Author : Manoj Joshi

Originally Published 2019-12-20 10:06:47 Published on Dec 20, 2019
Delhi wants to remain an Eurasian power, swinging between East and West according to its priorities. Its military ties with Moscow. The economic importance of Beijing. America as a strategic counterweight – as long as it works.
India’s strategy in the China-Russia-USA triangle

An engaging feature of the current global situation is the rise of China and the transformation of the Sino-Russian relationship from enmity to détente and now entente. In considerable measure the relationship has been shaped by their estrangement with the West in general and the United States in particular.

Where Russian enmity with China had global consequences, so does their close friendship today. Both scenarios have an impact on India, the former historically, and the latter in prospect. Russia has been a long-time friend of India, it not only provided the Indian arms to maintain a formidable military profile, but also provided invaluable political support to India on a variety of regional issues. Transfer of military technology has been an important part of both the old and the new Russian-Chinese relationship. What is different now it the greater depth being developed between the two through their growing economic ties based on cross border trade and Chinese investment in Russia.

India does not, and cannot, view this as a zero-sum game and has sought to engage both China and Russia bilaterally, as well as through a raft of organisations such as the Russia-India-China (RIC) grouping, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) and the Brazil, Russia, India China and South Africa (BRICS) grouping. Not surprisingly, given the relative imbalance of power between them, Russia often sees India as a means of balancing China.

India-Russia relations

India had a remarkably close relationship with Soviet Union. It defied the United States and created a non-aligned bloc of nations to maintain an equidistant posture between the two rivals in the Cold War. The USSR became a major arms supplier to India, even as it backed New Delhi’s regional policy whole heartedly. On the other hand, despite tensions in relation to Pakistan, the United States gave India huge amounts of foreign aid that help modernise its education and helped launch the Green Revolution.

As tensions with China mounted on the border in the late 1950s, the Soviets readily offered to supply India’s needs for supersonic Mig-21 jets, AN-12 transports and Mi-4 helicopters. As the Sino-Soviet rift developed, Russia deepened its arms transfer ties to provide India submarines, corvettes, tanks and artillery and helped India to stave off US-Chinese pressure in the 1971 war with Pakistan that led to the creation of Bangladesh.

Despite India’s decision to seek out western suppliers in 1980, by the time of the collapse of the USSR, India had become almost hugely dependent on the Soviet Union to maintain the kind of force profile it had with Russian Kashin-class destroyers, Kilo-class submarines, T-72 tanks, BMPs, 130mm field guns, MiG series fighters provided on special “friendship prices”.

The Soviet collapse at the end of 1991 hit New Delhi particularly hard. It found it extremely difficult to maintain its forces because of the post-Soviet chaos in its defence industry. Further, the kind of political backing it received from the erstwhile Soviet Union melted away in the face of new realities, which immediately meant American influence in Russian decisions. So, the Russians not only terminated the lease of a nuclear propelled submarine to India, but also cancelled a plan to provide India with technology to make cryogenic engines for its GSLV heavy space launch rocket.

India had little choice to remain with Russia and it did its best to help the country’s military industry to recover by committing itself to the Su-27 programme and continuing its purchases of Russian military equipment. But, beyond arms transfer, the relationship between India and Russia did not go very far. It failed to develop a significant economic component despite many efforts. And in the 2000s, as ties between India and the US grew, India began to look at the Americans as a potential source of weaponry. But despite everything India continued to purchase hardware like fighters, frigates, medium lift helicopters, and as a result even today 70 per cent of its armed forces systems are of Russian origin.

Russia continued to assist India in areas where western countries will not. Its most significant example is the help provided by Russia to build its nuclear propelled submarines, two of which have been launched and provide an SSN on lease. The Russians no longer offer “friendship prices”, the cost for the some of the systems is steep and it is charged in US dollars.

Another significant assistance was provided in the development of the Brahmos supersonic anti-ship and land attack missile. There has been assistance, too, in the form of consultancy for India’s space and missile programmes. But the heft of their relationship is limited by the fact that by 2015-16, India only constituted 1.2 per cent of total Russian trade, while Russia was only 1 per cent of Indian trade. Interestingly, while the Russian export profile to India remains unchanged, dominated as it is by mineral fuels and precious metals, India has been enhancing its exports to Russia so that besides pharmaceuticals, electrical machinery, TV components and equipment and vehicles.


