File photo | PM Narendra Modi, China President Xi Jinping, Russian President Vladimir Putin at 2016 G20 Summit | Flickr
File photo | PM Narendra Modi, China President Xi Jinping, Russian President Vladimir Putin | Flickr
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As the India-China tussle raged in the Himalayas through this year, both sides scampered to stockpile missile systems and aircraft. But while Russia confirmed that it was on track to deliver five squadrons of S-400 Triumpf air defence systems to India, it didn’t give the same promise to China. Moscow decided to suspend the supply of the S-400s to China.

The S-400 is a modern surface-to-air missile defence system capable of intercepting and destroying enemy missiles and aircraft up to a range of 400 km.

In 2018, despite the US’ threat of sanctions, India correctly chose Russia’s S-400 over the American Patriot Advanced Capability (PAC-3) and THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) missiles. A predictably outrageous outburst from President Donald Trump against India’s decision followed. This year, however, under a slew of arms deals, was buried a piece of news that raised a few eyebrows. The S-400s promised by Russia to China did not arrive. Rumours thrived that Covid-19 may have been the reason for delay. But it looks like Moscow took a deliberate stand.

In February 2020, Valery Mitko, one of Russia’s leading Arctic scientists, was arrested on charges of allegedly passing secrets on submarine-detecting technology to China. Later, in June, after investigations, a court in Russia extended his house arrest. Russian scientists have been under a cloud because of links to China in the last couple of years and the Mitko incident aggravated a growing suspicion that hangs over a collaboration of convenience between China and Russia. A month after the court’s decision on Mitko, Russia chose to suspend the supply of missiles to China.


Also read: Modi’s message to China at virtual SCO summit — respect territorial integrity


China-Russia rivalry

In Asia, China finds itself in an unfriendly neighbourhood of littoral states on the South China Sea, made worse with the US entering the Indo-Pacific with its allies. The talk of revival of Quad involving the US, Japan, India and Australia is an example. Given its isolated status, a stable relationship with Russia has assumed critical importance for China. A suspicious China, however, senses that its dependence on Russian weapons technology makes it vulnerable. Which might have led to espionage on Russia and probably the Mitko case. Moscow, on the other hand, needs Chinese investments to develop ports and infrastructure in the Arctic region and yet fears that Beijing might cut into its influence in the defence industry and Central Asia.

In the early 1990s, the collapse of the Soviet Union coincided with the rise of China. As the US consolidated its sole superpower status, Beijing and Moscow came together to challenge the American hegemony. Russian interests, though, were restricted to Central Asia and the Middle East – given that the nature of military posturing in the region suited the typically intrusive Russian playbook. Their interests in East Asia, dominated by China, remained mostly marginal. However, deteriorating relations in the neighbourhood around South China Sea and South Asia might see an interested Russian arms industry tiptoeing in. As a lurking rivalry lines its collaboration with China, Russia has quietly increased its stakes of negotiation in East Asia.

Instead of its archetypal politico-military outreach that could upset China, Russia has used a soft-power route of trade to strengthen its rapport with Japan and South Korea. In 2017, Japan and South Korea comprised 7 per cent per cent of Russian exports (versus 11 per cent to China).

According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), Russia has substantially increased its supply of arms to Southeast Asia in this decade. Former PM Dmitry Medvedev used multilateral platforms like ASEAN to meet leaders from Laos, Thailand and Cambodia last year. Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte called Vladimir Putin “my favourite hero”. And to authoritarian regimes such as Cambodia, Russia is a less demanding presence than the West.


Also read: Russia to deliver S-400 by 2021-end, but will supply missiles and bombs amid LAC tensions


The only go-between now

An ambitious China, under Xi Jinping, has asserted itself in geographies outside East Asia. Any such push towards Central Asia and the Middle East worries Russia, which would like to retain a stronger East Asian card. That explains Russia’s relations with countries in East Asia, where China has new enemies. That also explains why Russia is likely to keep India on its side. On the US front, Joe Biden’s new government could reopen past differences with Russia, including on Ukraine and Belarus. Moscow’s silence on Biden’s election win is a pointer, just as Beijing’s silence indicates the anticipation of a steady, hard-nosed American line.

