Russia-China Partnership: Implications for India

Multiple questions are being raised about the sustainability of this alliance, whether Russia will dump India for China, or perhaps this will further push India towards the United States and the western block.

Former British Prime Minister Lord Palmerston once said: “There are no permanent enemies, and no permanent friends, only permanent interests”. Global politics and diplomacy can be summed up in this one liner. In a multipolar world, nations formulate policies which best serve their own interests. Such an alliance of convenience is being carefully crafted out between Russia and China, one known for its military might and the other an economic powerhouse. This growing closeness between Russia and China has sent a warning to New Delhi. Multiple questions are being raised about the sustainability of this alliance, whether Russia will dump India for China, or perhaps this will further push India towards the United States and the western block.

Russia and China reestablished diplomatic relations post the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Suspicion of the United States and need to create a multipolar international system were the prime reasons which brought both the nations together. In 2001, Treaty of Good-Neighborliness and Friendly Cooperation was signed between Russia and China for deepening their ties. Following the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014, sanctions were imposed on them by the US, which eventually pushed Russia towards China. The relations touched a new high with the mutual declaration of ‘no limit friendship’ just before the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Both Russia and China are together the leading members of various international platforms including Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), China-Mongolia-Russia economic corridor and New Eurasian Land Bridge. Russia is also an important constituent of China’s ambitious Belt Road Initiative (BRI). Russian President Vladimir Putin had called BRI “China’s desire for cooperation”. He also added that in this model (BRI) ‘no one imposes anything on anyone. In 2023, bilateral trade between Russia and China was at an all time high of $240 billion. China has become Russia’s number one trade partner while Russia is on the sixth position when it comes to China’s trading partners. The share of China’s Yuan in the Russian domestic market has increased phenomenally to 30% from just 1% before January 2022.

Following its Ukraine invasion, Russia ran out of options and they had no other choice but to depend on China to duck sanctions on them by the western powers. Considering that they have a strong military, Russia initially thought that they could defeat Ukraine within a few weeks. They did not anticipate that Ukraine had the power and capital to stretch the war this long. With Ukraine getting the backing of the US and other western powers, China sensed an opportunity to deepen its ties with Russia. This also gives China a chance to fight the western alliance without getting into a direct confrontation with them. There are reports of China developing attacking drones for Russia in the model of Iran’s Shahen drones. China’s ability to scale up its production can put the western powers on a tight spot.

Even when Sino-Russian ties are growing stronger, the same is the case with Indo-Russian relations too. At a time when the west has imposed stringent sanctions over Russia, India came in aid of its all weather ally. Russian crude constituted a significant 42% of India’s total oil imports in June, i.e. importing 1.92 million barrels/day in June. The joint military programmes involving Russia and India includes: BrahMos cruise missile programme, Sukhoi Su-30MKI programme, KA-226T twin-engine utility helicopters and so on. In addition to this, Russia completed a Rs 5000 crore order for AK-203, made in India and handed over to the Indian military. India has also placed orders for five S-400 missile systems worth $5 billion from Russia. Even though the US government threatened to impose sanctions over India over the procurement, India decided to go ahead with the order.

In the FY 2023-24, Trade between India and Russia stood at $65.7 billion which is a 33% jump over previous year. New Delhi is seeking to sign a free trade agreement with the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union as well as an investment treaty with Russia. There is a huge trade deficit  in favour of Russia, when it comes to Indo-Russia trade. Russia exports items worth $61.46 billion to India while India exports only items worth $4.26 billion. Major export items from India include pharmaceuticals, organic chemicals, electrical machinery and mechanical appliances, iron and steel. Russia exports oil and petroleum products, fertilisers, mineral resources and metals, and vegetable oil to India. Also, Russia was the first country which the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited after taking oath of office for the third time. This gesture shows the importance that India gives to Russia.

Even though Russia is dependent on China economically, they are also sending a message that they still have other options. After his meeting with the North Korean leader Kim Jong Um, N. Korea agreed to send its soldiers to fight alongside the Russians in Ukraine. The Moscow-Pyongyang bonhomie has also made China vary of Russia’s intentions. Also, the possibility of Donald Trump returning as the President of the US can considerably improve its ties with Russia as Trump was heard saying that he has a peace plan to end the Russia-Ukraine war.  Russia is no longer ideologically committed to China, but the character of the government is very much similar between both the countries. Vladimir Putin is the de facto President of Russia for his lifetime and has made it sure that no opposition is  left in Russia to challenge him. The same is applicable to Xi Jinping too. The Chinese Communist Party is entirely under his control and there is not even a remote possibility of a leadership change. Also, Russia and China share a 4209 KM long border and there are territorial disputes between both nations. Apart from this, both the nations have expansionist intentions. The US has also imposed sanctions on China for aiding Russia. It needs to be seen how long China can defy those sanctions. Therefore, this friendship looks fragile and both the nations may not be able to hold it for a long period of time.

Any level of Sino-Russian partnership will not have much effect on India’s global positioning. Unlike the past, India is no longer dependent on any other nation. Even though Russia remains India’s largest defence supplier, the nation has increased its purchase from Israel, US and France, thereby reducing its dependence on Russian weaponries. India is also an important constituent of QUAD – a strategic alliance with US, Australia and Japan to contain China in the Indo-Pacific region. The Chinese Yuan has become Russia’s main foreign currency, but its top banker has already issued a warning on the use of Chinese currency. The bone of contention between Russia and the western powers is its Ukraine invasion and if a change of guard in the US can initiate an end to the conflict, the current situation will see major improvement. Russia is following a de-hyphenated foreign policy while dealing with India and China, which means that their relation with India is unaffected by their relation with China. Therefore, presently, India has nothing to worry about the ‘Sino-Russia partnership of convenience’.

Ganesh Puthur
Ganesh Puthur
The writer is a political analyst and holds a masters degree in History from the Department of History, University of Hyderabad, India. He writes articles on topics pertaining to International affairs, History and Indian politics.