US-China-India subplot to Russian invasion of Ukraine makes for a gripping thriller, whole lot of worry for New Delhi-World News , Firstpost
US-China-India subplot to Russian invasion of Ukraine makes for a gripping thriller, whole lot of worry for New Delhi-World News , Firstpost

US-China-India subplot to Russian invasion of Ukraine makes for a gripping thriller, whole lot of worry for New Delhi-World News , Firstpost

The US approach towards China has been unusually direct and threatening, whereas with India, the Joe Biden administration has been more muted and careful

Plenty of subplots are under way beneath the main plot of Russian invasion of Ukraine. One such is the intriguing interplay between the US, China and India with Russia at the centre of it all. Washington seems to have decided that to completely isolate Vladimir Putin (its stated objective), it needs to peel Beijing and New Delhi off Moscow, or at least create a condition where both these poles do not nullify its ‘maximum pressure’ agenda by backfilling Russia. It is going about achieving this objective, however, with an interesting tactic.

The US approach towards China has been unusually direct and threatening, whereas with India, the Joe Biden administration has been more muted and careful. The underlying message is the same — coming to Moscow’s aid when the US and West is imposing punishing sanctions on it would be a bad idea. Beyond US strategy, China and India have their own mutual dynamic with their strategies undergoing subtle yet perceptible shifts even as the war unfolds in Ukraine.

Given China’s composite national power, long-term strategy of supplanting the US as global hegemon, and avowed ‘no limits’ partnership with Russia, America fears that China will eventually emerge stronger from the geopolitical flux created by Ukraine war and attach a weakened Russia as a lackey state to its pole. However, Washington also understands that such an eventuality is not certain, and while the war presents China with an opportunity, it also creates potential pitfalls that may upend the carefully laid plans of the Chinese Communist Party.

File image of US prseident Joe Biden and Chinese president Xi Jinping. AFP

The exogenous shock of a war catalyses unpredictability. Within that context, and with the wind of a re-unified Europe and a reenergized NATO in its sails, the US reckons that now is the best time to test the resilience of Sino-Russian ties even as Beijing emits signals of a ‘confused’ or a ‘carefully balanced’ strategy, depending on how you look at it.

It has been interesting to watch how the US has gone about applying that pressure. Just ahead of US national security adviser Jake Sullivan’s meeting with Chinese diplomat Yang Jiechi in Rome on Monday, a set of articles appeared in western press that “disclosed”, quoting unnamed US officials, that Moscow has apparently asked for some military equipment from China, and Beijing has reportedly indicated “willingness” to providing military and financial aid to Moscow. If true, this would be a momentous development.

The reports, that were too coordinated to be coincidental, appeared extremely wish-washy. Unnamed US officials “familiar with American diplomatic cables on the exchange” were quoted, but the text of a Financial Times report that “scooped” the story on March 14 underwent substantial changes by the next day. Further, lower down the same report we came to know that “the cables, which were sent by the US state department to allies in Europe and Asia, were not specific about the level or timing of any assistance that may be provided to Moscow by Beijing.” Not just that. “A senior administration official said the FT’s reporting about the list of equipment was inaccurate without providing any further detail.”

A CNN report on the same topic carried a headline “China has expressed some openness” while the text said: “The cable did not state definitively that assistance had been provided.” The FT report claimed Russia has sought “five types of equipment, including the surface-to-air missiles”, CNN said “non-perishable military food kits” have been requested for, while a New York Times report on the same topic noted, “American officials, determined to keep secret their means of collecting the intelligence on Russia’s requests, declined to describe further the kind of military weapons or aid that Moscow is seeking.”

I have gone into some detail describing these reports because it tells us that a calibrated media campaign seems to have been carried out by the US to put China under pressure in Rome. Russia and China expectedly dismissed these reports but more interesting are the comments from a European Union spokesperson who told South China Morning Post that “Brussels had ‘no evidence’ that Russia asked China for military support.”

USChinaIndia subplot to Russian invasion of Ukraine makes for a gripping thriller whole lot of worry for New Delhi

File image of Russian president Vladimir Putin and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping in Moscow. AP

Having ‘established’ the ‘fact’, through media reports, that China may meet Moscow’s request for aid and military equipment, Sullivan then reportedly warned Yang during the seven-hour “intense” meeting on the “potential implications and consequences of certain actions.” White House press secretary Jen Psaki followed it up by saying that there will be “significant consequences” if China comes to Russia’s aid, a line that Sullivan has been pushing since Sunday.

What strikes one is the severe tone undertaken by the US and the conciliatory response from China. It is quite a contrast from the exchange that took place last year in Alaska, where the first high-level meeting between US and Chinese officials was marked by angry, vitriolic words from Beijing. In Rome, faced with a sullen Sullivan, Yang said: “the Chinese side does not want to see that the situation in Ukraine has come to this point” and added that “China always stands for respecting the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries, and abiding by the purposes and principles of the UN Charter” and is “committed to promoting peace talks.”

