As China and Russia unite, look to India

As China and Russia unite, look to India

Rapprochement between Russia and China has dramatically accelerated since the former suspended its participation in the New START treaty.

Chinese senior diplomat Wang Yi met with Russian President Vladimir Putin to affirm the flourishing relations between the two countries and their mutual desire to see a multipolar international order. The Communist Party of China’s new foreign minister, Qin Gang, followed up by saying that today’s global instability has increased “the need for the sustainable development of Russian-Chinese relations.”

More distressingly, American intelligence suggests that Beijing is considering supplying weapons to Moscow to aid its war effort in Ukraine.

How should Washington respond to this series of diplomatic moves? It should direct more attention to India.

While penetrating Russian and Chinese communications should remain the United States’ strategic priority, the urgency of detaching India from the Kremlin’s influence has heightened in the past few weeks. This is because of the nature of the relationship between Moscow and Beijing.

Russian politicians and economists are aware that unilateral rapprochement with China would signify accepting a secondary, inferior status. This violates one of the key historical principles of Russian foreign policy: exploitation of the country’s unique Eurasian geography to remain a regional superpower that maintains its distance from both Europe and Asia.

Russia will thus want to ally with India to diversify its exports and ensure that it does not restrict itself to merely being a factory for Chinese profit.

Some Russians have already expressed alarm at the implications of unequivocal unity with China. Moscow’s dependence on Beijing’s purchase of energy and natural resources is turning it into a “vassal” or “colony” of China, worries economist Leonid Paidiev.

Vasily Astrov, an economist at the Vienna Institute for International Economic Studies, explains that cooperation with China “was considered as an alternative, a ‘plan B’ – it was not the subject of a conscious and thoughtful choice … because the alternative is isolation.”

On the one hand, Russia knows it cannot do without China because this would leave it abandoned on the global stage. On the other hand, it is afraid of becoming a vassal state. To escape this dilemma, Moscow is looking to India.

Mirroring Wang Yi’s recent remarks to Putin, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov cited India as one of the countries participating in the “objective and unstoppable process” of the “formation of a multipolar world” during a January press conference.

He also included China, Turkey, Egypt, the Persian Gulf and Latin America in this list, giving the West a solid idea of the states Russia prioritizes in its goal to undermine the United States’ global influence. The following month, Putin’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, said the world has already begun the “long and painful” transition to multipolarity.

India’s rapidly growing population, expanding GDP, and emerging interest in the technology sector make it Russia’s most promising partner among the regions listed above. But what really seals the deal for Moscow is India’s simultaneous rivalry with China.

This may seem counterintuitive, but it is actually what will allow Russia to partially shed its status of junior partner in its relationship with China. Moscow’s overtures to Latin America and the Middle East, for instance, will be overshadowed by China’s comparable interest in these regions, since Beijing has already made progress in deploying its Belt and Road Initiative there and enjoys much more economic might.

However, India’s deepening rivalry with China could encourage it to dedicate more resources to Russia.

Accordingly, the Kremlin has attempted to attract Indian talent to its engineering and medical institutions. Between 2021 and 2022, India was the country with the highest growth in the number of students admitted to Russian universities – a record increase of 43%. China leads in terms of raw numbers, but India’s growth rate last year was far ahead.

Scholars have been enticed by bilateral agreements that facilitate the application process for Indian students and the low cost of education compared with Western countries.

In that spirit, scientists from the Indian Institute of Technology Kharagpur and the Moscow Aviation Institute obtained a grant to develop an unmanned aircraft that they intend to send to Mars. A Russian-Indian science and technology working group met for its 12th session in January to invite Indian researchers to work at Russian nuclear research facilities, observatories and universities.

Scientific cooperation has been backed by notable political commitments. In 2010, the two countries announced their “special and privileged strategic partnership.” Notwithstanding Indian concerns about Russia’s nuclear saber-rattling in the past year, the relationship has shown few signs of fracturing.

During the 2014 BRICS annual summit, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said, “If you ask anyone in India who is our country’s greatest friend, every person, every child knows that it is Russia.” Between 2012 and 2020, business, professional, and technical service exports from Russia to India increased from US$234 million to $409 million.

And finally, India’s national security adviser, Ajit Doval, visited Russia last month to discuss the next steps of their special partnership.

Thus to prevent Russia from using India as a lifeline, Washington must demonstrate to New Delhi that it is in its national interest to separate from Russia. The recent Group of Twenty summit was an example of how this is possible.

India had wanted to focus on issues affecting developing countries, but deadlock over Russia’s war in Ukraine slowed progress on this front. India has also frequently emphasized the need for respecting international law since the start of the conflict, so the United States must highlight how Russia’s actions in Ukraine contradict New Delhi’s vision of a stable global order.

Washington can also increase trade, bolster technological cooperation through the Quad, and reinforce military ties with India to show that its products are of higher quality and that it is prepared to jointly defend against China’s unprecedented expansion. It should simultaneously consider giving Indian companies a stake in American energy markets to diversify New Delhi’s imports.

Russia will want to avoid becoming completely subservient to China in its new relationship. It will thus turn to India because of the Asian giant’s future economic potential and the positive historic relations between the two countries.

While tracking the evolution of Russia’s relationship with China, the United States must alter India’s assessment of what lies in its national interest to provoke its separation from Russia.