The Russian-Chinese détente took place in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union revolved around the settlement of their border dispute that had brought the two of them to war, was resolved in two tranches in 1994 and 2004. China’s rapid industrial growth made it an ideal partner for Russia which is rich in natural resources like petroleum, gas, wood, non-ferrous metals, fish and seafood, and chemicals. Two events, a quarter century apart, have shaped the current relationship between the two countries, the Chinese decision to crush the protest movement in Tiananmen in 1989 and the Russian occupation of Crimea in 2014. The former led to a comprehensive arms embargo on China by the European Union and the latter resulted in sanctions against Russia by the EU.

The collapse of the Soviet Union coincided with the Chinese efforts to transform their economy. Imbued by the goal of catching up and surpassing the developed West, China came up with a clutch of policies and projects. They were aware that an earlier version of this policy had yielded substantial results when the erstwhile Soviet Union had carried out what John Garver says was “one of the largest transfers of capital equipment in history” in the 1950s that had led to the establishment of entire classes of Chinese industries for machine tools, airplanes, cars, trucks tractors, precision instruments and so on. It was equally impressive in the military field when Soviets transferred technology to make fighters, submarines, tanks, artillery and ballistic missiles.

But the 1990s plan was different, it involved opening up the China to Four Modernisations in agriculture, industry, science and technology and defence. But the Soviet collapse compelled them to look to the west for the inputs into their plans. The policy focused on acquiring, digesting and absorbing and thereafter re-innovating imported technologies and has been so spectacularly successful that China became the world’s leading manufacturing power. Today, it is seeking to aiming to acquire and develop new technologies by itself and hopes to leap frog to the position of becoming a world leader in an array of emerging technology areas and thereby avoid what is called the middle income trap.

Unlike China, Russia was already an upper middle income country in the 1990s. Market reform in the 1990s privatised much of its industry and agriculture. After a period of turmoil, the Russian economy bounced back in the 2000-2223 period following economic reforms. In the subsequent period till 2008, it got a boost from the rise in commodity prices. After a sharp but brief recession following the global financial crisis in 2008, the economy righted itself in 2009 and joined the WTO in 2011 and was actually described as a high-income economy by the World Bank in 2013 and set for a period of steady growth.

However, the Russian annexation of Crimea and its involvement in Ukraine led to the US, EU and some European countries, Canada and Japan imposing sanctions on Russia’s financial, energy and defence sectors. This and the decline in oil prices affected the Russian economy significantly resulting in a financial crisis in the latter part of 2014. Subsequently, finance from China also played a significant role in stabilising the Russian economy especially after the 2008 financial crisis. Chinese exports to Russia are in the main machinery and equipment, clothing, chemical products, fur and fur products, footwear and furniture. Russian investments in China are about $ 1 billion, while those of China in Russia, ten times more. In 2017 Russia’s top export destination was China ($39.1 billion) and its top import origin was China ($43.8 billion).

Closer political ties between Russia and China were presaged by the creation of the Shanghai Five Grouping, a direct outcome of the border agreement between China, Russia and the Soviet successor states of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia and Tajikstan. This led to agreements on military Confidence Building Measures and in 2001, with the participation of Uzbekistan the mechanism took on the role of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation(SCO). The SCO doubled as a security as well as a developmental outfit bringing Russia, China and the Central Asian states closer. It was aimed at reassuring the Central Asian states facing the threat of terrorism, separatism and extremism.

In 2007, the SCO linked up with the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) that had been set up to provide security to the Soviet Union’s successor states. An outfit with a chequered history, the CSTO currently comprises of Russia, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan and has helped various governments to maintain power in the face of domestic protests. To a considerable degree, these measures have been a defensive outcome of NATO expansion in the west and the presence of the United States in Afghanistan, beginning 2001. Subsequently, the two came closer, driven by external circumstances– the western embargo of Moscow in 2014 and the emergence of concerns in the west over the rise of China. Since then, their relationship has progressed to the status of what many say is a quasi alliance. Indeed, in recent times, Putin has been hailing the relationship as an “allied relationship of strategic partnership.”

The China-Russia dynamic has played itself out across the Eurasian landmass as China has steadily moved westwards to incorporate the Central Asian States into its economic embrace. It has, however, been careful not to tread too heavily on Russian toes. It has gone along with the fact that its growing rail traffic with Europe has to bear with changing gauges through the former Soviet Union. It has also deferred to the EEU in striking FTAs with the Central Asian states. Even so, Moscow has quietly conceded Chinese primacy given the manner in which Beijing has succeeded in changing the facts on the ground through its connectivity and investment policies.

Over the years China has developed significant rail links through Eurasia to Europe, and also several pipelines linking Central Asia with China. All this happened even as Russia sought to draw a defensive perimeter through the creation of the Eurasian Economic Union drawing Belarus, Kazakhastan, Armenia and Kyrgyzstan closer together in an integrated single market. While the EEU was aimed at moderating the Chinese pressure on the ex-Soviet space, the reality of China’s economic power has ensured that Beijing has the upper hand in any relationship between the EEU and China.