It has not been lost on the US that China, having declared a friendship with Russia that has “no forbidden areas of cooperation,” is now in a pickle. If Putin had been able to keep his Ukraine war short and sharp, that would have drawn American attention towards Russia without creating the possibility of China suffering from collateral damage. A distracted US could have allowed China more space to set about its hegemony in Asia.

But war is unpredictable. Putin’s blitzkrieg has failed. With each passing day, as US and NATO supplies arms and equipment to a determined Ukraine that has stood its ground, the menace of the sanctions imposed by the West on Russia becomes clearer and threatens to draw China in. Alongside, Europe is getting real about its responsibilities and moving past the assumption that it can outsource its security to the US and continue trading merrily with adversarial nations.

Along with a hardened force posture, tough sanctions and unified approach towards Russia, Europe is also waking up to the fact that it cannot be business as usual with China, especially as Beijing (in its reading) has appeared to be in Russian corner.

China has noted the power of a unified West and the frenzy that has been generated over Russian invasion. Beijing has even greater stake in the West than Russia and the post-war tectonic shift in Europe’s geography may make its economic linkages with the US and Europe precarious. We find therefore a calibrated shift in China’s position.

It is still not openly condemning Putin and hasn’t abandoned the line of “responding to the legitimate concerns of all parties”. But during Monday’s talks in Rome, Yang “called on the international community to jointly support the Russia-Ukraine peace talks so that substantive results can be achieved as soon as possible, and to help de-escalate the situation as early as possible.” And on the same day, Yang’s colleague and Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi told his Spanish counterpart, José Manuel Albares, over the phone that “China is not a party to the [Ukraine] crisis” and has “no wish to be impacted by the sanctions”.

It may also be remembered that during his recent telephone chats with French president Emmanuel Macron and German chancellor Olaf Scholz, Chinese president Xi Jinping had described the situation in Ukraine as “worrying” and said China is “pained to see the flames of war reignited in Europe,” while calling for “maximum restraint.”

This is not to suggest that Ukraine war has caused China to shift its Russia policy. It continues to invest in Russia because of unique convergence of interests driven by American geopolitical domination and shared concerns over US policy of containment. As former Indian foreign secretary Vijay Gokhale pointed out during an interview with Indian Express, “for the current leadership in China, the Russian Federation is the key factor that underpins their foreign policy. The February 4 joint statement, for instance, is a full-on theoretical counter position to Western narratives.”

A glimpse of this line is visible in Wang Yi’s annual presser on 7 March where he said: “The world is becoming a multi-polar one, where unilateralism and hegemonism will be replaced by greater democracy in international relations. Cold War alliances and geopolitical confrontation have long lost people’s support. This is the inevitable trend of history.”

However, after an initial period of dithering, China seems to have decided that this long game needs to be shelved in favour of a short-term tactic of not explicitly backing Putin in his invasion of Ukraine while taking on the mantle of a responsible nation that is focused on finding a solution. This may help China in escaping the reputational costs of siding with Putin at a time when he has become a pariah in the West while keeping options open for the future.

China is rational (if opportunistic), not a reckless actor, and it won’t back Putin till the bitter end and risk burning its bridges with the West that provides it the technological knowhow and economic opportunities necessary for the consolidation of its rise.

This is also why fears that China will do a Ukraine on Taiwan are overblown. As Bonnie S Glaser and Jude Blanchette write in Wall Street Journal, “China has hedged and provided no military aid to Russia in its operation in Ukraine. Moscow might likewise refrain from materially backing a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. That would leave Beijing with very few friends.”

USChinaIndia subplot to Russian invasion of Ukraine makes for a gripping thriller whole lot of worry for New Delhi

For younger Taiwanese people, the growing antagonism has cemented a distinct identity rooted in democracy and not China’s authoritarianism. AFP

China would also be aware that its ability to rescue Moscow from the post-sanctions economic morass is limited. Chief economist for Asia-Pacific at Natixis Alicia Garcia-Harrero points out in Asia Nikkei that “Russia cannot rely on China to buy up all of the fossil fuel exports that it can no longer sell to the West, especially not gas, as the physical infrastructure in the form of pipelines going east is not yet connected.” And China’s international payments system, CIPS, is not robust enough to cushion Russian banks from the shock of being cut off from SWIFT, the world’s biggest interbank payment messaging system.

It may also be erroneous to think that there is no debate within China on Beijing’s position. A Shanghai-based political scientist, Hu Wei, in a recent article for US China Perception Monitor, writes “Russia’s ‘special military operation’ against Ukraine has caused great controversy in China, with its supporters and opponents being divided into two implacably opposing sides.” He goes on to write that in order to “prevent the US and the West from imposing joint sanctions on China”, Beijing should “unload the burden of Putin as soon as possible”.

Beijing has reportedly blocked the website that carried the article critical of China’s Russia policy but there is no doubt that China would be watching the Ukraine developments very closely and taking notes. It may conclude that it needs to wound its economy even tighter to the West so that it doesn’t become subject to catastrophic sanctions.

