The alignment of Russia and China in recent years is a concerning portent for the future of India’s strategic policy. Our ability to balance powers in the international arena relied on the engagement with both superpowers during the Cold War – and more importantly, the absence of a clear alliance between China and either the USA or the erstwhile USSR.
Our volatile neighbourhood requires careful management, as it previously depended on the ‘superficial impartiality’ towards both superpowers. A tilt towards one allowed us to further our priorities – while also preventing an alliance of China with either the US or the USSR, which would have been inimical to national interest.
However, the vast change in the international arena compels us to rethink our standard template. China is now emerging as a superpower in its own right, after decades of break-neck growth – while Russia is now a shadow of the USSR, subordinate to China in Asia, despite its recent assertions in the Middle East.
With minor modifications, however, the template could still afford some utility to suit Indian interests as clearly evident in India’s cooperation with the US. The tilt, as of now, is patently on side of the US, while China has risen as a major power in the Asia-Pacific. Yet despite Chinese strength, Russia remains essential to China, due to its martial prowess, and more crucially, as a rare ‘friendly state’.
For all its claims as a serious contender to the US, it is surprising that China lacks any strong alliance with a ‘friendly’ nation. Let aside alliances with other continental powers, it is beset with ambiguity at best and hostility at worst, on all borders. Conflicts and disputes abound within and without, and China is in a precarious position with respect to the territorial ambitions it has outlined – in the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands and South China Sea, undoubtedly, but also with Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and India, among others. The list of nations ‘friendly’ to the People’s Republic of China (PRC) comprises of states that beg the utility of such ‘friendship’ – North Korea, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Cambodia, Laos and ‘issue-based cooperation’ with Iran and Russia. It makes for an interesting read, especially if we remember that the PRC is now one of the largest economies of the world, which is poised to surpass the US within the next decade.
Never has the international system been maintained without the preeminent powers having ‘dependable partners’. This stands true for France and the Continental system during the Napoleonic era, Germany and south-east Europe during the German Empire of the 19th and 20th centuries, and Britain during the heyday of its empire. It is likely that the PRC will develop enduring alliances with states – rather than with mere regimes susceptible to changes. This is because world alliances shift, and states are drawn towards the ‘centrality’ of the stabler ‘centre of gravity’. Nevertheless, it does illustrate the viewpoint of the world that China holds – one that has been extensively commented upon as the ‘Middle Kingdom’ at the centre of a ‘system of tributaries’.
The realm of international relations has been beset by the tense relations between Russia and the West, with the effects spilling over into Ukraine, Syria and in the informatics campaign waged by both parties through their media outlets. These tensions began from 2013, with Russia’s attempts to persuade Ukraine to join the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), which includes Belarus, Kazakhstan, Armenia and Kyrgyzstan. The competition between these two parties is driven by Russia’s attempts to carve an independent sphere of influence in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, and a sentiment that it can no longer compromise on its ‘national interests’.
As Vladimir Putin mentioned in his May 18, 2014 speech on the annexation of Crimea – “In short, we have every reason to assume that the infamous policy of containment, led in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, continues today. They are constantly trying to sweep us into a corner because we have an independent position, because we maintain it and because we call things like they are and do not engage in hypocrisy. But there is a limit to everything. And with Ukraine, our western partners have crossed the line, playing the bear and acting irresponsibly and unprofessionally… Russia found itself in a position it could not retreat from. If you compress the spring all the way to its limit, it will snap back hard. You must always remember this. ”
Thus, while the rapprochement is driven by the Russian need for economic succour, due to the severe sanctions imposed by the EU and USA – the PRC is also motivated by the diplomatic setback in the South China Sea dispute in the judgement pronounced by the Permanent Court of Arbitration. Japanese tenacity in the East China Sea is simultaneously causing issues of ‘prestige’ for an assertive China, which had unleashed a campaign of economic boycott and naval incursions on its own initiative.
This dynamic provides a strong impetus for both Russia and China to extend mutual assistance, diplomatic and economic, in policies involving Syria, Central Asia, Ukraine, South China Sea and East China Sea. The mutual support offered is determined by a mutual interest and the lack of alternatives – and these factors are the most efficient foreign policy considerations for any state.