China and the US had been close to each other since the days of the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan. Tiananmen had set back relations, but the subsequent opening up of China had seen US companies rush into the Chinese market. Following India and Pakistan’s nuclear tests in 1998, the two, both members of the P-5, joined hands to pass strictures against India and Pakistan. However, much to the chagrin of the Chinese, India and the US soon repaired their ties and began an extensive dialogue that eventually led to the Indo-US nuclear deal in 2005.

Sino-Indian relations, too, took a positive track when, following the visit of Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee to Beijing in 2003, the two sides agreed to upgrade their ties and make a special effort to resolve their border issue. By 2005 the two sides had signed a far-reaching agreement on the Political Parameters and Agreed Guidelines for a Border Settlement. This more-or-less spelt out that they could resolve their border on an “as is/where is” basis.

However, the Indo-US nuclear deal took China aback since it signalled a strategic shift towards India by the United States, something that Beijing felt was not in its interest. This created a triangular dynamic that persists till this day. India and China have not resolved their border dispute, at the same time, New Delhi has steadily developed important military ties to the US, without quite becoming an American ally or endorsing Washington’s Indo-Pacific formulations.

Russia-India-China (RIC)

Russia-India-China group emerged in the late 1990s encouraged by the then Russian Prime Minister (1998-1999) Yevgeny Primakov aimed at promoting a multipolar grouping to offset US power in Eurasia. A major motive was to move away from the craven pro-American Yeltsin era towards re-establishing strong ties with New Delhi. Its global iteration, by including Brazil and South Africa was the BRICS. Though the grouping functioned largely as an informal coordination mechanism at the official and ministerial level, in recent years it has also added an apex level summit where the leaders of the three countries meet, usually at the sidelines of other multilateral gatherings such as the G-20 or the SCO.

In December 2018 the RIC leaders met in a summit for the first time in 12 year at the G-20 summit in Buenos Aires. In June 2019, Prime Minister Modi chaired the Osaka informal summit of the RIC and it was clear from his remarks and those of his officials, that India sees value in collaborating with Russia and China on not just the issues relating to promoting free trade and opposing protectionism, but also counter-terrorism and climate change.

At first sight the RIC looks like an unlikely grouping, given the rivalry between India and China. But what seems to be binding the grouping is the strong relationship that Russia and China have developed on one hand, and on the other, the time-tested close ties between India and Russia. In a sense, then, Moscow serves as a bridge of sorts between New Delhi and Moscow, on the other hand, it also helps them to offset China’s gravitational pull.

So, the Indian commitment to the RIC has multiple layers. First, it is part of a larger commitment to stabilising its security environment, something that cannot be done minus these three principal powers. Second, it is a means of demonstrating a cooperative posture towards China which has the capacity of negatively affect Indian interests. Third, by participating in the grouping India is able to secure its valuable strategic relationship with Russia which would, otherwise, drift towards China by default. Fourth, it enables India to project itself as a Eurasian and an Indo-Pacific power and as such have equities in groupings like the Quad and the SCO.

Recent trends

We know that the current ties are an outcome of the Russia-Europe and China-US estrangement. But things can change, as they have in the past 60 years. Russia and China have been friends at one time enemies at another, likewise, the US/Europe and Russia. India is the only one that has remained largely with the same perspective that it had in the 1950s. Though the US has listed Russia as being at par with China as its strategic competitor, the reality is that only China is competing and it is in US interests to keep Russia and China apart.

Since his election, President Volodomyr Zelenskiy has prioritized the restoration of normalcy between Ukraine and Russia. The exchange of prisoners between Russia and Ukraine in September 2019, and the more recent Russian decision to return 3 Ukrainian ships they had seized, all point to a thaw in their ties. In turn, there are signs that EU’s principal players, France and Germany, may be tiring with their conflict with Russia. During the August 2019 G 7 Summit, President Macron announced that he would work to rebuild ties with Russia, even as President Trump declared that he would invite Russia to the next G7 summit that would be hosted by the US.

It is no coincidence that all this is happening at a time when the EU’s most hawkishly anti-Russian country, UK, is leaving the grouping. In September France held 2+2 talks with Russia in Moscow, there have been several high-level German visits to Russia, including that of Chancellor Merkel. As a result of intense diplomacy, President Macron announced that Russia, Germany, France and Ukraine would resume their “Normandy format” meeting to resolve the eastern Ukraine issue. The Americans have also signaled their interest in joining these talks.

