It was May 21 when Chinese troops entered into the Galwan River Valley in Ladakh and camped at three places which were Hot Springs, Patrolling Point 14, and Patrolling Point 15, respectively (1). Both sides moved a substantial number of troops along the borders.
On June 15, simmering tensions turned into a head-on conflict in which twenty Indian soldiers were killed including a commanding colonel, while the Chinese officials refrained to disclose any losses. After a week of escalation, both sides held a corps commander level meeting on June 22 and reached at a mutual consensus to disengage along the Line of Actual Control (LAC, the de-facto border that separates India and China) (2), as both sides realized that troops were deployed close to each other (3).
But what were the factors that have contributed to such escalations between China and India since 1962, when both fought over the same disputed territory? There are two main reasons that contributed to the recent border skirmishes (4). India has been constructing 224 Km road infrastructure through the Galwan Valley in Ladakh, while at the same time China has started investing billions of dollars in its flagship project of China-Pakistan Economic Corridor in Pakistan.
Currently, Ladakh is administered by India, but is a disputed territory between China and India. Having a disputed status, China saw Indian construction activities across the Galwan Valley as a threat to its strategic interest in the region (5).
Secondly, in August 2019 India abrogated Article 370 of its constitution that removed the disputed status of Jammu and Kashmir, including its adjacent territories such as Ladakh and Aksai Chin. Beijing believes that Aksai Chin belongs to China and currently controls it, and such road construction by India has surely touched Chinese sensitivities.
By looking at the stature of confronting parties i.e. India and China, major powers like the United States and the European Union abstained from taking sides or make any comment that could jeopardize their relations with either India or China. But for Russia, Sino-India standoff came with geopolitical and economic opportunities. During the first week of the conflict, Russia was cautious to make any comment, but instead offered itself as a mediator between China and India. In early June, the Chair of Russia’s Federation Council Committee on Foreign Affairs Konstantin Kosachev categorically said (6):
“We understand the sovereignty of India; we understand the sovereignty of China. I really believe Russia should not interfere in these kinds of disputes. Our mission is to be an honest broker to contribute a dialogue and to prevent and avoid any solutions connected with the use of military force.”
Russia’s Role in Sino-India Standoff and Geopolitical and Economic Opportunities
Historically, Russia and India have enjoyed bilateral relations based on trust and unremitting support, whether it was the 1971 war against Pakistan, the use of veto power in favor of India on the issue of Kashmir or supporting India’s right to have a permanent seat at the United Nations Security Council.
Within this context, it was difficult for Russia to stand back and watch China and India caught in a military conflict that could destabilize Central Asia and ultimately affect Putin’s idea of the Greater Eurasian Partnership (GEP). Although, Moscow has reiterated that Russia would not be a party to either side over border issues between India and China, nevertheless Russia was equally concerned that the military escalation could destabilize the region. Russian concerns had pushed Moscow to play its role as mediator between China and India and refrained from taking any side, which could hurt Russia’s geopolitical and economic interests in the region.
But challenging times do not come without opportunities and it was Russia that came out victorious amid the Sino-China standoff, geopolitically as well as economically. Since Russia’s annexation of Crimea and using its veto power against a series of resolutions presented by the Western powers in the Syria Crisis, the West has been trying to alienate Russia from the international arena. Charles Forrester, a senior defense industry analyst wrote that the US wants to isolate Russia following its adventurism in Ukraine and beyond, and counter Russia’s involvement in global affairs (7). But during the Sino-India standoff, Russia emerged as an important and influential actor.
Geopolitical Opportunities for Russia
During the recent border skirmishes between China and India, to claim its stakes in the region, Russia confidently struck a balance by playing the role of a responsible actor. Currently, Russia holds the presidency of Russia-India-China (RIC) trilateral platform, Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa (BRICS), and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO).
Having such a privilege, Russia organized a trilateral dialogue via video conference with Chinese and Indian counterparts on June 22. Furthermore, on June 23, Moscow hosted Indian Defense Minister Rajnath Singh and Chinese counterpart Wei Fenghe, to observe the Victory Day parade on June 24 (8).
Russia has strategically used these platforms to assert its role as a major power. During the last couple of years, Russia is getting closer to China owing to the Western sanction. China also stands by the Russian strategic adventure in the Middle East and Asia, which is likely to lead to the new security partnership between China and Russia (9). Moscow’s approach toward the Sino-India standoff will only bring confidence in the bilateral relations of Russia and China.
Economic Opportunities for Russia
Moreover, amid the Sino-India border crisis, Russia also secured financial benefits as India approached Moscow immediately after the incident of June 15 to pen a series of agreements on the import of Russian military equipment. The Russian economy has been under severe strain owing to the US and the European Union sanctions since Russian’s annexation of Crimea.
Most recently, the European Council has extended the sanctions on the Russian exports to the EU, until January 31, 2021 (10). But the Indian import of Russian military equipment will surely add to Russian import revenue.
On July 2, the Indian Defense Ministry Rajnath Singh approved the purchasing of 21 MiG-29 fighter jets and other military hardware valued at US$2.43 billion from Russia to further its combat capability (11). Moreover, owing to the increasing border tensions with Pakistan and China, the minister is keen to buy S-400 anti-aircraft missile systems and wants the supplies to be made later this year. India has already signed a contract with Russia in October 2018 over the purchase of five S-400 systems that has not materialized, as the US threatened to impose sanctions against India under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) (12).
Following the dogfight with Pakistan in February 2019 and the recent standoff against the Chinese army, this has pushed India to materialize the S-400 deal as soon as possible. To bypass the US sanctions, India has decided to make the payments in Euros (13).
The Indian import of Russian military hardware reached $14.5 billion last year (2018-2019) including the $5 billion deal for the S-400 air missile system, despite five years of declining imports from Russia. Russia’s export revenue is heavily dependent on the revenue of gas and military hardware, and as such a lucrative deal with India is important for the Russian economy.
For now, the border tensions between India and China have de-escalated, but the mechanism to demilitarize the border along Line of Actual Control — which separates India and China — will be challenging. What is for sure, however, is that Russia once again has proven to be the key actor in Asian affairs and is still relevant in the region along with India and China.
Although Moscow is facing resistance along its Western border it is feeling confident in Central and South Asia more than ever before. Russia would never accept to be a junior partner in the international arena along with China, and Moscow’s role in the post-Sino-India standoff is just the beginning.
*Omair Farooq Khan is from Pakistan, completed a Master’s in International Relations from Hungary and is now working as freelance writer for international journals.
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- Chaudhury, Dipanjan Roy. “Russia does not want to interfere in India-China stand-off: Top lawmaker.” The Economic Times. June 10, 2020. https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/defence/russia-does-not-want-to-interfere-in-india-china-stand-off-top-lawmaker/articleshow/76309365.cms
- Ritzen, Yarno. “Why do countries want to buy the Russian S-400?” Al-Jazeera. October 08, 2019. https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/countries-buy-controversial-russian-400-181007205808578.html?utm_source=website&utm_medium=article_page&utm_campaign=read_more_links
- Roy, Shubhajti. “Explained: Why Russia has emerged a key player amid India, China tension.” The Indian Express. June 23, 2020. https://indianexpress.com/article/explained/india-china-border-dispute-galwan-faceoff-resolution-russia-6471548/
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