Does the “No limits” partnership between China-Russia limit India’s strategic hedging practice in its foreign policy?

The “No limits” partnership between China and Russia, intensified by the shared motive of diminishing the western power and influence- is a raising concern. Just after the International criminal court issued an arrest warrant against Putin for Ukraine war crimes, an agreement between China and Russia were signed that manifests the vision of the “No limits” partnership between two nations. By reshaping the present geopolitical order, this partnership will certainly escalate the power struggle between the westerns powers and China-Russia. While the US and the EU maneuver the ‘de-couple’ strategy towards China and Russia, India’s position is in complete disarray. Now it will be challenging for India to maintain the old friendship with Russia under the influence of triangular geopolitical rivalry between China, Russia and the US. Will India be able to maintain its traditional “strategic hedging” practice in its foreign policy?

India’s strategic hedging practice in its foreign policy

During the period of the first PM Nehru, India’s domestic and foreign policies were shaped under the umbrella of the USSR in the bipolar world order where the US and USSR were the major powers. However, the cold war reshaped India’s traditional ”Non-alignment” foreign policy and the practice of “strategic hedging” was instigated in its foreign policy. Rajiv Gandhi’s foreign policy approach implies that he articulated India’s foreign policy towards keeping the neighbourhood closer to the state as he was well presumed of China’s interest in the sub-continent. A new era of cooperation between India and the USA featured by expansion of trade and import of advanced technology from the USA began. Another significant event was PM Gandhi’s visit to China in 1988 marking him the Indian Prime Minister visiting China after 34 years.

Since 2014, when Modi came into power, India has been practicing “strategic hedging” in its foreign policy in order to maintain an alliance with China while participating ‘Quad’ with Australia, Japan and the USA against Chinese hegemony. Under the administration of the former American President Trump, India-US relation was upraised to “Comprehensive global strategic partnership”. However, India did not neglect Indo-Russia close tie. Despite the threat of American sanction, New Delhi signed $15 billion defence deal with Russia which includes S-400 missile system. During this period, India maintained a triangular relation with China, Russia and the USA by practicing “Strategic hedging”.

Can New Delhi rely on Moscow?

 Since the Ukraine-Russia war, New Delhi has played its card cautiously to balance its relation with Russia and the west. While United Nation General Assembly adopted a resolution seeking an end of the war, India was one of the 32 countries and only democracy who abstained. At the same time, India supported Ukraine with humanitarian needs. The trade relation between New Delhi and Moscow has not been affected much by the war.

Russia remains the important arms and crude oil supplier to India. Russia supplied 28% of the total crude oil to India during 2021-22 as well as around 60% of weapons despite the sanctions on Russia by the world major powers.

In December 2021, an agreement on the program for Military Technical Cooperation was singed between India and Russia which aims to develop and strengthen the military and Military technical cooperation in the sector of research and development, production and periodic exchanges of armed forces and military exercise. Bilateral projects encompass- licensed production of T-90 tanks and Su-30 MKI aircraft, supply of MiG-29-K aircraft and Kamov-31, upgrade of MiG-29 aircraft etc. Under India’s “Make in India” initiative a joint venture Indo-Russia Riles Private Limited (IRRPL) has also been established which produces AK-203 rifles. In the past few decades, India-Russia military corporation has been expanded from “import-export of military equipment” to “joint research, development & production of military equipment”. INDRA a Tri-service military exercise between Russia and India will be conducted in 2023. However, it is important for New Delhi to realise the impact of China’s influence on Russia. Additionally, the US might not have responded to India’s unique position regarding Russia, but there is no guarantee that it will continue to ignore such “No side but all sides” stand of India.    

The China factor:

As Defence cooperation is an important pillar of the India-Russia strategic partnership, the close tie between China & Russia will put India’s National security in jeopardy. There is no doubt that China will use every opportunity of the partnership with Russia to keep India off-balance.

Whereas India aims to complete the disengagement process in eastern Ladakh with China before resuming bilateral exchanges, China may use Russia as a pawn to achieve its objective of maintaining bilateral relations with India without solving border issues. Additionally, there is a contrast of policies utilized by China and Russia towards Jammu-Kashmir region of India. While Russia has supported India regarding J&K issues, China as a permanent member of the UN security council has always carried out aggressive policy towards J&K issue.

As Russia has no better option than to turn to China for its economic stability, China will India trust its old friend Russia for its military support when it comes to a conflict with China?  

Geopolitical challenges for India

The growing tension in the South China sea will be a critical situation for India. As a Quad member nation and regional power India is expected to join the other nations to counter China’s influence in the region. On May 24, 2022 while the leaders of Quad at Quad summit in Tokyo, Chinese and Russian strategic bombers flew near the Japanese archipelago. In March, 2023, the US navy guided missile destroyer USS Milius entered into disputed area of the South China sea which has become a catalyst for the ongoing tension. It is unpredictable whether Russia will engage itself in the south china sea or not. However, Russia has completed three-way naval exercise in the Arabian sea with China and Iran which indicates that there is a possibility that Russia and China may expand their military exercises in the south china sea against the influence of the US. In this case, it will be impossible for India to be able to play its “all sides” card.

As India hosts the G20 summit and Shanghai cooperation organisation summit, India’s objectives will be judged by the other nations at a time of global division. Russian President Putin is expected to attend G20 and SCO summits in India. In this case, India might be pressurised by the international community to exclude Putin. It might an honourable task to act as a bridge between two sides in world politics, but there will be price to pay for indecisiveness behaviour of New India. Can India take a risk to frustrate the US and the EU at this moment of global division?  

The China- Russia “No limits” partnership may limit the practice of India’s strategic hedging in foreign policy but India’s diplomatic priority remains the same regarding China. Given the challenges with the triangular rivalry between China, Russia and the US, India’s foreign policy shall be designed to constrain China’s influence and secure own interests in relation to the geological challenges. Practicing strategic hedging has own limits. If India tries to play all sides, it might be a foreign policy failure of making strong strategic partnerships in an emergency situation for future.

Archana Sharma
Archana Sharma
I am a freelance Geopolitical Research Analyst. My area of research includes Foreign policy and Space diplomacy. I hold a Master's degree in Diplomacy, Law and Business and a Bachelor degree in Electronics and communication engineering.