Home Uncategorized Modi-Putin Should Consider Something: Balancing China Together

Modi-Putin Should Consider Something: Balancing China Together

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Prime Minister Narendra Modi will soon embark on a trip to the Russian Federation, where he will hold talks with President Vladimir Putin. This will be Modi’s first foreign visit for a bilateral meeting in his third term. While the announcement has already raised eyebrows across the globe, it is emblematic of the fact that India will continue to do a balancing act under Modi 3.0 and reassure Russia of its goodwill and partnership. Meanwhile, Modi will be skipping the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit beginning today in Astana, Kazakhstan, with External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar representing India there instead.

Modi last visited Russia in 2019, when he attended the Eastern Economic Forum and the annual bilateral summit, a process instituted in 2000. The last talks between the two leaders were in December 2021, during Putin’s visit to India. 

Given that this will be the first bilateral summit between India and Russia since the latter began its “special military operations” in Ukraine in February 2022, the Ukraine conflict and trade — which has reached unprecedented levels mainly on account of discounted Russian oil — will obviously be at the top of the agenda. The two countries are also set to upgrade their defence relations with a new agreement that will involve joint deployment of troops, warships, and fighter jets — something India has never done with any other country. An agreement on logistics support is on the cards too. 

Russia-China Friendship Is Deepening, But…

It is widely believed that Modi is skipping the SCO summit to avoid a meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping given the fraught relations between the two neighbours since the Galwan clashes in the summer of 2020. Simultaneously, India in recent times has been alarmed by the deepening ties between Russia and China. No doubt, talks will focus on this aspect too.

The Russia-China partnership has evolved since the Ukraine war began. China was the first country that Putin chose for an official visit after his re-election in March this year. As a bigger neighbouring country with far deeper pockets than India’s, this is natural. Bilateral trade between the two countries stands at over $240 billion. China is Russia’s largest crude importer, while Chinese goods, from automobiles to clothes, have been filling the void left by the flight of Western companies from Russia. The Chinese yuan accounted for 34.5% of Russia’s total export payments over the past two years. China has supplied Russia with dual technology, and the two have also been conducting joint military exercises. In fact, Beijing has been accused by the West of both abetting and benefiting from the Ukraine conflict.

Yet, the Russia-China partnership is not foolproof. There are avenues New Delhi and Moscow can explore in order to balance China’s influence in the Eurasian region.

There Are Gaps To Fill

Perhaps a big indicator of the gaps in the Russia-China relationship is the lack of movement on the Power of Siberia 2 gas pipeline, which Russia is keen to get started to prop up its economy. According to Russian analysts, this was the main reason for Putin’s Beijing visit. Yet, nothing came of it. Rather, industry experts in China have been talking about the non-feasibility of the pipeline.

Putin followed up his visit to China with trips to Uzbekistan, North Korea, and Vietnam. All three destinations are symbolic of larger geopolitical shifts. 

Uzbekistan, part of the post-Soviet space in Central Asia, lies in Russia’s strategic backyard. China’s inroads in the region were restricted to the economic sphere, with Russia retaining its military and strategic influence. This was a key reason for the establishment of the SCO. But Russia’s distraction with Ukraine has upended this arrangement.

For instance, a railway line mooted almost two decades ago but which remains in the pipeline because of Moscow’s reservations, was recently greenlit by China, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan – another close Russian ally in post-Soviet Central Asia. The route will run from Kashgar in China through Kyrgyzstan and will terminate in Uzbekistan’s Andijan province, bypassing Russian territory. Moreover, the Kyrgyz part of the route will be financed by Chinese loans, pushing it deeper into Chinese debt.

For perspective, similar Chinese debt owed by Tajikistan, which houses Russia’s largest foreign military base abroad, has resulted in Tajikistan ceding territory to the Chinese to station their own base there.

Perhaps it was to regain this space that Tashkent became Putin’s second destination upon assuming office again. Most significant were the deals signed for nuclear cooperation, under which Russia would build a small nuclear power plant — Central Asia’s first — and increase gas supplies from Russia to Uzbekistan. Modernisation of the gas transportation system is also part of the deals, signifying long-term plans. 

Russia In China’s Backyard

Putin’s other two visits were to North Korea and Vietnam in East and Southeast Asia, which China considers its strategic backyard.

In North Korea, the two sides signed a defence treaty, diversifying the former’s security partnerships. Thus far, China had been the only country with which North Korea had a defence alliance. China’s response to this agreement has been muted, but analysts say that it’s actually a headache for Beijing as it fears that the pact may attract unnecessary American attention to the region. The deal also has the potential to cause a power imbalance in Northeast Asia.

With Vietnam, China had strained relations till most recently. Yet, while ties have improved at the party level and in the economic sphere, the Vietnamese military is still wary of Beijing and its expansionist policy in the South China Sea, where Vietnam’s Special Economic Zone lies. A slew of agreements were signed between Russia and Vietnam during Putin’s visit, including in the energy sector. The Russian president also expressed his desire to increase cooperation with ASEAN.

More recently, last week, Russia finalised an agreement with another Chinese ally, Cambodia, for cooperation between their ground forces. This was a first in bilateral relations between the two countries.

Putin’s Asia Pivot

Overall, Russia has been pivoting to Asia since at least 2014, when the first sanctions were imposed on it by the West. With his North Korea and Vietnam visits, Putin demonstrated that he has options in the region. And this is something China is not excited about. Beijing sees itself as the natural leader of the global South and is the major power in ASEAN. Russia, it feels, is just a newcomer.

According to Prof. Baladas Ghoshal, former Professor and Chair in Southeast Asian Studies at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, “Southeast Asian countries are more focused on development and economy, for which they depend on China. However, they are not too comfortable with being too close to China.” The recent desire of a number of ASEAN countries such as Malaysia and Thailand to join BRICS stems from this intention of hedging against China and seeking a balance with other powers, like Russia. 

The Sri Lanka Example

This provides a window of opportunity for cooperation between India and Russia in third countries to balance China’s expanding footprint. South Asia, the Indian sphere of influence where China has been making deep inroads, already offers such an example. In April, the Sri Lankan cabinet announced that it was handing over the management of the Chinese-built Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport to India’s Shaurya Aeronautics (Pvt) Ltd. and Russia’s Airports of Regions Management Company. The $209 million airport had been running losses since 2013. Strategically located close to the China-managed Hambantota port, the joint Indo-Russian presence will help counter Chinese influence close to India’s borders.

The two countries are also cooperating in the Roopur nuclear power plant in Bangladesh, where Russia is constructing the power plant while India is assisting with logistics. Another example is the sale of the Brahmos cruise missile system to the Philippines, which is currently engaged in a tussle with China in the South China Sea. The missile was jointly developed by India’s Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) and Russia’s NPOM, and Russian endorsement was needed for its export.

This India-Russia cooperation can be extended to ASEAN and Central Asian countries as well. For instance, India, Vietnam, and Russia can work together in the hydrocarbon sector as ONGC Videsh has a presence in Vietnam. Defence is another area where the two can cooperate. This makes sense because not only are Central Asian countries tied to Russia through the Collective Security Treaty Organisation, but ASEAN members like Vietnam and Indonesia have also traditionally had close defence cooperation with Moscow.

It’s true that India and Russia lack China’s deep pockets. But where China’s calling card is its massive investments and the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), Russia and India can leverage their position through joint efforts towards invigorating trade and investments in Central Asia, the ASEAN region, and even South Asia. It’ll be a win for not just countries in these three regions, but also Russia and India as they counter China’s expansionist policies.  

(Aditi Bhaduri is a journalist and political analyst)

Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author



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