by the rapid pace of events.

"This is something that Russia might be doing with the tacit understanding of China and perhaps even the tacit support of China, but I would be shocked if it were being done with the encouragement of China," said Isaac Stone Fish, CEO of Strategy Risks, a China risk firm.

"China doesn't want to see itself in the same footing as Russia because Russia is a declining power with a bad global reputation, and externally China wants to position itself as an upholder of globalization and an upholder of norms."

That may have been the reason for the relatively muted response earlier this week after Moscow recognized the independence of Donetsk and Luhansk, triggering an international outcry.

After remaining quiet for days, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying on Wednesday slammed the U.S. as "the culprit of current tensions" and criticized Washington for sending weapons to Ukraine.

At a packed daily briefing on Thursday, Hua snapped back when a reporter asked about the invasion.

"You are using a typical Western media question method of using the word 'invasion,'" she said. "China is closely monitoring the latest situation. We call on all sides to exercise restraint to prevent the situation from getting out of control."

But Beijing's insistence that the Minsk Agreement be the basis for a diplomatic solution rings hollow after Putin himself called the process "dead."

Stone Fish called it a "slippery slope" for Beijing. Supporting Russian action in other countries' internal affairs could expose China to interference on issues such as Tibet or Xinjiang, he said.

Grossman said that while Beijing is now "all in" with Moscow, "that doesn't mean that they don't want to have some flexibility down the line if things get really out of control."

Under the surface, the U.S., China, Russia and India all seem to be calculating the balance of power in the era ahead. China could throw Russia an economic lifeline if Moscow were to suffer from long-lasting economic sanctions. But such a move would hurt relations with Europe, with which it has a better relationship than with the U.S., for instance.

But having the U.S. and Europe preoccupied with Russia could give China breathing space to exert influence in its own region.