The Unwavering Bond

Sub Title : How Russian and China forge a new geopolitical alliance

Issues Details : Vol 18 Issue 2 May – Jun 2024

Author : Ajay Singh

Page No. : 18

Category : Geostrategy

: June 5, 2024

Examining the critical geopolitical moment, this text delves into President Putin’s 2022 Beijing visit, and the recent one, the profound implications of the Russia-China alliance, and the strategic recalibrations facing global powers amidst escalating tensions, especially concerning India’s delicate position.

When Putin prepared for his invasion of Ukraine, one of his last acts was to visit Beijing on 10 Feb 2022. He was a special guest of honour for Xi Jinping’s showpiece event – the Beijing Olympics. There, the two leaders expressed their “friendship without limits.” But beyond the pomp and fanfare, the true significance of the visit would have played out behind closed doors. The two leaders would have undoubtedly discussed Putin’s plan and China’s tacit support for it – without which Russia would not be able to go ahead. Exactly 12 days later, Russia invaded Ukraine on 24th February 22, setting into motion a chain of events that could shape the world in the 21st century.

One of the major geo-political impacts of the Ukraine war has been the manner in which it has got Russia and China even closer together against the ‘Hegemony of the West’. Both see themselves as world powers, both feel aggrieved at being denied their rightful place in the comity of nations; both see the US as the common threat trying to pull them down, and both want to replace the US-led world order with a multipolar one, with China and Russia as the main pillars of power. Their coming together is a natural fallout of that. And coupled with other nations, such as Iran and North Korea, they could create an axis of power that can successfully defy the west and hasten the decline of the USA as a superpower.

In a way, it is the USA and its misjudged policies that have created this situation. In 1972, in a bid to isolate the Soviet Union, President Richard Nixon and his Foreign Secretary, Henry Kissinger made the horrendous decision to prop up China and aid its rise. The resultant peace and prosperity would help amalgamate it with the world and it would pose less of a threat. The move backfired dramatically. China rose spectacularly, but with its rising trajectory, its predatory and aggressive nature also came to the fore. It infiltrated world institutions, trampled on human rights, threatened neighbours and encroached in to China Seas, Ladakh and others. By the time, the US and its Western allies realised that the main threat of this century came from China, it was too late.

Then around 2014 or so, they made their next strategic blunder. In closing ranks to counter China, Russia should have been a logical ally of the West. At that time, Russia – still smarting from the breakup of the Soviet Union and seeking to regain its former stature – was keen on joining the western order. Instead, Russia was isolated and sanctioned (largely due to its annexation of Crimea in 2014) and its security concerns dismissed. The personal animosity of  President Joe Biden and Putin, caused by Russia’s purported attempt to influence the US presidential elections in Trump’s favour, further deepened the divide. This pushed Russia closer towards China. By the time the Ukraine war broke out in 2022, the two nations – with two like-minded leaders – had formed an economic and strategic relationship, which would be the bedrock of their alliance of the future.

The Friendship without Limits

Putin’s latest meeting with ‘dear friend, Xi Jinping’, took place at Beijing on 16-17 May. It was the 40th meeting of the two leaders and his first foreign visit since coming into power for the third time. Significantly, Xi’s first foreign visit on re-assuming power was also to Moscow. The two leaders, who share a strong personal chemistry, will remain in power for some time to come, Putin till 2030, and Xi till 2028 (though both are likely to extend their terms even beyond that). That will give them enough time to implement their shared vision of the world.

Putin’s visit to Beijing re-affirmed  a “new era in ties”, and was marked with much fanfare and symbolism. But the real takeaways would have taken place behind closed doors. Ukraine would have been very much on the agenda. Weeks before, the US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken had visited Beijing (to a much frostier welcome) to try and convince China to stop its support to Russia. The French President Emmanuel Macron, and the European Union chief Ursula Van Leyen had also come calling earlier, hoping to get China to use its influence to stop the war. China denies aiding Russia, and has not provided actual military hardware (not overtly, at least). But while guns and ammunition may not have been supplied,  dual use items like trucks, excavators, machine tools, computer chips and others have poured in, to aid Russia in its war efforts. China has also provided vital political support, endorsing Russia’s viewpoint and security concerns, and blaming the US and NATO of provoking the war (with some merit). Ironically, it is now ideally placed to help bring both parties to the table, and perhaps broker a peace- though it would be largely on Russian terms, where Russia keeps the areas it has captured, and Ukraine abjures the joining of NATO.