Russia and China have come a long way in their historical relationship and, today, share what Parag Khanna refers to as “an axis of convenience than a real alliance”. Fifty years ago, Chinese patrols deceived a Soviet outpost at an island off the River Ussuri. The Soviets retaliated, obliterating an entire Chinese military brigade. The beneficiaries then were the Americans, who believed that an enemy’s enemy was their friend, and sided with the Chinese. Half a century later, while the Russians are suspicious that a now powerful China might deceive them again, the latter needs them against America and its allies. Vasily Kashin of the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Far Eastern Studies says, “China can ill-afford to alienate a neighbour that’s an important military and resource power in its own right”.

Announcing itself as an active mediator between India and China is not quite Russia’s style, but it has never shied away from hosting peace summits (Tashkent in 1965 was an example). In September this year, the foreign ministers of India and China met in Moscow and agreed that military commanders of the two countries needed to continue the dialogue. Russia is aware that it can claim greater relevance in the region by being the go-between, since it is the only power acceptable to the two warring neighbours. In a fragmented and fractious region of Asia, a keen Russian hand is set to play a key role.

The author is a former Army officer and author of Watershed 1967: India’s Forgotten Victory over China. Views are personal.

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4 COMMENTS

  1. Nature Truth; China needs to stop preaching and pretending that it is the Center of the World with its One Belt One Road crap and the arrogance that goes along with this assumption. I suggest that it is about time China starts looking at itself as an equal among nations or else it will be in a worst corner than India in the near future. Underestimating India, US, Russia, and others would be China’s biggest mistake when it comes to staying important in this ever-shifting global race for political, economic and military might. If China is that strong as it claims, let us see it take away Taiwan. It couldn’t even handle a small country like Japan in WWII. It might lose Tibet soon too. China’s ruthless regime has already lost its standing in the World due to its reckless evil design of Covid-19 in Wuhan labs, mistreatment of Muslim Uighers and others, stealing US, Russian, Indian, and other state secrets, fraudulent development loans to other countries under One Belt One Road, and copying everything that any country has. Hope these copies work when it comes to the real war theater. My counter advice to China would be to stop preaching to others, stay humble, stop arrogance, treat others as equals by not underestimating them or China will find out its irrelevance in the World. India has faced many expansionist, conqueres alike from Alexander, Mongols, mughals, persians, afghans, the British and so on. They ended up nowhere and their irrelevance is obvious. If China feels the urge to be the next, let it be, it will be irrelevant as soon as it arrives.

  2. Its surprise The Print will allow such fake India propaganda article to be published.

    Russia had been openly pushing China to buy more of its S400. When PLA only wanted just 1 set to review, Russia insisted at least one squadron is minimum order.

    After making Russia 1st foreign delivery to China, Chinese didn’t place anymore order as it has own indigenous SAM program, like HQ9~15.

    It has long developed HQ9, a S300 variant, which even beat S300 PMU & US Patriots in Turkey last tender.

    Whereas India has been pushing Russia hard to deliver S400, esp after Ladakh standoff. But Russia rather deliver to Turkey than India is a slapped on India face, in protest of India alliance with US to threaten central Asia security.

    Russia has elevated China relationship to highest, as it relied on China solely to survive from USNato multi fronts attack & sanction. Jp & SK are part of USNato to join threaten Russia. Putin perceived India will be next to backstab Russia, so he started to close up with Pakistan’s military wargaming as warning to India.

    The trade data given by this bogus writer is faked. Here’s Russia 2019 Top trade partners, in millions USD. Sk & Jp combined trade is less than half of ever growing China trade. India is nowhere to be seen with its negligible total $300Bils export, smaller than even tiny Singapore.

    China 56,791.6
    Netherlands 44,789
    Germany 28,049.5
    Turkey 21,063.3
    Belarus 20,545
    Republic of Korea 16,357.3
    Italy 14,342
    Kazakhstan 14,050.8
    United Kingdom 13,260.5
    United States 13,049
    Poland 12,448.7
    Japan 11,353
    Finland 10,080.7

    Over ambitious India under wannabe Modi & west admirer Jashanka have put India into dead corner to alliance with US-QUAD to wish destroy China, dreaming to replace China as No.1 mfg hub & superpower.

    Now it will not just face two formidable enemies China & Pak, but also a suspicious Russia and entire weary Asia, esp Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Maldives, Myanmar ..who are victims of US-India past aggression, to close up further with China to resist the new evil axis.

    India has digged its own grave by alliance with US signing BECA, forgoing its own security and become canon fodder to fight China to last Indian. This Ladakh coldest winter in 60yrs will be its first bitter pill.

    • CCP devotee detected.
      Not sure of this posts’ references, would like to know more. Can Shekhar Gupta declutter?

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