Feuding Comrades: Why Is India A Much More Adored Ally For Russia Than China?

Russian President Vladimir Putin has said there are no “contradictions” between Russia’s partnership with India and its ties with China.

President Putin also made it clear that no extra-regional powers, including Russia, should play any role in reducing tensions between India and China as “both Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping are responsible leaders”.

These assertions make one thing clear. And that is the negation of the fashionable theory in certain quarters that the growing Sino-Russian relations in recent years mean that Moscow will abandon New Delhi to please Beijing, its “more important” partner.

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All told, not only India and Russia continue to need one another, but Moscow also shares with New Delhi certain historical discomforts over a rising China.

Putin clarified to Indian news agency PTI during a press conference with the international media that India, like any sovereign nation, has the right to choose its foreign policy and thus become a member of the QUAD that China opposes vehemently.

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India’s membership in QUAD does not impact the otherwise strong India-Russian ties.

As Putin said, “We highly appreciate a high level of cooperation with our Indian friends. These relations are strategic”, asserting that “India is Russia’s only partner that they are working together with on elaborating and manufacturing, especially in India, advanced weapon systems and technologies but that is not where our cooperation ends because our cooperation is multifaceted.”

File:Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Vladimir Putin greet each other before the 2017 Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit in Astana, Kazakhstan.jpg - Wikimedia Commons
India PM Narendra Modi and Russian President Vladimir Putin greet each other before the 2017 Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit in Astana, Kazakhstan – Wikimedia Commons

It is true that Russia is increasingly dependent on China for its economy – trade and investments. And the volume is much more, compared with India’s.

Trade between Russia and India amounted to $10.11 billion in 2019–20 and the two countries have invested in each other’s oil and gas sectors. But this is nowhere near Russia-China trade, which hit $110 billion in 2019.

But then, economic partnership with, including the military sales, India is no way less crucial for Russia, particularly when it has facing Western sanctions. Despite India diversifying its military procurements, the fact remains that more than 60 percent of the arms that Indian forces are equipped with are from Russia. India continues to collaborate with Russia in producing arms.

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The two countries are cooperating in the manufacture of the ‘BrahMos’ missile system and licensed production in India of SU-30 aircraft and T-90 tanks. India is buying Russia’s S-400 system.

India-Russia Defense Relations

What is important here to note is that nearly 75 percent of Russian arms that are exported go to both India and China.

One of the important features of the Russian strategic and military blueprint is that Moscow will continue to assign the country’s military-industrial complex the responsibility of ensuring a considerable presence in the world market of high technology Russian products and services.

And, one of the goals of the military-industrial complex is to improve the system of intergovernmental cooperation in the military field. In this scheme of things, both India and China are extremely important, since both buy billions of dollars worth of arms from Russia.

File: India to acquire Russian S-400 Triumf Missile – Wikimedia Commons

In fact, if the history of India-Russian military ties is any indication, though both New Delhi and Beijing have often bought the same Russian systems, India has received more favorable treatment in terms of added value and substance.

Sometimes, Russia has sent weapons to India that are not only the latest but also those which are not even commissioned into the Russian armed forces.

This Russian trust with India is absent in the case of China as it is felt in Russian strategic circles that China, with ex-Soviet Union scientists and engineers working in its defense facilities, is producing weapons by reverse-engineering the Russian products and exporting them in the international market.

Why Is India A Better Ally Than China

Even otherwise, though Moscow advocates a durable and long-term framework of shared interests with both India and China, unlike the Indo-Russian relationship, the Sino-Russian link is often debated among influential Russian policymakers.

Three reasons are particularly noteworthy here.

One, Russia shares a long border with China and a long history of often bitter and complex relations. Besieged with a growing problem of demographic decline, many Russian analysts fear that Siberia and its far-east would soon be overrun by migrant Chinese laborers.

This fear is genuine as anybody familiar with Chinese history will admit that Chinese territorial claims all over Asia often followed its emigrants.

Two, the Russians are not comfortable with the growing Chinese activities in Central Asia, which Moscow always considers to be falling under its sphere of vital interests.

In any case, Russians realize that China’s march to become the second most powerful nation in the world after the United States is going to be at their cost; all told, hitherto Russia was considered to be the number two nation in the world, at least in military and scientific capabilities.

