War in Ukraine and the New Delhi-Beijing geopolitical shadowboxing

India and China have separately frustrated and angered many in the West by refusing to condemn Russia’s military action on February 24. The two BRICS member countries’ neutrality is driven by their respective national interests. Therefore, it is a gross error to assume that the two ‘hostile’ Asian neighbors will be further encouraged by the war in Ukraine to reboot their bilateral relationship and move toward forging a tripartite Russia-China-India front to challenge the US hegemony.

India and China have been abstaining from voting against the Kremlin over Russia’s war on Ukraine at the United Nations, and both New Delhi and Beijing have refused to condemn Moscow, yet the two hostile Asian neighbors’ “neutrality” cannot be viewed as “same” or “shared.” What is of even greater significance is that the two countries – both extremely friendly to Moscow – do not positively view each other’s bilateral friendship with Moscow. Besides, a common missing element in both Chinese and the West’s understanding of the Indian neutrality in the Russian war on Ukraine is that New Delhi’s response to the war in Ukraine is determined by “India’s need for strategic partnerships and not for friends with common values.”

Interestingly, there are few and far between commentaries in the Indian media about how Indian and Chinese “neutrality” in the Russia-Ukraine war may have the potential to help New Delhi and Beijing make a fresh start amid prevailing hostility and border standoff with one another. But there are quite many Op-Eds underscoring how India-China cooperation can help ease tensions between Washington and Moscow. On the other hand, signals emitting out of Beijing are more affirmative and encouraging toward rapprochement with India. The expectations in both Beijing and New Delhi were high on a possible “ice-breaking” tête-à-tête between the two foreign ministers on the sidelines of the foreign ministers’ meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in Tashkent last month-end.

Echoing the statement of China’s foreign ministry spokesperson on the issue, a Chinese IR professor at Beijing’s prestigious Tsinghua University opined: “China and India share similar stances on the Russia-Ukraine conflict. If the bilateral talks happen, the two foreign ministers may discuss cooperation.” Not to be forgotten, remember, much to the West’s frustration, without wasting time the Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi immediately flew into New Delhi “uninvited” on March 25, as soon as Beijing realized India “refused even to criticize President Putin, let alone countenance sanctions.”   

China Factor and India’s Strategic Relations with Russia

As mentioned, driven by their own subjective interests, both China and the West have failed to fathom India’s geopolitical calculations and strategic dimensions behind standing firm on New Delhi’s neutrality in the raging war in Europe. Besides short-term gains of easy and cheap access to the Russian energy supply, the reason why India “stubbornly” and “rigidly” withstood the mounting pressure on it exercised by the US and allies and refused to condemn Russia is none other than the “China factor.” From the long-term strategic viewpoint, because of the real China threat, India is deeply dependent on Russia for its military and defense needs.    

The roots of decades-long strategic rivalry between India and China to gain the upper hand in Asia lies in their 3,488-kilometer disputed Himalayan border. What is worse is that the 1962 border war ensured the normal bilateral relationship eluded the two hostile neighbors. More recently, the so-called peaceful or lying dormant border suddenly erupted into a physical brawl between Chinese and Indian troops in the Galwan Valley – at the southeastern edge of Aksai Chin along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in the high plateau Ladakh region, the size of Switzerland – that has been under Chinese occupation since the India-China war.    

In mid-June 2020, amid the high wave of Covid-19 pandemic spread across India (but by April-end the Chinese Communist Party was already celebrating China’s “victory” in the country’s fight against the virus), an estimated 4 Chinese and nearly 20 Indian soldiers had been brutally killed in the gruesome brawl. At the time of the Russian assault on Ukraine, tensions were still running high on the Indian-Chinese border. Today, after sixteen rounds of negotiations between the two militaries, the situation remains tense and bilateral relations are far from normal. Under these circumstances, lagging behind China both economically and in military preparations, India more than ever in the past feels a greater need to have ready access to Russian arms. In the words of a security affairs expert: “Were the India-China border tensions to escalate into a full-scale conflict, India would all the more need to have good relations with Russia.”   

China Seeking Advantage over India by Playing Psychological Games

Alarmed by India’s proactive participation in the US’s Indo-Pacific strategic measures to contain and isolate China – especially the Indian key role in the Biden-led revival of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad), China sensed in India’s refusal to align with the US-led West in condemning Russia a “golden opportunity.” As stated, in a shrewd diplomatic move, Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi landed in New Delhi almost “uninvited.” India maintained cultural etiquette and diplomatic protocol by scheduling two back-to-back meetings in a day – one with the Indian national security advisor and the other with foreign minister Dr. Jaishankar.

While the two Indian ministers stuck to their brief and engaged the Chinese foreign minister on the prolonged border standoff, and reiterated the known Indian position of “no dialogue with China until both sides agree to restore the status quo on the border as in April 2020.” Wang Yi, on the other hand, as reported in a section of Indian media, refused to indulge in any discussion on the ongoing border logjam and maintained the “situation on the border is peaceful.” According to some observers, viewed in the context of the Ukraine war, Wang Yi’s visit was just aimed at punctuating New Delhi with the Chinese presence amid a non-stop stream of high-profile visits by/virtual meetings between Indian and foreign leaders from Japan to Australia to the United Kingdom and France, etc. 

Needless to emphasize, it wasn’t hidden from anyone Beijing was loving the sudden cracks – as perceived by Beijing – surfacing between Washington and New Delhi on Russian military aggression, due to the latter’s “disobedience.” In addition, the Chinese media was flooded with Op-Ed pieces focusing extra attention on India not budging from its “independent” foreign policy stance. It is significant to point out, a Chinese internal circulation-only publication on foreign affairs, Cankao Xiaoxi, cited a report in a leading Japanese newspaper on the day President Biden presided over the Quad leaders’ summit in Tokyo in May, saying “The US, Japan, and Australia are concerned that India’s presence in Quad could disrupt the pace of effectively ‘slowing’ down the fast-spreading Chinese economic and military influence in the Asia Pacific region.” 

To sum up, India’s firm and persistent stand to refuse to ally with the West on the events in Ukraine and Wang Yi’s presence in New Delhi did raise uncomfortable questions in Beijing as well as in several capitals in the West.

Hemant Adlakha
Hemant Adlakha
Hemant Adlakha is professor of Chinese, Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. He is also vice chairperson and an Honorary Fellow, Institute of Chinese Studies (ICS), Delhi.