After all, despite sanctioning Russia and supplying Ukraine with weapons and aid, Europe is still heavily reliant on Russian energy, the mainstay of the Russian economy. Values are not indispensable, interests are. That may explain why Biden is actively courting Iran, Saudi Arabia and Venezuela — regimes he once sought to avoid, to prevent dependence on Russian oil.

Which brings us to India, the other arm of the triangle. Biden administration’s attitude towards India has been muted and nuanced, as opposed to the fire and brimstone commentary from Western analysts, but the pressure is palpable.

Amid reports that India, that imports 80 per cent of its energy needs, is interested in buying Russian oil that has been offered at a discounted price, US lawmaker Ami Bera said if India decides to take this step, it “would be choosing to side with Vladimir Putin at a pivotal moment in history…”.

Psaki, the press secretary of Biden administration, helpfully clarified that India’s buying of Russian crude won’t be a violation of US sanctions, but India should “also think about where you want to stand when history books are written at this moment in time. Support for the Russian leadership is support for an invasion…”

Worth noting, however, that Europe remains a key destination for Russia’s energy. Germany, Europe’s biggest economy, gets 55 per cent of the natural gas, 52 per cent of the coal and 34 per cent of mineral oil from Russia, for which, as Guardian report observes, “it pays hundreds of millions of euros daily, financially supporting the war machine currently devastating Ukraine.”

Right now, even amid the war, analysts note “the **strongest** flows of Russian gas into the European Union since the invasion of Ukraine started, with Mallnow registering 3 consecutive days of non-stop flows, plus steady high inflows at Velke and NS1. At current prices, that’s quite a bounty for the Kremlin.”

Europe can keep buying Russian oil and swelling Putin’s purse, but India, whose economy could be severely damaged due to high oil prices, must shoulder the burden of moral propriety at the cost of harming its economy or else it would be accused of “supporting Russian invasion”.

This presents the context that India finds itself in. Just stopping short of shaming Putin at the UN — for reasons that I have explained at length earlier — India’s tone, tenor and official texts have become steadily critical of Russia with the dragging on of the war.

As recent as on Monday, External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar in a suo motu statement on the floor of the Parliament said: “We have expressed deep concern at the worsening situation and called for immediate cessation of violence and end to all hostilities. Our statements at the Security Council and the General Assembly have urged an urgent ceasefire and ensuring safe passage for stranded civilians… We have reiterated at the highest levels of our leadership to all parties concerned that there is no other choice but the path of diplomacy and dialogue. We have emphasized to all member States of the UN that the global order is anchored on international law, UN Charter and respect for territorial integrity and sovereignty of states.”

This unequivocal condemnation of Russian invasion is not enough to satisfy the levels of moral outrage that the West wants India to express. But Western bloc’s approval is not India’s most pressing concern. The stability, policy predictability and supply chain ease that India needs as facilitators for its economic growth have already been upset by the war. The imposition of tough sanctions on Russia poses further difficulties for India, that has tried to achieve a careful balance between Moscow and Washington because it is not in a position to choose or abandon any of its strategic partners.

Apart from the threat to its economic growth, the war has also shattered one of India’s fundamental tenets of national security, the serviceability of its existing weapons and equipment of Russian origin and future military supplies. Estimates vary, but the latest SIPRI figure of 49 per cent of Russian defence imports (a drop of 53 per cent between 2011-2015 and 2016-2020) still doesn’t present the full picture of a military where “about 60% of the inventory of the three services continues to be of Russian-origin.”

As Manu Pubby notes in Economic Times, among the three services, “the Air Force has the highest dependency on Russian spares and supplies as the bulk of its fighter fleet consists of the Su 30MKI, MiG 29 and MiG 21 fighter jets. While the Su 30MKIs are assembled in India, they are still dependent on regular supply of spares from Russian companies.”

USChinaIndia subplot to Russian invasion of Ukraine makes for a gripping thriller whole lot of worry for New Delhi

IAF Sukhoi Su-30MKI fighter jets

In a region surrounded by hostile actors (and amid an ongoing border standoff with China), India can ill afford to let its military preparedness be affected by disruption in Russian supply chain, serviceability and availability of spare parts. The sanctions will throw an additional spanner into buying of critical defence equipment. With the implementation of AK-203 assault rifles deal signed with Russia last July getting delayed this crisis is evident already.

Worth noting that the defence ministry is undertaking a thorough review of its exposure to and dependence on Russian arms and platforms with a focus on “immediate as well as six month impact of the crisis” but realistically, there are only two ways out of this predicament — indigenisation and diversification of portfolio away from Russian supply chain.

Dhruva Jaishankar notes that the war may speed up India’s push for indigenisation and development of military industrial complex, but as the author himself points out, “given the depth of India-Russia defence relations, a process of indigenisation and diversification will take a decade, if not longer.”

This column doesn’t have an answer to the most pressing question triggered by the war: while India works towards long-term building of capabilities, what happens in the interim if China launches an opportunistic attack? Between navigation of sanctions and an inventory that will surely be depleted by supply chain issues, India will have a lot to worry about.

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