Three, the history of China-Russia relations is not very inspiring for a long-term relationship in the future.

In fact, three times that China had formed an alliance with Russia — during the Qing Dynasty, the Republic of China, and the People’s Republic of China — but none lasted long.

In June of 1896, China and Russia signed the Li-Lobanov Treaty in Moscow, also known as the Sino-Russian Secret Treaty. This was after China lost to Japan in the First Sino-Japanese War in 1894.

The idea was a common defense against Japan. Following its defeat, apart from paying heavy reparations, China had ceded the Liaoning peninsula, Taiwan, and the Penghu (Pescadores) Islands to Japan.

But this alliance was only illusory. In 1898, Russia forced the Qing government to lease Port Arthur. In 1900, following the Boxer Rebellion, Russia sent soldiers to occupy all of Manchuria (Northeast China) and even participated in the attack on Beijing.

The two had earlier quarreled over ownership over the China Western Railway that Russia had constructed in accordance with the Sino-Russian Secret Treaty.

Again on August 14, 1945, the then Chinese Nationalist government and the then Soviet Union signed the Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship and Alliance in their mutual war against Japan.

The goal of the Chinese government led by Chiang Kai-shek at the time was to prevent the Soviet Union from remaining in Mongolia once Japan’s Kwantung Army was defeated.

Furthermore, it hoped that the Soviet Union would support the Nationalist Party in its war against the Chinese Communist Party.

But that did not happen. Moscow interpreted the Treaty differently and ensured the independence of Mongolia and its commercial rights in Manchuria and the joint ownership and operations of the China Eastern Railway.

When Comrades Became Enemies

After the Communist takeover of China, Moscow and Beijing signed the Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship, Alliance, and Mutual Assistance in February of 1950.

File: Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping (2019-06-05) – Wikimedia Commons

According to the Treaty, neither country would enter an alliance against the other, would participate in any activities against the other country, and if either was attacked by Japan, the other would use all its efforts to supply military and other aid. According to the agreement, the Soviet Union would supply China with a loan of $300 million.

Although it was a comprehensive treaty by touching on political, economic, security, diplomatic, and ideological interests, cracks opened up in 10 years and in the 1960s, the two became deadliest enemies to fight a war in 1969.

It is clear from the above examples that every time the alliance between Moscow and Beijing began with many hopes but ended on bad terms. In fact, the Russians have rarely trusted the Chinese.

So much so that in a 2020 opinion poll, over a third of Russians said they would avoid contact with people of Chinese origin or appearance. Similar numbers said they would avoid purchasing Chinese products, explaining why Chinese businesses on Russia’s side of the border are facing dramatic losses.

All told, but for the western sanctions, causing them hardships, average Russians would hardly like Moscow to get closer to Beijing, given their deep-seated cultural differences that still remain, which, incidentally, have intensified in the wake of the Coronavirus pandemic.

That explicates why Russian scholars talk of “vigilant amicability” in Moscow’s relationship with Beijing, which means acting openly, transparently, honestly, but developing and strengthening simultaneously Russia’s position in Siberian and far-eastern federal districts against China’s increasing might and its activities in the border region, including the demographic and migratory designs. They do not want Russia to become a junior partner of China.

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Author and veteran journalist Prakash Nanda has been commenting on Indian politics, foreign policy on strategic affairs for nearly three decades. A former National Fellow of the Indian Council for Historical Research and recipient of the Seoul Peace Prize Scholarship, he is also a Distinguished Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies. He has been a Visiting Professor at Yonsei University (Seoul) and FMSH (Paris). He has also been the Chairman of the Governing Body of leading colleges of the Delhi University. Educated at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, he has undergone professional courses at Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy (Boston) and Seoul National University (Seoul). Apart from writing many monographs and chapters for various books, he has authored books: Prime Minister Modi: Challenges Ahead; Rediscovering Asia: Evolution of India’s Look-East Policy; Rising India: Friends and Foes; Nuclearization of Divided Nations: Pakistan, Koreas and India; Vajpayee’s Foreign Policy: Daring the Irreversible. He has written over 3000 articles and columns in India’s national media and several international dailies and magazines. CONTACT: prakash.nanda@hotmail.com