Their economic linkages too have helped keep Russia afloat. The two sides share a symbiotic relationship, with Russia providing markets and technology to China, and also supplying the vital gas and oil that fuels its guzzling economy. Russia has been able to counter western sanctions by merely diverting its exports of oil and gas towards China and India. It’s 2800 km long Power of Siberia gas pipeline, when operational, will be able to pump over 50 billion cubic meters of gas into China – more than what was provided to Europe by the Nord Stream II pipelines. In trying to block Russian gas and oil towards Europe, it is the European economies that have suffered. China has emerged as Russia’s largest trading partner, with trade increasing by 64% since the war began. This has enabled Russia to circumvent sanctions, and keep its economy growing at a healthy 3.4 percent – even as European economies slip into recession.

While China has supported Russia, it has still maintained economic linkages with Europe and USA – after all it would not like to lose access to its two greatest markets. In a way, China has benefited from Putin’s war. The war diverted the US and the West at a time when they were just beginning to rally against Chinese aggression with the “Pivot to the Indo Pacific.” The Ukraine war – and then the Middle East conflagration – took the focus away from China as the main threat, allowing it to consolidate. The limits of US power have been  glaringly exposed in Ukraine and the Middle East – as they were in Afghanistan, before it. The weakening of US influence and its distraction with the wars in Europe and the Middle East, could tempt Xi Jinping, to try his hand at the major point of his agenda–“the reunification of Taiwan, by military force if necessary.” It is no coincidence that just a week after Putin visited Beijing, and the intensification of the Russian offensive towards Kharkiv, China carried out a series of ‘punishment exercises’ that surrounded Taiwan, in a blatant show of force and practised invasion scenarios. These exercises have been only increasing over time, and perhaps any of them could be converted to the real thing.

Besides the strategic convergence, both leaders also seek to upend the economic stranglehold caused by the dominance of the dollar as a global currency.  Both nations seek to ‘de-dollarize’ by trading in roubles and yuan. They have also circumvented the banning of Russia from SWIFT, the universal system of banking, by developing their own banking mechanism. Incidentally, India has been purchasing oil and gas from Russia in rupee-rouble terms as well, and our own Unified Payment Interface system provides a digital financial alternative that can be used as a regional payment gateway in local currencies. The reduction of the use of the dollar for global trade may not be such a bad thing.

But the greater danger lies in the manner in which Russia and China have successfully converged their strategic interests and established a joint imprint in places as diverse as Afghanistan, Syria, Central Asia and North Africa. Their actions seem to be informally coordinated. But with time this alliance could deepen even further and then be formalised into a bloc comprising of China, Russia, North Korea, Iran and other inclined nations. That could create a schism dividing the world into two distinct camps, in an era reminiscent of the Cold War.

So far, India has played its cards well and maintained a delicate balance in its relationship with Russia, the USA and the West. Russia still provides 60 to 70% of its defence needs, and now is our largest energy supplier. The time-tested relationship is important to us, but the equation with China could complicate it. Should India-China relations get even more hostile, Russian support may not be as forthcoming as before. Also, on crucial issues like permanent membership of a revamped United Nations Security Council, Russia could well toe the Chinese line. But India is equally important to Russia. Russian doctrines emphasise Russian-Chinese-Indian strategic and economic convergence and cooperation, and the need to maintain strong relations with India. India’s relations with Russia may be put to test, as we tilt to the West, and maintaining our equations with the USA, Russia, the European powers and China will be the major foreign policy challenge in the coming years.

Many Western analysts held the mistaken hope that since Russia was the much junior partner in the relationship, it would soon evaporate in the face of its own contradictions. But they missed a vital point. It is not just about the size of the economy. It is about mutual interdependence and a shared view of the world. Russia is still smarting from the loss of its erstwhile superpower status and seeks to regain its position in the world. China too seeks the same status. The West has consistently denied Russia’s heft and position and their hostility has only served to push it squarely towards China. This closeness between the two of the largest nations in the world, straddling two continents, could form the bedrock of an alliance that challenges the existing economic and strategic order and could reshape global power equations of the coming decades.