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Why Russia will always take a neutral stand on India-China clash

ISSUE-3-ENG-04-09-2020-IC

Indian Defence Minister Rajnath Singh is in Moscow for a crucial meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and will hold talks with his Russian counterpart Sergey Shoigu on further boosting bilateral defence cooperation. This is Singh’s second visit to Moscow since June.

China and India’s current impasse poses a huge political challenge for Russia; staying out of border tensions between the two countries is in line with Moscow’s interests in forging diversified political contacts. Russia, over the years, has established long-term strategic ties with both India and China, and would not want to jeopardise it by lending support to either country. 

When India announced on August 30 that it will not participate in the Kavkaz-2020 military exercise in southern Russia, the official reason New Delhi provided for this decision was difficulties associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. But according to experts, the real reason for India to skip the event is due to the participation of the Chinese military in the exercises. The event will see military exercises involving members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization-a Eurasian multilateral grouping led by China and Russia, which also has Pakistan as a member-and a few others.

India and China have been in the middle of a tense standoff since early May this year in Ladakh.

Russian leaders in the past have not regarded India as critical to their wider interests like the United States, Europe or China in terms of political and economic power. Moscow turning to Asia is more in line with its status-seeking behaviour, to restore Kremlin’s former position in the international system.

In 1996, the SCO was created with this view in mind, building on the Shanghai Five arrangement of 1996, with Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan-as the sixth entrant-as founding members. India and Pakistan became full members of the group in 2017.

President Vladimir Putin’s vision for a ‘non-West’ with Russian leadership revolved around BRICS, RIC as well as the SCO. But suspicions between Russia and China, fuelled by history as well as power asymmetries has never quite faded away.

And now, even as leaders from India and China meet in Moscow to try and ease tensions between both the sides, it doesn’t seem like Russia would lean towards supporting India, or China for that matter.

Russia has had close relations with China since Soviet times. Recently, Russia has pushed itself closer to China, after the sanctions imposed on it by the US for the annexation of Crimea and for alleged interference in their presidential elections. Russia’s ties with India, however, has caused its relationship with China to sour.

When on June 23, India’s External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar met with his Chinese and Russian counterparts-Wang Yi and Sergei Lavrov-in a virtual conference, Lavrov said, “We are united by our rejection of unilateral methods in international relations, especially when these methods are applied by force.”

The meeting took place after the clash between Indian and Chinese troops in Galwan Valley in May, which has caused a serious setback to bilateral ties between India and China. At the meeting, Jaishankar-without naming any country- stressed that “leading voices” should act in an exemplary manner by respecting international law and recognising the interests of partners. If it was about working together when “the position of these three powers coincide,” then there are extremely few things that the three countries agree upon.

China has been making its own inroads with chequebook diplomacy, with the Belt and Road Initiative, though it hasn’t been always smooth sailing.

China has levelled charges against Russia for trying to monopolise the Eurasian Economic Union, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, and accused it of trying to contain the country in the South China Sea. Russia backing India’s entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group is another plan where China and Russia don’t see eye-to-eye. China has been an impediment to India being part of the group. 

Maintaining good relations with its neighbour, China still matters to India as do both BRICS and the SCO. Anti-China sentiments, however, are at an all-time high in India and Indian leadership cannot afford to take a soft stance on the Chinese.

The credibility of both BRICS and SCO, however, would depend on their ability to manage the current tensions between India and China. Within the SCO, Russia can employ its influence over Beijing and New Delhi. But it would eventually be up to the two neighbours to agree upon a negotiated stance. 

In 2017, during the Doklam standoff, Russia’s diplomatic tactics led to both the sides disengaging eventually. Russia used its goodwill with both nations and did not take sides during the Doklam standoff. At the BRICS summit afterwards, the leaders de-escalated tensions and put up a united front. 

However, given the current situation, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping showing a united front at SCO and BRICS will not go down well with citizens.

The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government wouldn’t like anything more than the withdrawal of the Chinese troops, but, significant casualties on the Indian side has put the government on the defensive. And ineffective propaganda through the ruling party’s social media channels has given the government’s critics a weapon to attack it on its favourite turf of national security.

India and Russia’s relationship promulgated after Putin’s visit to the country in 2010. Bilateral relations took off in recent years when Putin visited India again in 2018 and when Foreign Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar met with his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov in 2019. Both the nations do some considerable trade with one another, too. In 2019, trade worth $11 billion took place between India and Russia.

But, Russia somehow does not put its relations with India on the same footing as its relations with China-Russia and China, after all, do share a common view of world order, while India pursues to have good relations with the US in order to find a balance. The three nations, at the same time, reiterate their close cooperation within SCO, BRICS and the UN.

All in all, Russia this time around, too, could choose to take the Doklam way and use its goodwill with both the nations to end the standoff.