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Explained: Why Russia has emerged a key player amid India, China tensions

Russia has emerged a key player amid tensions between India and China. A look at how Russia’s ties with China have grown over the decades, and how New Delhi and Moscow have engaged over the current crisis.

Written by Shubhajit Roy | New Delhi |
June 23, 2020 4:30:46 am
India China border dispute, Rajnath Singh in Russia, India China Russia, Galwan faceoff Russia President Vladimir Putin with China’s Xi Jinping (then Vice President) in Beijing in 2012. The two countries have grown closer over the past few decades. (Express Archive)

Russia has emerged, all of a sudden, as a key diplomatic player amid the tension between India and China.

* On Tuesday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov hosts the Russia-India-China (RIC) trilateral foreign ministers’ meeting, which will be the first opportunity for External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi for face-time with each other over videoconference. Jaishankar and Wang, who is also Chinese State Councillor, had an angry phone call on June 17 over the June 15 border clash, in which 20 Indian soldiers were killed.

* On Wednesday, Moscow will host Defence Minister Rajnath Singh and his Chinese counterpart, Wei Fenghe, who will attend the Victory Day parade on June 24, along with Indian and Chinese marching contingents.

While these are ministerial-level engagements, there have been at least two outreaches between India and Russia through diplomatic channels.

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* Early this month, before the June 6 Lieutenant General-level talks between India and China, Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla “updated” Russian Ambassador Nikolay Kudashev on the “recent developments” on the situation along the Line of Actual Control (LAC).

* After the June 15 clash between Indian and Chinese troops in Galwan Valley, Indian Ambassador to Russia D Bala Venkatesh Varma had a conversation with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Igor Morgulov on June 17. “The officials discussed regional security, including developments on the Line of Actual Control on the border between India and China in the Himalayas,” a brief statement by the Russian Foreign Ministry said. The Indian government did not issue a statement on this.

Why it matters

While India and China have been talking at each other — and not to each other — the outreach to Moscow is noteworthy.

It is widely known that Russia and China have grown their relationship in the past few years. The Moscow-Beijing axis is crucial, especially since Washington has been at loggerheads with China in recent months and Russia much more calibrated, even in its response on the Covid-19 outbreak.

New Delhi believes that the approach of Western countries, especially that of the US towards both Moscow and Beijing, has brought them even closer.

India China border dispute, Rajnath Singh in Russia, India China Russia, Galwan faceoff Russia response to matters around China

Initial friction

Russia and China have had a rocky start to their relationship, after Mao Zedong founded the People’s Republic of China. When Mao made his first visit to Moscow after winning control of China, in 1949, he was made to wait for weeks for a meeting with the Soviet leader. “He spent several weeks cooling his heels in a remote dacha outside Moscow where the sole recreational facility was a broken table tennis table,” an article in the Smithsonian Magazine said.

During the Cold War, China and the USSR were rivals after the Sino-Soviet split in 1961, competing for control of the worldwide Communist movement. There was a serious possibility of a major war in the early 1960s and a brief border war took place in 1969. This enmity began to reduce following Mao’s death in 1976, but relations were not very good until the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Mending fences

In the post-Cold War era, economic relations have formed the “new strategic basis” for Sino-Russian relations. China is Russia’s biggest trading partner and the largest Asian investor in Russia. China sees Russia as a powerhouse of raw material and a growing market for its consumer goods.

The West’s approach towards Russia after the annexation of Crimea through harsh sanctions in 2014 brought Moscow much closer to China. And India, for its part, has always felt that it was the West which has pushed Russia towards a tighter embrace of Beijing.

A Sino-Russian quasi-alliance has formed in recent years, and this has been possible due to the anti-Chinese rhetoric from Washington, collapse of oil prices and growing dependence of Russia on Chinese consumption.

Western analysts see this as a “friendship of convenience” between two countries led by strongmen — Russia by President Vladimir Putin and China by President Xi Jinping.

Russia has been extremely calibrated in its statements on issues on which Beijing is most sensitive to: Huawei’s 5G rollout, Hong Kong and the Covid-19 pandemic (see box).

Beijing and Moscow, however, do not always see eye to eye with each other. China does not recognise Crimea as part of Russia, and Moscow, formally speaking, takes a neutral stance on Beijing’s claims in the South China Sea.

ExplainSpeaking | Has the Sino-Indian relationship slipped into mutual suspicion territory?

India China border dispute, Rajnath Singh in Russia, India China Russia, Galwan faceoff Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Chinese President Xi Jinping. (AP Photo/File)

India and Russia

India has a historical relationship with Russia, spanning over seven decades.

While the relationship has grown in some areas and atrophied in some others, the strongest pillar of the strategic partnership is of the defence basket.

Although New Delhi has consciously diversified its new purchases from other countries, the bulk of its defence equipment is from Russia. Estimates say 60 to 70 per cent of India’s supplies are from Russia, and New Delhi needs a regular and reliable supply of spare parts from the Russian defence industry. In fact, Prime Minister Modi has held informal summits with only two leaders — Xi and Putin.

India has made this decision to reach out to Russia not just out of choice, but also out of necessity, since it believes Moscow has leverage and influence to shape and change Beijing’s hard stance on border issue.

At this time when there is tension at the border, Defence Minister Singh will discuss supply and purchase of new defence systems — like the S-400 missile defence system — with the Russian top brass in the military and government.

India China border dispute, Rajnath Singh in Russia, India China Russia, Galwan faceoff Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Russian President Vladimir Putin, at Vladivostok, in Russia on September 4, 2019. (ANI Photo)

Russia position, then & now

During the Doklam crisis in 2017, Russian diplomats in Beijing were among the few briefed by the Chinese government. At that time, it was kept under the wraps.

While Russia’s position during the 1962 war was not particularly supportive of India, New Delhi takes comfort in Moscow’s support during the 1971 war.

Tuesday’s RIC Foreign Ministers’ meeting, which was put off in March, will be the first opportunity for Jaishankar and Wang Yi to engage in that trilateral format.

Asked on the possibility of discussing the India-China tension, Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov had said last week: “The agenda does not involve discussing issues that relate to bilateral relations of a country with another member of this format.”

On the events in Galwan, Moscow responded in a very calibrated manner last week. On June 17, Russian Ambassador Kudashev tweeted, “We welcome all steps aimed at de-escalation at the LAC, including the conversation between the two FMs, and remain optimistic.” He had said: “The existence of the RIC is an undisputable reality, firmly fixed on the world map. As for the current stage of the trilateral cooperation, there are no indications that it might be frozen.”

According to Russian news agency TASS, Presidential Spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that the Kremlin is concerned over a clash between the military on the border between China and India but believes that the two countries could resolve this conflict themselves.

“Certainly, we are watching with great attention what is happening on the Chinese-Indian border. We believe that this is a very alarming report,” Peskov said. “But we consider that the two countries are capable of taking necessary steps to prevent such situations in the future and to ensure that there is predictability and stability in the region and that this is a safe region for nations, first of all, China and India.”

The Kremlin spokesman emphasised that China and India are Russia’s close partners and allies, and “have very close and mutually beneficial relations built on mutual respect”.

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