Moscow’s economy remains oriented toward Europe to which it is a major energy supplier. The EU is its largest trading partner and source of FDI. It is in its own interest to make up with Europe, rather than accept a position of a junior partner to China. All sides need to step back and take a look at their own conduct. The NATO’s eastward expansion was viewed legitimately as threatening by Russia. Likewise, the EU was not happy with Russia’s conduct in Ukraine and the web of links Moscow has developed with right-wing forces in Europe.

India, too, has been trying to shore up its ties with Russia. This was manifested by the first informal summit held between India and Russia in 2018 which signaled India’s intention to double down on its arms purchase relationship with Russia. Subsequently, India signed up to deals worth $ 15 billion with Russia, despite the threat of American sanctions. Among these were the S-400 missile system. Both sides have underscored the need to focus on the weak non-defence economic relationship. A strategic and economic dialogue was established to identify problem areas and set them right. An important aspect of this was Russia’s invitation to India to invest in the Russian Far East (RFE), an issue that was followed by the decision to hold the 2019 annual bilateral summit in Vladivostok in September 4-5 where Prime Minister Modi was chief guest at the 5th Eastern Economic Forum (EEF).

Despite the poor experience in relation to trade historically, there has been a distinct uptick of Indian interest in the RFE. Besides delegations of business associations, chief ministers of four Indian states were part of a delegation led by commerce and industry minister to the area and identified diamond cutting, petrochemicals, wood processing and tourism as potential areas of interest. Another significant development has been discussions on developing a maritime corridor between Chennai and Vladivostok. There is pressure for the two sides to sign a trade agreement between the EEU and India.

Energy remains a key are of cooperation between the two countries, a sector that has seen both investments in both upstream and downstream sectors in recent years. Russia has become a new source of LNG for India. The one area which has shown promise is bilateral investment with the two sides having achieved the $ 30 billion target set for 2025, well ahead of schedule. Of course, the bulk of the investments have been in the energy sector. India is clearly seeking to work on a longer range strategy of offsetting Chinese power in its own backyard as it were. By itself it lacks the resources to be a significant player in Northeast Asia. But along with Japan and Korea, it can be a player who the Russians will welcome because it helps them to prevent putting all their eggs in the Chinese basket.

There are still basic questions that need to be answered : We all know why India needs Russia. But just what place does India have in Russia’s global strategy ? Is it merely a hedge against US and China or something more ?

For reasons of its own, India has felt the need to maintain its strategic autonomy and links with Russia and China. Russia is a special case here. India’s formal trade with it is not significant but it remains vital for India’s defence posture. Leave alone the present, in the immediate future, India may have to seek Russian help to build nuclear attack submarines and hypersonic vehicles since, notwithstanding its close ties with the US, Washington is unlikely to provide them. Not having such systems will seriously imbalance its military in relation to China. For its part, too, Russia cannot be oblivious to the fact that China is both strategic competitor and friend. Even while deferring to Russia in the Central Asian connection, Beijing is building connectivity linkages to Europe that bypass its current Russian connection. Its relationship to Central Asia is undermining the Russian influence in the region.

There is, of course, a certain logic in the Russia-China nexus, in view of the fact that both of them have been designated by the US as revisionist powers seeking to displace it from the Indo-Pacific. Even though India does not share the US or Japanese concepts of the Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP), it is a member of the Quadrilateral or Quad group comprising of the US, Australia, Japan and India which is aimed at countering China.

An engaging feature of India participating in the RIC at the sidelines of the G-20 in Buenos Aires in 2018 was that it also joined the leaders of Japan, US in what is now called the JAI or Japan-America-India trilateral. This was repeated at the June 2019 G 20 summit at Osaka where the Indian Prime Minister participated in both the RIC and the JAI summits as well.

By participating simultaneously in the JAI, Quad, RIC, the SCO and BRICS, India is signalling that it has its own views of these groupings and the Indo-Pacific concept. And in essence, its policy is pursuing the idea that a multipolar world is the one that best suits its interests.

Modi has understood the value of India being a swing power in the Asia-Pacific region. While it needs the US to balance the rising Chinese power, it realises that joining the American camp formally would reduce India’s value. On the other hand, by cooperating with China on issues and maintaining its military ties with Russia, it is able to enhance its bargaining power with the US and still maintain a semblance of being a Eurasian power as well.

This commentary originally appeared in Limes Rivista Italiana Di Geopolitica.

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Manoj Joshi

Manoj Joshi

Manoj Joshi is a Distinguished Fellow at the ORF. He has been a journalist specialising on national and international politics and is a commentator and ...

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