By Nantoo Banerjee
China’s fast growing strategic and economic ties with Russia are becoming a major concern for India. Facing the heat of increasing Western financial sanctions on the country apart from large supplies of military and monetary aid from the US-led NATO countries to Ukraine, Russia is fast getting closer to China, the world’s second largest economy and a major defence power. The China-Russia joint military drill, first since Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine, sending bombers near Japan at a time when the heads of the US, Japan, India and Australia together were busy holding the Tokyo summit of QUAD (quadrilateral security dialogue) served a clear warning by the two military powers to the QUAD participants without hiding their intentions. The joint China-Russia military exercise, showing off Russian TU-95 strategic bombers along with China’s Xian H-6 jets, lasted 13 hours. Russia needs China to thwart NATO’s expansion to the east. China needs military superpower Russia to support its hegemonistic expansion in the Asia-Pacific region and strategic containment of India, which is billed to be the world’s second largest economy overtaking the US by 2050.
Incidentally, China’s anti-India stance has practically ruined the 15-year-old five-nation cooperation organisation, BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India and China), that was supposed to represent the shifting economic balance of power and dominate the global economy to usher in a new era of multilateralism and global governance. Collectively, the bloc represents 45 percent of the world’s population and nearly a quarter of global GDP. The BRICS leaders have been holding meetings regularly. That’s all about BRICS. It is the rise of India as an economic power that seems to have most upset China, which failed BRICS. China considers India a potential economic rival.
The latest China-Russia military exercise near Japan posed a challenge to QUAD’s primary objective to contain China’s desperate expansion in the Indo-Pacific region. It may have also been intended to serve a message to US President Joe Biden who vowed last week that US forces would defend Taiwan militarily if China attempted to invade the self-ruled island, warning that Beijing was already “flirting with danger”. QUAD is supposed to work for a free, open, prosperous and inclusive Indo-Pacific region. Unfortunately, caught between the aggressive postures by China and the US is India, an important QUAD member and also an age-old friend of Russia.
A QUAD-China conflict will automatically involve India on the side of the other members in the grouping. China expects full support from Russia. The question is: what will be the fate of time-tested India-Russia relations? Will Russia ditch India to support new found friend China? Most likely it will. Militarily, India has little to offer Russia. In terms of financial and economic resources, China is well ahead of India. China is trying to position itself as a strong buffer and act as a spoilsport in India and Russia relations, leaving India with no choice but to lean clearly towards the US.
Lately, China is pursuing a strong policy to induce small Pacific island nations to endorse a sweeping no-holds-barred agreement covering everything from security, aid and trade to fishing to wrest control of the region. A draft agreement reportedly shows that China wants to train Pacific police officers, team up on “traditional and non-traditional security”, enhance law enforcement cooperation, set up free-trade areas, internet networks and cultural relations through Confucius Institutes. To coincide with the QUAD meet, a strong 20-member Chinese delegation, headed by Foreign Minister Wang Yi, began a visit to 10 Pacific states to promote a “common development vision.” Interestingly, several of these states were known to be close to the US almost since the end of the second World War.
The Pacific island states include the Solomon Islands, Samoa, Kiribati, Fiji, Tonga, Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea and Cook Islands. Some of them have a large Indian diaspora and maintain links with India. The region’s connection with India goes back to the 19th century colonial era when Indian workers were taken to these islands as indentured plantation labourers. Many of them settled there. Of late, India has also been closely working with the Pacific island countries (PICs). As the global focus shifts to the Indo-Pacific, the South Pacific subregion is at the crossroads of strategically significant maritime trade routes, attracting attention from regional and extra-regional powers.
China, which is a major opponent of the US in international diplomacy, is also India’s key opponent. Oddly, the diplomatic disenchantment did not prevent China from emerging as the biggest single merchandise exporter to both the US and India taking advantage of their democratic values and principles. China has been a constant threat to India’s territorial integrity since the 1962 war. Can the enemy’s enemy become a strong friend? The way the surrounding conditions are developing, it may not take long for India to strongly clasp the hands of the US and its allies to protect its own sovereignty and territorial integrity.
India’s once strong defence relationship with Russia has substantially softened in recent years. Although Russia is still the biggest defence equipment exporter to India, its share of India’s total armament import is gradually going down, yielding space to the US and other Western suppliers. Between 2017 and 2021, India accounted for nearly 28 percent of total Russian arms exports. However, lately Russia, along with China, has become a major arms supplier to Pakistan to India’s discomfort. Russia’s growing defence ties with heavily Chinese-funded Pakistan is a cause of concern for India.
Last week, in Tokyo, Prime Minister Narendra Modi called upon the Japanese industry to enhance bilateral security and defence cooperation, including in the area of hi-tech military production. On the other hand, the US and India committed to deepen their ‘major defence partnership’ by expanding cooperation in new domains, including space and cyber, and launching a dialogue on artificial intelligence this year. The European Union and Israel are also emerging as major suppliers of defence and security equipment to India.
Significantly, after the Tokyo meet, Prime Minister Modi told President Biden that “India-US ties are in true sense a partnership of trust” and “our common interest and shared values have strengthened”. In fact, India crossed a Rubicon by agreeing to join the Combined Military Forces-Bahrain (CMF–Bahrain) as an associate member after the summit meeting between the Indian prime minister and the US president. Joe Biden said he is committed to making India-US ties the “closest on the planet”. Increasingly entrapped by China, few will be surprised if India finally gets more aligned with the US much to the dislike of Russia and several of its traditional friends in West Asia, Africa and South America. A Russia-India break-up may mean a big victory of China’s global diplomacy and end of BRICS, as well. (IPA Service)