India should fully exploit the fissures in Russia-China relations

Pratik Kumar, student of International Relations

A lot of commentators are talking about growing Russia-China friendship. Well it should not be a surprise to anyone. The US foreign policy towards Russia (since Crimean takeover by Russia, in 2014) has been really harsh. It, along with other western nations like the US, France etc. has imposed economic sanctions on Russia, which has really affected the Russian economy. On the other hand, US under previous POTUS Donald Trump, used coercive diplomacy as a tool against China. It resorted to trade war, deterrence patrol in South China Sea, started a campaign against Chinese tech giants like Huawei, raised the issue of intellectual property activities of China, raised issues of human rights abuses in Xinjiang and so on.

The Effect

Thanks to these harsh measures of US against both China and Russia, the latter two started seeing America as their biggest threat. This forced them to enhance their partnership at strategic level, which involves all major domains like defence, economy, technology, BRI, shared interest against USA and so on. Reports are that both Russia and China are working on de-dollarization, a mechanism where both nations are trying to reduce their dependency on US dollar. In terms of defence cooperation, Russia has sold its strategic weapons to China like Su-35, along with S-400 air defence system.  Both nations also conducted their largest ever military exercise in 2018 in Russia, which involved all the three domains of armed forces.

In terms of energy cooperation, Russia and China (in 2019) inaugurated their first cross border gas pipeline (called Power of Siberia), where China will buy gas from Russia. Coming to economic domain, China has invested around $32 billion in Russia’s Far East Region. Russia is also a strategic partner of China’s BRI, as mentioned earlier. Hence, there’s no doubt that Russia-China relations seems to be going through a golden phase. In fact at a Moscow summit in 2019, Chinese President Xi Jinping described his Russia counterpart as his ‘best friend’.

Reality Check on Russia-China relations

However not all is well between Russia and China. Their relationship looks great on paper, no doubt, but reality is saying something else. If one analyses it carefully there are lot of fissures in their relationship. Let’s check out.

  • First, Russia-China border is heavily armed. Russia has deployed its Iskander-M nuclear capable ballistic missiles towards China. This is because China claims a certain part of Russian territory as its own.
  • Second, Russia doesn’t likes Chinese growing hegemony in Asia. It has never fully supported China’s claims In South China Sea.
  • Third, one of the biggest issues between both nations is the Chinese policy of stealing technology. According to some reports by Russian experts, China has stolen their S-400 technology. Most of the Chinese aircrafts are a copy of Russian ones. China also does reverse engineering of Russia technology, which Russia doesn’t likes at all.
  • Fourth, China wants to emerge as lead arms exporter in Asia and beyond. It has already signed several arms deal with Pakistan, Bangladesh, African nations. Russia has lots of apprehensions about this as it will impact Russian arms export market.
  • Fifth, Russia is also vary of Chinese trade policies. It doesn’t want China to influence its legs in Central Asia (a region which Russia considers its own backyard). Chinese trade dominance in BRICS is also not liked by Russia.
  • Sixth, China also indulges in cyber attack on Russian defence infrastructure.
  • Seventh, China is also planning to increase it’s influence in resource rich Arctic region, which is also seen by Russia as its backyard.


Thanks to offensive realism of China, Russia, in reality, has become highly apprehensive of Panda. The Russia China deeper relationship is only for economic benefits of Russia. In order to further avoid damage to already damaged Russian economy, Russia is engaging with China as later is a great arms and energy market of Russia, which gives Moscow some economic reliefs. Russia also knows that in the long term, their interests will diverge greatly and will lead to lot of fissures. China wants to dominate the whole world and for this it has to subdue other growing powers, and Russia is no exception. In fact, Russia in 2020 tested its hypersonic cruise missile in Arctic region, which is actually a show of its strength to China, and not west, which some folks claim.

Also Russia was planning to sell it’s S 400 to China, some experts in Russia warned of not selling such strategic equipments to China, thinking later might indulge in technology theft. In short, Russia is unhappily married to China and wants divorce, but can’t.

Not all fruits in the same basket

So, what Russia is doing? It is trying to diversify it’s economic relations with other nations such as Japan and (India especially). Russia has given some indirect signal to India for this shift. In 2018, Russia invited India for joint exploration of Arctic region, and not China. In 2019, Russia again invited India to sign a free trade agreement with Eurasian Economic Union, a region where Russia doesn’t want China’s dominance; and in the same year Indian PM  Narendra Modi was invited by Russia to invest in its Far East Region, so as to counter China’s dominance, which already has a massive economic presence.

It is not that if India engages more with Russia in economic terms, it will only benefit Russia, there’s also a huge benefit for India. Giving new energy to India Russia ties is very imperative for India too. A strong Russia, in the long run, will not only balance China, but also balance the west. A strong and prosperous Russia should also be a part of India’s multilateralism and stability of Asia. Russia is the country which has never spoken against India’s internal matters, such as CAA/NRC, as against some in west. And if India is able to reduce Russian dependency on China, and separate the two in the long run (which even Russia wants), it will be a huge strategic blow to China.

Way Forward

India must remember that the stronger China becomes, the more problematic it would be for India’s national interest. And when Russia is also ready to reduce its dependency on China and counter later in the long run, India should not miss this strategic opportunity.  The following things can be done by India.

  • First, focus must be on to increase the trade and economic relations between the two countries. The current bilateral trade of less than $10 billion is far below potential. In the long run Russia and India must be one of the largest trading partners of each other. Both nations have agreed to increase their trade to $30 billion, which is a good start atleast on paper.
  • Second, connectivity must be deepen, especially maritime. The proposed Chennai to Vladivostok shipping route must be worked upon.
  • Third, both nations need enhanced people to people ties as it is a key to enhance bilateral relations. There can be cultural exchanges program. Some folks in Russian media are highly praiseworthy of ancient Indian Vedic events like Mahabharat and Ramayan. They are doing a lot of research here. Why not give this aspect a deeper focus?
  • Fourth, both nation must focus on other areas also like infrastructure, energy sharing and pharma products. Being pharma of the world, India can export cheap drugs to Russia, and can get cheap energy sources in return. This would also help India diversify it’s export basket.
  • Fifth, there should be a happy marriage between defence industries of two nations. Brahmos Joint Venture is highly successful example. This must be accompanied by marriage in other domains like cyber, artificial intelligence, space, robotics and so on.

India’s strategy on this Russia-China relation

Time has come for India to plan not for upcoming five years, but for upcoming five decades, at least. India must look what challenges China will present to it in coming decades, and how to counter them. One of them can definitely be developing more fissures between Russia and China. Russia has given India an indirect but clear message that Russia is not at all happy with its relationship with China, and in the long run they may even see conflicting interests as China would never want Russia to become stronger. India needs to have a balanced strategy between West and Russia.  It’s time for India to show some cunningness and fully exploit the fissures in Russia-China relations for it’s national interest. Not doing so will only push Russia closer to China and Pakistan.

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By Alpha Defense

Alpha Defense initially a solo venture but now a defense group by people from various demographics of India covering defense news and updates. We believe in unbiased analysis of every subject in hand. Our mission is to provide simplfiied defense information to the public.