The rapidly expanding Russia-China military relations will significantly impact India. The militaries of the two countries not only exercise together regularly, especially in the maritime domain, but are also inviting other countries to it.
Russia and China started holding joint naval drills in 2012. And it’s not just limited to the Pacific Ocean, they are doing so in other seas too. The two navies conducted a joint navy drill for the first time in the Mediterranean Sea in 2015. They also exercised for the first time in the Baltic Sea in 2017. In September 2018, Russia and China conducted their largest joint military exercise in eastern Siberia. Around 3 lakh Russian troops, 36,000 tanks, armoured vehicles and other military vehicles were accompanied by 3,200 Chinese troops armed with 900 tanks.
Russia and China conducted a joint strategic bomber patrol in July 2019, which was a significant indicator of how closely the Russian and Chinese militaries are cooperating. As a progression of their interoperability, the two countries are expected to share force multiplier assets like refuelers, early warning systems and intelligence.
The two militaries are not only exercising bilaterally but also multilaterally, and importantly for India, in the Indian Ocean. In November 2019, Russian and Chinese navies conducted exercises with the South African Navy off Cape Town with the Chinese authorities saying that the focus of the exercise was on “the maritime economy, interoperability and mending relations between participating navies”. In the last days of December 2019, Russia and China conducted their first joint naval drill with Iran in the Gulf of Oman with warships docking in Chabahar, a port that India is developing and one that has strategic significance for it. China now maintains a regular naval presence in the Indian Ocean and has operationalised a base in Djibouti, an east African country. The Indian Navy says that the Chinese Navy maintains 7-8 warships in the Indian Ocean at any given point of time.
A strategic partnership
Not only are Russia and China exercising and increasing their cooperation and interoperability, they are also sending a message to the world about their partnership that they say is to maintain strategic stability in the world.
Russia is India’s strategic partner and also its largest weapons supplier with over 60 per cent of Indian weaponry being of Russian origin. Although India has expanded its sources in the last decade or so, Moscow continues to maintain a grip on Indian weapons imports.
But Russia also supplies China with military equipment that the Asian giant has not been able to produce domestically. Russia has supplied the advanced Su-35 fighter jets to China and is pushing China to buy more. It is also nudging China to buy its stealth Su-57 fighter jets, although China has its own stealth fighter, the J-20, and it is also developing another stealth fighter, the FC-31. Russia also supplies China with jet engines because China continues to struggle in developing reliable jet engines of its own.
Russia has supplied China with the S-400 air defence system for which even India has placed an order for, the deliveries of which are expected to start later this year. But even before the systems are exported to India, China has already fielded the S-400 in the Shaheen VIII exercise it conducted with Pakistan in August 2019. The Pakistani and the Chinese air force units undertook suppression of enemy air defence and destruction of enemy air defence missions. This would have given the Pakistanis significant insight into the air defence system India will deploy on its western borders.
Russia is also helping China develop advanced ballistic missile warning systems. President Vladimir Putin while announcing the decision to help China said, “this is a very serious thing that will radically enhance China’s defence capability”. While China does have ballistic missile defence systems as well as anti-satellite systems, Russia assisting China with advanced missile warning system to counter the US will impact India’s deterrence against China that is entirely ballistic missile-based.
Convergence and divergence
Russia and China are deepening their political, diplomatic, economic and military ties to counter threats from the US. Both countries have been called revisionist powers and declared as primary challengers by the US in its national security strategy. The two countries collaborate at the UN and other forums on issues of regional and global importance.
India, on the other hand, has been strengthening ties with the US and conducts many joint military exercises, especially in the maritime domain. India also has developed close military ties with Japan and Australia, both US allies. India uses these ties as a balance to counter the rising Chinese military might that has undertaken the largest naval modernisation in history, churning out warships in large numbers.
While India has a convergence of interests with the US especially on China, it has divergence with Russia over it. Russia opposes India’s position on the Indo-Pacific concept. The Russian position deviates from India’s stand even on Afghanistan. Russia is increasingly getting closer to the Chinese orbit in international affairs. Its dependence on China for economic and strategic reasons will likely make it susceptible to Chinese pressure on issues that concern India. Being the largest weapons supplier of India and with a deep hold in Indian systems, Russia has the potential to create challenges for the Indian security establishment. India has nothing against Russia and continues to share ‘privileged’ relations with it. But Russia’s budding relations with China, their rivalry with the US and the two nations collaborating with other countries like Iran and Pakistan — China’s closest ally — presents diplomatic and military challenges for India.
Pakistan: The added threat
This brings us to Russia-Pakistan relations that have only grown in the last few years. There is convergence between Russia and Pakistan along with China over Afghanistan. In fact, Pakistan has participated in meetings about Afghanistan in Moscow that India was not a part of. The opening this provided led to military engagement between Russia and Pakistan. They started a joint military exercise named ‘Druzhba’ or friendship. The first edition of this exercise in 2016 was slated to be held in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, in complete insensitivity towards India on the part of Russia. It was only after India expressed its displeasure was the exercise shifted out.
Russia is now also supplying weapons systems to Pakistan. The USSR and then Russia did not sell weapons to Pakistan before the turn of the 20th century. But in 2015, Russia decided to supply Mi-35 attack helicopters to Pakistan. Russian engines power the Pakistani JF-17 fighter jets. There have been speculative reports on Pakistan buying advanced Russian fighter jets the Su-35, Pantsir air defence system and the T-90 tanks. This hasn’t been confirmed as yet, but India will oppose it if this is indeed true. The deal will also be limited by the fact that Pakistan currently has limited resources to fund any such purchase.
There is a possibility of a China-led security cooperation with Russia, Pakistan and Iran. This will contest crucial sea lanes that supply much of India’s oil and carry India’s trade. While China and Pakistan are India’s adversaries and much of India’s geopolitical alignment is to counter China, the presence of Russia and Iran — two of India’s friends — will test the country’s diplomatic and military postures.
The author is editor of Defence Forum India. He is a commentator on defence and strategic affairs. He tweets @YusufDFI. Views are personal.