By Qurat-Ul-Ain Shabbir
The strategic partnership between China and Russia has created a distinct approach to bilateral state cooperation. It can be termed “Alignment”. This article aims to analyze the potential impact of this alignment on India’s foreign policy interests, particularly regarding Russia and China’s relationships. It seeks to explore the implications of this alignment on India’s long-standing partnership with Russia and its strained relations with China.
To avoid any misapplication of the term “Alignment”. It is necessary to apply a conceptual framework to analyze contemporary strategic partnerships.
Alignment as a concept has been defined by Glenn H. Synder. He refers to it as “expectations of states about whether they will be supported or opposed by other states in future interactions”. According to Thomas S. Wilkins, “the main aim of alignment in any bilateral relationship between two countries is an upgradation of relations from regular channels to an intensified condition”.
The concept of alignment suits the foreign policy thinking of China and Russia. Both these states have deliberately avoided creating any form of international security Bloc or alliance. They consider them obsolete concepts which could foster international divisions and can’t do much for their foreign policy goals. On October 5th, 2007, a memorandum of understanding was signed between the secretariats of two organizations, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). This memorandum of understanding could be interpreted as a potential indication of the formation of a formal alliance between the two organizations. Russia and China have not formed a traditional security alliance, despite indications to the contrary. Russia has declared that it is not a member of any security alliance, while China has a formal policy of avoiding any kind of security alliance. This is because alliances have the potential to create confrontation and conflict with third parties. Instead, both countries prefer to establish multiple levels of strategic partnerships that align with their interests and goals.
In modern history, China has gained dominance over Russia, which is a significant shift from the power dynamics during the Cold War. China is currently more economically viable than Russia, and this shift was evident during negotiations over a gas deal in 2014, where China offered favorable terms to Russia. Despite this, China did not push Russia into a corner and instead adopted a unique approach towards Russia that experts consider to be the best possible outcome for Russia. This approach paints an optimistic picture of the Russia-China relationship.
The Sino-Russian alignment poses a significant challenge to India, given its special relationship with Russia and deteriorating ties with China. This regional power dynamic could put India in a difficult position, with the potential to significantly impact its regional and global interests. Shashi Tharoor, a prominent Indian politician, believes that a China-dependent Russia is not of much use to India and sees a gradual downgrading of the relationship for practical reasons. Similarly, Happymon Jacob, an Indian academic, contends that the long-standing strong relationship between India and Russia has been replaced with a transactional one.
These kinds of responses are natural as India perceives the Sino-Russian alignment as a significant challenge to its interests. The authors Sumit Ganguly and Warren A. Spencer have examined the impact of Western sanctions and Russia’s losses in the war and suggest that these factors may negatively affect Russia’s ability to fulfill Indian arms orders. This could lead India to seek alternative weapons suppliers, such as the United States. Therefore, India’s closeness with the US and Russia’s alignment with China could seriously hamper the long-standing relationship between India and Russia.
The question arises whether Russia and India can afford to have any kind of fallout in their relationship, given the strong bilateral ties they have built over the years in areas such as defense, nuclear energy, and space exploration. The long-standing partnership between Russia and India is unlikely to be jeopardized by regional complexities such as the Russia-Ukraine crisis and Sino-Russian alignment, and the two countries may choose to compete with each other’s strategic partners while maintaining their strategic cooperation. This argument could be supported by Indian External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar’s statement during his November 2022 visit to Moscow that India will continue purchasing Russian oil because it provides both economic and strategic advantages.
It is important to emphasize that both India and China are comfortable with a multipolar international order, where different poles have different spheres of influence, thus balancing international relations. If this foreign policy thinking is applied to the Sino-Russia-Indian relationship, it is possible that the three countries would opt for a “mutual co-existence of poles” approach. They would compete for their interests and foreign policy goals, but without fostering any hardcore animosity that would hinder their military and economic cooperation. Similar to the concept of alignment, where strategic partnerships are not formal, the mutual co-existence of the poles approach also entails that strategic competition would not be formal. In other words, the competition among the poles, such as India, China, and Russia, would not be overtly hostile or aggressive, but rather based on mutual recognition of each other’s interests and spheres of influence.
As far as Sino-Indian relations are concerned then despite being at odds with each other on several issues such as the border dispute, the South China Sea dispute, and China’s support for Pakistan’s stance on Kashmir, the two countries have managed to maintain a robust trade relationship. The total India-China trade for 2022 has climbed to 135.98 billion, indicating that economic interests are a crucial factor in their bilateral relationship and that both countries are willing to put aside their geopolitical differences for economic benefits.
Qurat-Ul-Ain Shabbir is a research officer at the Center for International Strategic Studies (CISS) AJK. Currently, she is pursuing her Ph.D. degree in DSS from Quaid-i-Azam University. Her areas of interest include comprehensive security and conflict analysis.
The views and opinions expressed in this article/Opinion/Comment are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the DND Thought Center and Dispatch News Desk (DND). Assumptions made within the analysis are not reflective of the position of the DND Thought Center and Dispatch News Desk News Agency.