Musings from afar

What India has to fear if Russia and China join hands

New Delhi must step up its Russia outreach when Russian President Vladimir Putin visits India next month.

 |  Musings from afar  |  4-minute read |   18-09-2018
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Last week saw Russia joining hands with China to conduct one of its largest military exercises since the Soviet times.

putin-xi-1_091818110203.jpgBond over vodka: Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin were sending messages to multiple audiences. (Photo: Reuters)

Chinese President Xi Jinping, too, was in Russia to attend the eastern economic forum in Vladivostok and he bonded with Russian President Vladimir Putin over pancakes with caviar and shots of vodka.

They were sending messages to multiple audiences: to those back home in Russia and China as the two leaders use military nationalism to consolidate their positions at home, and then to the West and the US, in particular, that two major powers are seeming joining hands.

Defence strategy

The Russian Defence Ministry claimed that some 3,00,000 soldiers were involved in all stages of the five-day exercise and involved helicopter and parachute landings by Russian infantry forces.

Though Russian and Chinese forces have exercised before in multinational drills, mostly under the auspices of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, the inclusion of 3,200 Chinese troops, along with 30 aircraft, into the Russian military manoeuvres gives these exercises an altogether new dimension.

Where last year’s exercise, Zapad 2017, was focused on Russia’s western frontier with the NATO, in a sign of changing times, this year’s drills saw Russia and China exercising together in a region not far from where China and the USSR fought a real border war in 1969.

The US, of course, would have watched it closely as it came months after the Trump administration unveiled its new national defence strategy that underlines “strategic competition” with Russia and China, and as its ties with both countries have deteriorated under spiralling sanctions.

US defence secretary Jim Mattis dismissed these drills, saying: “I see little in the long term that aligns Russia and China.”

For his part, Putin justified these exercises by underscoring Russia’s credentials as “a peace-loving country” that was ready to defend itself.

“Our duty to our country, our motherland, is to be ready to defend its sovereignty, security and national interests of our country, and if necessary — to support our allies,” he said in his address.

China has today emerged an important partner of Russia despite their continuing differences in certain areas.

As Russia’s ties with the West have deteriorated, it has moved remarkably closer to China with trade and military cooperation between the two flourishing, something unthinkable just a few years back. Chinese investment in Russia is growing. Russia is China’s largest oil supplier, and is likely to emerge as its biggest source of natural in a year’s time. At a time when Russia’s trade ties with most nations are on a downward trajectory, China is a rare bright spot.

putin,-xi_091818110222.jpgInching closer to China: As Russia’s ties with the West have deteriorated, it has moved closer to China depite various differences. (Photo: Reuters)

Limited experience

For China, there is much to learn from Russia’s operational experience in war fighting. Though China’s military modernisation is leaving Russia far behind, its real-time operational experience is rather limited. Russia’s experience in the Syrian conflict where it has sharpened its informational warfare and combined armed warfare techniques is something that Chinese military generals are eyeing with great interest.

As Maj Gen Shao Yuanming, deputy chief of the Joint Staff Department of China’s Central Military Commission, made it clear during the Vostok-18: “The Russian Army has a very vast experience in conducting practical combat operations and powerful combat capability,” and “for us it’s been very useful to learn from the Russian army and get this very valuable experience.”

By involving China in its exercises in the Far East, Russia has indicated that it doesn’t see Beijing as a short- to medium-term threat in the region, something that was quite palpable just a few years back. The two may not be allies yet, but their relationship has grown to an extent that such exercises become possible and a relationship can be developed to take on the US together.

Real challenge

There are clear limits to this partnership.

Both Russia and China are also independently trying to frame their responses to the Trump administration.

China’s primary interest is in stabilising its economic relations with the US at a time when its economy is beginning to face the adverse effects of sanctions.

It has little interest in expanding the ambit of its disputes with the US by supporting Russia on its confrontation with NATO.

modi-putin_091818110322.jpgIndia's Russia outreach seems to have little impact on the growing ties between Russian and China

Russia, too, is cognisant of the limits of its power. It is the junior partner in this Sino-Russian entente and would want limited exposure to the South China Sea dispute for example.

But to look at the Sino-Russian relationship primarily through the prism of its limitations is to miss the point altogether.

The fact that this relationship has grown to this extent where the two are now participating in joint military exercises underscores the rapidly evolving nature of this relationship.

For India, this poses a real challenge.

New Delhi has long maintained that it needs a close relationship with Moscow so that Beijing-Moscow relationship could be dented. But India’s Russia outreach seems to have had a rather insignificant impact so far on the Russia-China dynamic.

Given the challenge China poses to India on multiple fronts, this issue should ideally be at the top of the agenda when the Russian President visits India next month.

(Courtesy of Mail Today)

Also read: After Doklam, how China is opening a new front on the Himalayan border


Harsh V Pant Harsh V Pant

The writer is Professor of International Relations at King's College London. His most recent book is India's Afghan Muddle (HarperCollins).

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