OPED By Major General (Dr) Ashok Kumar (Retd.)
With no formal announcement made after the conclusion of the 18th round of Corps Commander Level (CCL) meeting between India and China in the Chushul–Maldo area on April 23, 2023, all eyes were set on the bilateral meeting of defense ministers of India and China before the Shangai Cooperation Organization (SCO) meeting in New Delhi last week.
There were high hopes that some breakthrough may occur on the Line of Actual Control standoff in eastern Ladakh between India and China. The hopes were based on the sudden withdrawal of China from the Gogra-Hot Spring area (PP-15) on September 2022 in the run-up to the SCO summit in Samarkand, Uzbekistan.
Nothing much progressed during this bilateral meeting between the defense ministers of India and China except that both countries hardened their respective stands.
But one strange thing happened during the SCO defense ministers’ meeting on April 28 and was unrelated to an issue between India and China. This was the talk delivered by the Defense Minister of Russia, Sergei Shoigu, who used this platform of SCO meeting to lash at the USA and other Western countries.
What was more strange and surprising was that the Russian Defense Minister targeted the QUAD grouping, wherein he targeted not only the US but all members of the QUAD, including India.
Is this overture of Russia towards India incidental, or is there a strategic shift in the Russian stance in which it is now openly leaning towards China compared to India? This issue needs to be deliberated if there is a need for India as well to correct its national strategy.
China initially advocated a multi-polar world when there were two poles in the world, the US and the other Russia. With this facade, China was pursuing its expansionist agenda and debt-trap diplomacy worldwide, not to become the third pole in addition to the US and Russia. It was primarily working towards a construct wherein it could become the singular pole in the world, leaving behind not only Russia but also the US.
Before it could fully achieve its goal, the Trump administration realized this and started initiating necessary measures to checkmate China. The same stance was further advanced by the current Biden administration, wherein it was considered necessary to checkmate China in the larger interest of humanity and the world.
Having suffered the loss of face from Afghanistan withdrawal, the US renewed its focus on Indo-Pacific to contain China. The US made special efforts to arm and empower Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, Australia, and other stakeholders of the Indo-Pacific.
QUAD was also energized to include the US, Japan, Australia, and India to ensure the international rule-based world order in Indo-Pacific, besides containing China. India’s interests also aligned with this approach due to its stakes in the Indo-Pacific and the need to contain China due to large border disputes.
China has disregarded all bilateral agreements with India and transgressed at multiple locations across the LAC in eastern Ladakh. It was obvious that India would strengthen its defense forces, wherein it purchased five units of the S-400 missile defense system from Russia.
The US has debated a special CAATSA waiver for India, considering New Delhi’s argument that this purchase is essential for the country’s security.
In the meantime, China was playing bigger games. It realized it could not stand effectively against the US on its own, and its priority plan to integrate Taiwan and its plan of emerging on top of the world order may be jeopardized. Therefore, it entered a ‘no limit’ friendship with Russia, declared publicly during the Beijing Olympics in February 2022 before Russia’s Ukraine offensive launched.
As the conflict progressed between Russia and Ukraine, the US and the entire Western world sided with Ukraine, and the same continued. With this, the relationship between Russia and China has been intensifying to a level wherein these two countries have started supporting each other beyond issue-based support.
This approach was visible when the Russian Defense Minister spoke from the platform of the SCO meet in New Delhi, wherein he lashed at India, one of its most trusted friends. India has not only been Russia’s friend earlier but has been standing with Russia when the majority of the countries in the world are against it.
India has been purchasing Russian oil despite sanctions strengthening its economy, which is under severe stress due to the US-led international sanctions. India has been walking a tightrope to maintain the balance between the US and Russia, which is a great challenge for its diplomatic fraternity.
Both the US and Russia have been working as per their national interests as far as India is concerned, but the US appears more accommodative as it knows that China cannot be checkmated without the support of India.
India has maintained its relationship with Russia because it has been a trusted partner and helped India on multiple occasions, including in 1971, and because India has nearly 60 percent of its weapons imported from Russia.
When there has been an ongoing standoff between India and China on the LAC for the last three years, India must focus on its overall preparedness, including the indigenization of defense equipment.
Since the real indigenization of the defense equipment will take time, a supply of Russian equipment, ammunition, and spare parts must be available, but the same has almost dried down. The contracted supply of the S-400 missile defense system and other support from Russia has been jeopardized due to capacity constraints emerging from the year-long Russia-Ukraine war.
This ‘no limit’ friendship between Russia-China, China being the primary Indian adversary with a three-year standoff, and Russia being India’s main defense equipment supplier, poses a new level of strategic challenge woven in complexity between these three countries.
There is no assurance that Russia will restore its support to India if the conflict continues with China. India needs to take note of this apparently changing Russian stance and its manipulation by China.
New options must be considered and implemented to ensure our territorial integrity.
- Major General (Dr) Ashok Kumar, VSM, (Retd), is a 1999 Kargil war veteran, visiting fellow of the New Delhi-based Centre for Land Warfare Studies (CLAWS), and defense & strategic analyst with a particular focus on China. He tweets @ChanakyaOracle. VIEWS PERSONAL OF THE AUTHOR
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