Thursday, June 13, 2024

Vladimir Putin meets Xi Jinping: With deepening Russia-China ties, what are the concerns for India?

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Presidents Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping met at the historic Great Hall of the People, seat of power of the Chinese Communist Party, on Thursday (May 16), where a welcome ceremony for Russia’s leader included a guard of honour by China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA).

Calling Xi “my dear friend”, Putin said it is of fundamental importance that relations between Russia and China are “not opportunistic”, and “are not directed against anyone”. Xi said the China-Russia friendship was “everlasting”, and had “become a model for a new type of international relations”. The two leaders later attended a concert to celebrate 75 years of diplomatic ties.

Putin’s two-day visit to China comes when Russia has taken a firm grip on the course of the war in Ukraine. Xi has just returned from a tour of Europe where he met with the President of France, as well as the leaders of Hungary and Serbia, both of whom are friends with Putin.

China, Russia, and the Ukraine War

China and Russia signed a “no-limits” strategic partnership only days before Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, 2022. More than two years later, Russia controls large swathes of Ukrainian territory, and is currently in the midst of a successful push both in the northeastern Kharkiv region as well as in the south of the country.

The Chinese role in the war has been a major concern for the West, led by the United States. This was forcefully flagged by Secretary of State Antony J Blinken and Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen during separate visits to China last month.

Festive offer

Blinken said China was the “top supplier” of dual-use items, which have both civilian and military applications — Russia, he said, “would struggle to sustain its assault on Ukraine without China’s support”. The US believes China is supplying tech that Russia is using to build missiles, tanks, and other battlefield weapons.

Russian imports of machine tools, computer chips, and other dual-use items from China have increased significantly. The sales of Chinese logistics equipment like lorries (to transport troops) and excavators (to dig trenches) to Russia have increased by four to seven times since the war began.

In his talks with both France’s President Emmanuel Macron and EU Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen, Xi pledged that China would not sell arms to Russia, and would control the flow of dual-use goods to its military.

Hosting Putin a week later in Beijing, Xi reaffirmed the friendship between their two countries. He said he had met with Putin “more than 40 times”, and they had stayed in close touch, ensuring sound, steady, and smooth development of the relationship. This visit is Putin’s 19th trip to China since 2000, when he became Russia’s leader, and his first overseas visit since he began a new six-year term that will keep him in power until at least 2030.

The West expects Xi to use his leverage with Putin to end the war. While signing a statement deepening the strategic relationship with Russia, Xi said on Thursday that both sides agreed that a political settlement to the Ukraine crisis was the “right direction”.

Putin, who would want to end the war when the momentum is with him, said he was grateful to China for trying to solve the crisis, and added that he would brief Xi on the situation in Ukraine, where Russian forces were advancing on several fronts.

Sino-Russian relationship

Last year, a White House spokesperson had said that the China-Russia relationship was a “marriage of convenience”, and the American National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan had referred to a “cartoonish notion that these two countries have become unbreakable allies”.

There is a history to the development of Sino-Russian ties, and the US has had a role to play in its evolution.

The relationship between China and the Soviet Union did not begin well. When Chairman Mao Zedong visited Moscow after the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, he was made to wait for weeks for a meeting with Joseph Stalin. Mao is said to have been put in a remote dacha outside the capital where, according to an article in the Smithsonian magazine, “the sole recreational facility was a broken table tennis table”.

During the Cold War, China and the USSR were rivals, competing for control of the global communist movement. Tensions between the countries rose dangerously in the early 1960s, and they fought a brief border war in 1969. The relationship began to improve after the death of Mao in 1976, but remained frosty right until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

In the post Cold War-era, economic relations have formed the “new strategic basis” for Sino-Russian relations. China became Russia’s biggest trading partner, and the largest Asian investor in Russia. China views Russia as a powerhouse of raw material and a valuable market for its consumer goods.

The West’s hostile approach towards Russia after the annexation of Crimea in 2014 brought Moscow closer to Beijing. India has always felt it was the West that pushed Russia into a tighter embrace of China.

Critical concerns for India

For New Delhi, the Russia-China defence axis throws up critical questions.

About 60-70% of Indian defence supplies come from Russia, and New Delhi needs regular and reliable supplies especially at a time when Indian and Chinese soldiers are locked in a standoff at the border for the last four years.

Many western analysts have cautioned India about a scenario in which Russia becomes a “junior partner” of China. At the same time, India would not want the Russian defence industry to suffer as a result of western sanctions — at least in the short-to-medium term.

What would Russia do if war were to break out between India and China? The Soviet Union’s position during the 1962 war was not particularly supportive of India. Moscow did extend its support during the 1971 war — however, this is neither 1962 or 1971, and Vladimir Putin’s Russia is not the old Soviet Union.

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