Shadow of China Looms Over India’s Ukraine Balancing Act

Dnyanesh Kamat

Image courtesy of Money Sharma / AFP

New Delhi has yet again attempted a balancing act over rising Russia-West tensions. On January 31, the UN Security Council took up the issue of Russia’s buildup of troops on the Ukrainian border for discussion at America’s behest. India tried a tightrope walk that attempted to please both the West – by calling for diplomacy in alignment with the Minsk Process, and Russia, by asking that “legitimate security interests of all countries” be taken into account.  Yet India’s continued neutrality has not yielded the desired result, particularly on the issue that bedevils it the most – China.

The most apparent reason behind India’s balancing act on Ukraine is its military dependence on Russia. India remains heavily dependent on Russia for its weapons imports. Despite drawing closer to the US in recent years, India sources close to 55 percent of its arms from Moscow. Russia is also a key supplier for India’s nuclear program, and both countries jointly produce weapons systems. India recently sold supersonic cruise missiles, jointly produced with Russia, to the Philippines. This is one of the few examples of India having sold indigenously manufactured weapons systems to other countries – a key goal for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government.

Moscow provides New Delhi with crucial political support over Kashmir at the UN Security Council. More importantly, Russia is a critical partner for India in dealing with Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. Yet New Delhi has also pursued closer military cooperation with the US, aligning with the latter’s much-vaunted pivot to Asia. India has been an enthusiastic participant in the US-led Quad security dialogue with Japan and Australia, two countries with equally stormy relations with China.

However, whenever New Delhi is seen by one side as tilting too far towards the other, it faces blowback. In the end, it gains very little. India may be an enthusiastic participant in naval exercises with Quad members, but it has also sent troops to Russia-led Zapad military exercises in Belarus. Yet soon after India signed three “foundational pacts” with the US, which gave both countries’ militaries access to each other’s facilities, Russia inked a security cooperation pact with Pakistan. Russia has since conducted military drills with Pakistan and even sold its helicopter gunships in 2018 to New Delhi’s ire. Meanwhile, America continues to pressure New Delhi to drop its purchase of the Russian S-400 missile defense systems.

Yet it is on China, which is India’s most critical security challenge, that New Delhi has received very little support from either Moscow or Washington. Much like Russia in Ukraine’s Donbas region, where Russia has intervened to protect the interests of Russian-speakers and has handed out Russian passports to the inhabitants of these territories, China has attempted to create frozen conflicts along its disputed border with India. Whole villages inhabited by Chinese citizens have sprung up overnight in disputed areas. China claims large parts of Indian-administered territory. The entire Indian border state of Arunachal Pradesh, a region the size of Austria, is claimed by China as Southern Tibet.

Yet, on this, the most serious security threat faced by India in recent decades, New Delhi remains unconvinced about American support and reliability. On India-China tensions, Russia has offered little other than platitudes about the virtues of bilateral diplomacy; Moscow will do nothing to endanger its strategic partnership with Beijing. President Vladimir Putin’s meeting last week with President Xi Jinping, where the two cemented their countries’ strategic alliance further, is bound to cause nervousness in New Delhi.

However, Russia’s actions towards Ukraine presage a shifting global order in which an evolving China-Russia alliance also threatens India’s strategic interests. Its position on the Ukraine issue, then, is not a bold foreign policy position but one borne of prevarication. The dilemma for New Delhi is that strategically, Russian threats towards Ukraine are indirectly a threat to New Delhi’s interests. What motivates Russia to menace Ukraine is also what has caused a rise in Chinese aggression towards India along their disputed border.

Just like Moscow does not want closer integration between NATO and Ukraine, Beijing’s aggressive tactics along the India-China Line of Actual Control (LAC) are a warning to New Delhi not to get too close to the US. Indeed, during a visit to India in March, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov referred to the Quad as an Asian NATO. Senior officials in Beijing have also echoed this position.

The US has argued that a Russian invasion of Ukraine would threaten the international order, where states do not annex bits of each other on a whim. Not only will this resonate with Middle Eastern states, given Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990, but it remains a cause for worry in New Delhi too.

The critical question is whether the US will intervene to protect the international order. The world is caught between a Russia-China axis looking to reshape that international order and the US uninterested or incapable of protecting it.

With few benefits accruing to its own national security interests, India’s balancing act between the two is a cautionary tale for other countries. New Delhi’s goal of pursuing a balanced foreign policy to reach its goal of becoming a rising power in a multi-polar world, now looks complicated. Regional capitals will have taken note.

Dnyanesh Kamat is a political analyst who focuses on the Middle East and South Asia. He also consults on socio-economic development for government and private-sector entities.