By Divya Kumar Soti*
Chinese President Xi Jinping recently made an offer of alliance to Russia saying: “The world is on the verge of a radical change. We see how the European Union is gradually collapsing, as is the US economy — it is all over for the New World Order. So, it will never again be as it was before… in 10 years we will have a new world order in which the key will be the union of China and Russia.”
Xi’s July 1, 2016 statement on the 95th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party came within a few days of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to Beijing. And the fact that Xi decided to make this offer at the CPC meeting spoke volumes about his sincerity.
Xi was not just doing an exercise in futurology — he went further to articulate the possibility of a concrete military alliance between the two countries: “We are now seeing aggressive actions on the part of the United States, regarding both Russia and China. I believe that Russia and China could create an alliance towards which NATO will be powerless and which will put an end to the imperialist desires of the West.”
While Russia did not immediately react to the Chinese proposal, President Putin — on the sidelines of the G-20 summit held in September at China’s Hanzhou — supported China’s rejection of the Hague Arbitration Court’s Ruling on the South China Sea. Putin called it a “purely legal position”.
In September itself, China and Russia held 8-day-long joint naval drills in the South China Sea which involved “island defence and offence exercises”. China and Russia have been holding such naval drills for a couple of years but this year, the exercises were shifted to South China Sea with Kremlin putting its diplomatic weight behind the Chinese stand against the Hague Arbitration Court’s South China Sea ruling.
After the latest nuclear test by North Korea, South Korea has agreed to deploy the US Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-missile system angering China which sees the deployment as aimed at altering the strategic balance in the region.
Immediately after this announcement, China’s state-run People’s Daily warned that the US and South Korea will have to pay “a heavy price” for this deployment and promised a “counter-attack”. The Americans had started feasibility studies for deployment of the THAAD system in South Korea in July and at that time the Russian Foreign Ministry had warned that the move will lead to “irreparable consequences”.
Though North Korea’s nuclear and missile tests may have been the immediate triggers, the deployment of THAAD on the Korean Peninsula, in the larger geo-strategic context, may be part of the US counter-strategy to the deployment of Russian Area Denial Weapon Systems focused on NATO forces in Europe and deployment of S-300 surface-to-air missile defence batteries in Iran. The move is synergetic with the higher direction of US policy of shifting its military focus to the Asia-Pacific which is aimed at keeping China boxed in its maritime dilemma.
The recent release by Wikileaks of a private speech given by Democratic Presidential nominee Hillary Clinton in 2013, where she talked about the strategy of “ringing China with Missile Defense”, specifies the long thought-out US strategy and tensions with Russia in East Europe and Middle East and exhorts Pentagon to implement these plans rather quickly. Recently, US Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral John Richardson, declared that the US won’t shy away from naval deployments within the range of Russian and Chinese Area Denial Systems like an aircraft carrier killer missile.
While all this transpired in the Indian Ocean theatre, India inked the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) with the United States which many reasonably argued will further degrade Indo-Russian relations and will exhort Russia to tilt towards China’s protégé state in South Asia i.e. Pakistan. However, during President Putin’s visit to India for the BRICS summit (at Goa on October 15-16, 2016), the Russians inked a crucial deal to sell the S-400 missile defence system to India at a time when Indo-Pak tensions are high after the Indian Army announced surgical strikes on terror launch pads in Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir (PoK).
This creates a very amazing situation. Now Russian air defence systems are deployed on the peripheries of East Europe and in Syria and Iran to keep US air power at bay while in India the S-400 system will keep Chinese air power at bay and will enable India to contemplate expanding punitive and pre-emptive moves against terror infrastructure based in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, or PoK (what Pakistan calls Azad Kashmir) in exceptional threat scenarios. It is notable in this regard that Pakistan still enjoys Major Non-NATO US Ally (MNNA) status while China is building the China-Pak Economic Corridor (CPEC) through PoK.
China will have to factor in this boost to Indian military capabilities which may enable the Indian forces to hit deeper into Pakistan-based terror camps. This transfer will also help lessen concerns in India about chances of the Indian Air Force getting overstretched in a two-front war scenario. It is interesting to note that China is also deploying six battalions of the S-400 system and by transferring the same system to India, Russia has contributed to the conservation of the Sino-India strategic balance. Russia has also proposed to India the transfer of its latest multipurpose Shtorm super aircraft carrier design. This will understandably involve technology transfer to India.
This chain of events suggests that Russia-China cooperation in South Asia and the Indian Ocean Region at large is limited by geopolitical realities which puts India in an envious and dominant position in the new Asian order. While trying to secure its western peripheries in Europe and increasing its footprint in the Middle East to seek access to the sea, Russia would not like to disengage from India, just because New Delhi has tilted towards the United States or to please the Chinese.
In the larger scheme of things, from the Russian point of view, cooperation with the Chinese has obvious limitations and is more useful for sustaining a balance of power in the South China Sea and Western Pacific Ocean — while disengaging from India, the pivotal state of the 21st century, by making a big issue out of US-India LEMOA, would erase the Russian strategic imprint on the southern peripheries of Asia and the Indian Ocean where the Chinese are still in no position to contribute much.
In the coming years, we may witness a scenario in which the US and Russia will compete to woo India and will end up strengthening its military capabilities to the disadvantage of rising Chinese power.
*Divya Kumar Soti is an independent defence analyst. Comments and suggestions on this article can be sent on: [email protected]