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Mainstream, VOL LVIII No 43, New Delhi, October 10, 2020

India-Russia Relations and China | Barun Das Gupta

Friday 9 October 2020, by Barun Das Gupta


Since May, Sino-Indian relations have reached a stage which was succinctly summed up by our chief of air force R. K. S. Bhadauria as an “uneasy no war no peace status” Both countries have deployed infantry, artillery, tank, missiles and their respective air forces. The United States, France, Germany and Japan have made it known that they stand with India. How is the India-Russia relationship in the present context?

Ever since the US subjected Russia to harsh economic sanctions in the wake of Russian military operation in Crimea in February, 2014, Russia has been forced to gravitate toward China purely for economic reasons. Russia has a negative trade balance with China. China’s share in Russia’s foreign trade grew from 12.1 per cent in 2015 to 14.1 per cent in 2016. Now China is the largest trading partner of Russia.

Despite this, in the context of India and China virtually standing on the verge of war, Russia has assured India it will fulfil all its current commitments on supply of military hardware to India on schedule. India will buy 21 more MiG-29 aircraft for about a billion dollars. Besides, India will acquire another 12 Sukhoi 30 MKI, and also upgrade 59 of these aircraft with Russian help. The first Russian S400 Triumf air defence system is expected to arrive in India by the end of 2021. Besides, Russia is going to supply certain missiles and bombs for use by the Indian army and air force as a part of India’s emergency procurement.

There are reports that Russia is concerned at the rise in tension at Sino-Indian and Sino-Taiwan borders. According to a report in The Eurasian Times, Russian President Vladimir Putin has begun strengthening his country’s military presence in the Far East along the border with China. Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu has attributed Moscow’s decision to send reinforcements to the rising tensions in the “eastern strategic direction.” Shoigu has not said how many troops have been sent but he did go on record having dispatched “500 units of new and modernized equipment” to the region, while improving the Russian navy’s Northern Fleet.

Sino-Russian relations were not very cordial even during the reign of Mao Zedong and Stalin. Mao was critical of Stalin. In A critique of Soviet Economics, Mao strongly criticized the economic views of Stalin. He contended that the collectivization of agriculture in the Soviet Union by “State expropriation” of land from the peasantry was a “right deviation” because it amounted to substitution of the grassroots action of the peasant masses by State action.

Xi Jinping’s relations with Moscow are not known to be cordial either but the US sanctions have forced Moscow to come closer to Beijing. Xi is happy at the developments: Russia has come close to China. But differences do remain.
On the other hand, India’s relations with the Soviet Union and post-Soviet Russia have been uniformly cordial. Even the BJP Government relies on Russia for emergency arms supplies. It was Russian initiative that lay behind the meeting the External Affairs ministers of China and India on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization’ Foreign Ministers’ meet in Moscow last month.

As far as arms supplies are concerned, Russian arms sales to China have come down from $3.2 billion in 2005 to $816 million by 2020. China’s share of Russian arms exports have declined from 47.7 per cent of total sales in 2006 to a mere 13.7 per cent in 2018. China is fast emerging as a nuclear-armed world power not only to the concern of the US but Russia as well. It is Washington’s implacable hostility to Moscow that has brought Russia and China close to each other.

In Central Asia also there is a keen rivalry going on between China and Russia to extend their respective spheres of influence. The six Central Asian countries — Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan — were all constituent republics of the erstwhile Soviet Union. All of them are rich in mineral resources. The Baku oilfield in Azerbaijan has an estimated reserve of 7 billion barrels of crude oil. Kazakhstan has the world’s largest reserves of zinc, lead and chromite. It is in the top ten for supplies of copper, iron ore, gold and manganese. Turkmenistan has about 5 per cent of the world’s natural gas and Uzbekistan has about 0.8 per cent of world’s total natural gas and sizeable reserves of gold, copper and uranium.

Now, with the four-way defence cooperation taking shape between India, the US, Japan and Australia in ’Quad’ with the avowed aim of keeping a belligerent China at bay, the Chinese aim of attaining supremacy in the Indian Ocean will face a serious challenge. Indian naval ships are already deployed near the Malacca Straits. Besides, Indian warships have also been in the vicinity of South China Sea, much to Beijing’s annoyance and anger.

Even on Quad, Russia has reacted cautiously. The Russian Ambassador in India, Nikolai Kudashev has expressed his “concern and apprehension’ over the Indo-Pacific strategy of the US but has hoped that India will not deny anybody the opportunity in the Pacific Ocean. Unless Russia perceives the Quad as a threat to itself, it is not likely to oppose it openly.

India’s threat perception has increased a good deal in recent times and may increase more if the Chinese refuse to vacate their aggression in Ladakh and India remains firm in its resolve that the Chinese army must restore the status quo ante May 5. Both sides are in full panoply and India is prepared for “any eventuality”. Will China step back from the precipice of war and avoid an armed confrontation between two Asian giants?

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