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Growing concern: Russia-China partnership throws up formidable challenges for India

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By Rajan Kumar

Whenever Russia is shunned and humiliated by the West, it scouts for partners in the East. This time the task is much easier because China, a global power by any reckoning, is encountering identical threats and warnings from Washington. Russia and China have developed a robust partnership in the spheres of military, economy and political cooperation. China supplants the West in every sense barring the cultural space. In cultural terms, Russia always identifies itself as a Western or a Eurasian state, and never an Eastern one.

Russia and China have forged a deep and enduring strategic partnership at the regional and global level. Washington's policies to contain the economic spread of China and military influence of Russia have brought them together. In its recently released White Paper, China accused the US of undermining global and regional stability. In the history of their relationship right since 1949, Russia and China never came as close as they are today. They have reached a level of bonhomie, which even socialist solidarity could not achieve. Andrei Denisov, Russia's ambassador to China, described the relationship as the "best period in the history of their partnership".

President Xi Jinping's visit to Russia in June 2019 underscored the high level of strategic and economic cooperation. The bilateral trade reached a whopping $108 billion, growing more than 25 percent last year. Russia pivoted towards China following a series of economic sanctions imposed by the US since the re-incorporation of Crimea in 2014. Energy is the main item of Russia's export to China, but they have expanded their cooperation in the field of connectivity, space, agriculture, scientific research, and tourism. Russia witnessed high growth in the number of Chinese tourists visiting the country. They have signed agreements to develop the Arctic route for connecting Asia with Europe.

Russia is an active participant in the Belt and Road initiative of China (BRI). They are working towards the integration of the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) with the BRI. Russia is the leading provider of security in Eurasia, while China has become the prime source of investment. Eurasia is the key to China's land connectivity to Europe. Russia still dominates the political and cultural landscape of Central Asia, but China has broken its monopoly over energy. There is a direct pipeline for unhindered supply of Kazakh oil and Turkmen gas to China. Russia signed the most significant gas contract of $400 billion with China in 2014. The dominance of state enterprises in the energy sector in both countries has made the task easier.

The military cooperation between the two countries is expanding to an unprecedented level. Russia is the main supplier of fighter planes and other sophisticated weapons to China, including commitments for S400 ground-to-air missile defense system and SU-35 jets. They regularly participate in joint military exercises. The first joint air patrol over the Sea of Japan in July 2019 raised alarms in Seoul, Tokyo and Washington. Apparently, Russian Tu 95 bombers and Chinese H-6 warplanes entered the airspace of South Korea. Russia denied such charges.

The West considers this partnership as "opportunistic and unnatural" which is bound to crumble – the way it happened in the post-Stalin period. Western analysts magnify fissures and showcase Russia as a "junior partner," in an attempt to downgrade its status and project it as a subordinate player. What is missing in such analyses, however, is the larger and more nuanced understanding of the implications of this relationship on the emerging global order.

The partnership has, direct or indirect, bearing on geopolitical re-balancing, market capitalism, liberalism, and international crises. It has contributed to the erosion of US influence in West Asia, Eurasia and the Asia-Pacific region. China, without the tacit support of Russia, would be cautious in Asia-Pacific or the South China Sea. Similarly, the political and economic engagement of China is vital to Russia's forays in Ukraine, Syria, and Venezuela.

This partnership sneers at the faltering democracies in the West and elsewhere. It would be unfair to link it with the retreat of democracy worldwide, especially when the Western liberalism has produced leaders such as Donald Trump and Boris Johnson. Nonetheless, a large number of countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America look up to China as a model for growth and stability. State capitalism embedded in political authoritarianism is the new norm in many parts. China's efforts to nurture a committed elite in these states foreclose the possibility of political competition and liberalisation. In Russia, liberal democracy has become an anathema, partly because of the futile Western attempts of inciting "Colour Revolutions" in the post-Soviet states. It was hardly surprising that Vladimir Putin, the president of Russia, declared the premature "death of liberalism" in his interview with the Financial Times just before the G-20 meeting last month.

None of the global crises can be resolved without engaging Russia or China in some form. China supports Russian stances in Ukraine, Libya, Syria, Venezuela, and Iran. In return, Russia backs up China in North Korea and Asia-Pacific. The US recognized the significance of this relationship and included China and Russia in the Afghan peace talks.

As for India, this partnership offers some challenges as well as opportunities. New Delhi needs to prepare itself for the inevitability of stronger ties between the two countries in the short term. As the rift between China and the US grows further, this partnership will remain relevant. Also, it will take years before Russia is re-admitted to the cultural hemisphere of the West.

Under these circumstances, an intensive engagement with Russia and China is fundamental to India's interests in Eurasia and Asia-Pacific. Sooner or later, India will have to reconsider its strategy on the BRI, especially when it integrates with the Eurasian Economic Union.

One witnesses some anxiety and unease among Indian analysts regarding the role of Russia in the event of a conflict with China; the Russian supply of weapons to China; and finally, their cooperation with Pakistan. These concerns are genuine but can be addressed by improving ties with China. Russia can play a bridging role in reducing tensions with China as it is the only country which commands high goodwill in both the states. It is believed to have demonstrated such skills in de-escalating the Doklam stand-off in 2017.

Ideally, Russia would like India to come closer to this partnership through the RIC (Russia, India, and China), the SCO (Shanghai Cooperation Organization SCO) and the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa). It also wants India to join the BRI. But given the dynamics of India's national interests, there are limitations to its engagement with China. In the short run, it would be in the interest of India to maintain the status quo, and not be alarmed by this partnership.

(Author is Associate Professor, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi. Views expressed are personal)