Monday, July 28, 2014

The Strategic Consequences of Russi-Chini Bhai Bhai

The continuing tragedy of the MH-17 shoot-down shows no sign of abating.  But there are deeper strategic consequences too of pushing Russia too hard, forcing it into Beijing's hands.  The point has been made before: Dr. C. Raja Mohan had an essay in the Indian Express in the context of Prime Minister Modi at the BRICS summit.  In a slightly different context in the National Interest, Dimitry K. Simes made a similar point but castigating President Obama's policies.

I wrote in the Economic Times that this might have direct consequences for India.  The essay is reproduced in full below

Sino-Russian Bonhomie Brewing; India Should Be Wary

The tragic shooting down of the Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 over Ukraine is likely to lead to further American pressure on Russian President Vladimir Putin. The increasing US-Russia antagonism will have consequences and they will undoubtedly impact India.

There is enough blame to go around for the slow escalation of the Ukraine crisis. Putin's attempt to control Russia's so-called "near abroad" and prevent the expansion of Western influence towards the Russian border has been one element. This is an objective that Russia has pushed with little finesse. The reckless support for the rebels in eastern Ukraine, including the supply of heavy arms and equipment and Russian military forces, was no doubt the immediate cause of the tragic shooting down of the Malaysian airliner (even if it was unintended).

But the Western strategy towards the crisis also makes little sense. West European powers, in particular,
encouraged Ukraine's assertiveness without having the means or even the willingness to support Kiev with anything more powerful than rhetoric about democracy.

Washington's strategy is equally mystifying. As the dominant power, but a declining one, its primary strategic objective should have been to ensure the next two strongest powers do not make common cause. This should have been easy as Russia has had misgivings about China in any case, which partly had to do with  their troubled Cold War history but also with Moscow's natural concern about a fast-rising neighbour. But the US appears to have gone out of its way to drive Russia towards China. As a result, Moscow is increasingly coordinating its global policies with Beijing and moving to shore up cooperation in many areas, most critically in military technology.

Common Enemy

These two countries, in any case, had concerns about American domination, setting up mechanisms for
coordinating strategic policy such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. Even BRICS and the smaller Russia-India-China forum were informed by nebulous ideas of anti-hegemonism whose primary target was the US. But so far, these have not amounted to anything more than vacuous talk shops because Russia and China have worried about each other at least as much as they have about the US. But American pressure on Russia is helping Moscow overcome any misgivings it might have about its eastern neighbour.

The practical consequences of this shift are already beginning to emerge. Russia recently signed a $400-billion gas deal with China, a deal that was under negotiations for over a decade, but one that was suddenly concluded at the height of the Ukraine crisis.

Russia is also likely to supply advanced military equipment to China, overturning an informal agreement with India not to supply more advanced equipment to China than what it was supplying to India. India depends on Russia not just for weapons but also diplomatic support.

Moscow has strongly supported the Indian application to join the various technology control regimes that includes the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), the Australia Group and the Missile Technology Control Regime, groups that are important to New Delhi because they signal India's acceptance as a legitimate
nuclear power but groups from which China has worked to exclude India. Russia has also championed India's inclusion in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and supported India's stand on Kashmir.

But such support may not be as forthcoming, especially on issues that matter to China such as UN Security Council expansion or India's NSG membership application. From Moscow's perspective, it might be more prudent to support China rather than India given that the former would be more useful to Russia.

Slim Chance

India needs to pay attention to this West-induced Sino-Russian strategic marriage even though it isn't clear that it has many options in the matter. It is beyond New Delhi's capacity to ameliorate the rising tensions between Washington and Moscow, though there's little harm in trying.

Join the club

Alternatively, India can choose to join Russia and China as they firm up their partnership against the US. But this will be equally quixotic because China, not the US, remains India's primary strategic concern. India's problems with China include not only the unresolved border dispute, but also China's obstructionism with regard to any larger role that India wants to play in global affairs, especially in bodies like the NSG or the UN Security Council.

Not recognising these changing dynamics could increase Indian vulnerability. In 1962, India's policy on the border crisis was partly based on the assumption that Moscow would support India, which it mostly did. Sadly, the border crisis coincided with the Cuban missile crisis in which Moscow needed Chinese support, thus negating for a crucial few weeks Soviet support for India. India was caught unawares and paid a heavy price. It should not happen again.

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