Home / Articles / China’s and India’s Relations with Russia after the War in Ukraine: A Dangerous Deviation?
China and India have pursued generally similar bilateral approaches towards Russia during the Russian-Ukrainian War. Both have refrained from condemning Russia, continued to trade with it, and distanced themselves from the West’s robust economic and diplomatic response.
The reasons for China’s and India’s approaches are rooted in their past relations with Russia, their unique and evolving relationships with the United States, and the shifting balance of power between Beijing and New Delhi.
How China’s and India’s ties with Russia evolve could change power dynamics between Beijing and New Delhi, and lead to greater tensions in Asia.
When Russian assault troops landed at Hostomel Airport near Kiev in February 2022, few could have anticipated how Russia’s invasion of Ukraine would alter geopolitics in Europe. Yet it has the potential to do the same in Asia. Moscow’s failure to score a quick military victory over Ukraine has made Russia increasingly reliant on China and India to not only buy its exports to bolster its coffers, but also, in the case of China, supply it with dual-use technologies to support its defense industry.
As the war continues, how China’s and India’s bilateral ties with Russia evolve is important, not only for Moscow’s war effort, but also for China-India relations in Asia. Both China and India have refrained from criticizing Russia’s invasion and helped to lessen the impact of Western economic sanctions against Russia. But the difference in how Moscow views what it stands to gain from the two countries could ultimately influence what it might do if put in a position where it needed to choose between them.
And being put in that position is not a theoretical concept, considering the existing tensions between China and India. Over the last decade or so, China-India relations have become more competitive and deadly. Tensions could deteriorate further over their border disputes. Should Russia explicitly or implicitly favor one over the other, that could shift the power balance between Asia’s two continental giants and lead to greater tensions in the region.
The Soviet Union and Beyond
Russia’s modern relations with China and India began during the early years of the Cold War. China’s ties with Russia, then the Soviet Union, famously displayed a bipolar character. They went from being “brothers” in the 1950s to enemies just a decade later. Conversely, India’s relations with the Soviet Union moved in the opposite direction. Moscow was initially wary of New Delhi, but the two drew close together by the 1970s, in part because of America’s support of Pakistan, India’s South Asian nemesis. New Delhi’s purchase of Soviet military equipment was a cornerstone of the relationship.
After the Cold War, allegiances shifted again. China’s relations with the United States grew increasingly contentious after it sent its warships to the Taiwan Straits during China’s 1996 missile tests there and deteriorated further after the 2001 spy plane incident in the South China Sea. As a result, by the 2000s, China had come to see Russia as a useful balancer to the United States. Though Beijing and Moscow still competed for influence in Central Asia, China deepened its military ties and forged several new energy deals with Russia. The deals gave China a source of energy outside of American influence and Russia a growing customer for its oil and natural gas (especially helpful after the West imposed economic sanctions against it in 2014 after Russia’s annexation of Crimea).
Meanwhile, India continued its close relationship with Russia after the Cold War. One reason New Delhi did so was its tight military budgets during the 1990s (and thus aversion to major changes in its military supply chains). Another reason had to do with India’s perennial trouble with military procurement. By the early 2000s, they had together contributed to equipment shortages in vital categories such as artillery and main battle tanks. To compensate for the lack of the latter, India bulk ordered hundreds of Russian T-90S tanks in 1999, 2007, and 2019. In the 2010s, India would even lease two Russian Akula-class nuclear-powered attack submarines to fully outfit its one and soon-to-be two aircraft carrier battle groups. In fact, after the outbreak of the Russian-Ukrainian War, a global spotlight was put on India’s dependence on Russian arms.
Concerns about China also drove India’s approach to Russia. During the latter half of the Cold War, Indian strategists came to see the Soviet Union as a key ally against China. After all, Beijing and Moscow were at each other’s throats. So, if war broke out between China and India along their disputed 2,167-mile border, India could reasonably expect help from the Soviet Union. At the very least, the Soviet Union could mobilize its forces on its border with China to pin down Chinese divisions near the Soviet Far East and thus reduce the number of troops Beijing could bring to bear against India. And, since tensions between China and India never fully dissipated, continuing New Delhi’s friendly relations with Moscow seemed like a prudent choice.
Cold War Thinking (Continued)
Such thinking still goes into Chinese and Indian strategic calculations, but within a new context. China’s economic growth and Belt and Road Initiative have given it new political clout in South Asia. And, after three decades of ever-higher defense expenditures, China can now boast a world-class military with three aircraft carriers, several nuclear-powered attack submarines, scores of fifth-generation combat aircraft, and hundreds of advanced ballistic missiles. Plus, China has built an extensive network of highways, railways, and airports to allow it to rapidly deploy its forces to its Himalayan border. At the same time, China has grown increasingly suspicious of India’s budding relations with the United States, especially after the 2008 US-India civil-nuclear deal, and India’s link with the Dalai Lama, Tibet’s spiritual leader.
On the other side of the Himalayan Mountains, India has been all too aware of China’s strategic advances. As early as 2010, former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh warned that “China would like to have a foothold in South Asia.” Such concerns grew more acute with time. By 2023, the Indian army’s chief of staff would openly observe that “China is increasingly displaying the willingness to project its military power … in our immediate neighborhood.” Unfortunately for India, it has struggled to keep pace with its northern neighbor. India’s economic growth has been less consistent than China’s. And, partly as a result, New Delhi has been slower to modernize its military. India has also taken far longer to build the logistics infrastructure that would enable it to rapidly move its forces to its border with China. Indeed, compensating for that shortcoming was one reason for the Indian army’s decision to raise and base the new 17 Mountain Strike Corps in nearby West Bengal.
The strategic calculations of both sides are not academic exercises. Border skirmishes between China and India have risen in number and intensity over the last two decades, including a 2020 clash that resulted in hundreds of casualties and another incident in 2022. While neither side may be seeking an open conflict, the possibility of one is real. Chinese leaders, who have long regarded India with some disdain, have intimated punitive action against it if it did not “correct [what China sees as] its mistakes.” Meanwhile, Indian leaders (not to mention the Indian people) are loathe to again endure the sort of humiliation their country suffered during the Sino-Indian War of 1962.
Rival Relations with Russia
It is against that backdrop that China and India have navigated their relations with Russia after its 2022 invasion of Ukraine. On the surface, China and India seemed to have pursued similar policies towards Russia and the West. Both have refrained from condemning Russia, continued to trade with it, and distanced themselves from the West’s robust response. But China went a step further. It allowed its state-owned companies to sell Russia dual-use technology, including semiconductors that could be used in military hardware. Indeed, China doubled its exports of semiconductors to Russia during 2022. That no doubt was appreciated in Moscow.
India has taken a somewhat different tack toward Russia. It sharply boosted its purchases of Russian commodities, from fertilizer to steel. Most notably, India went from being a negligible importer of Russian oil in 2021 to being the biggest in 2022. India’s buying spree did not go unnoticed in Moscow (or the West). In fact, Indian leaders bristled at Western criticism of it. As India’s Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman stated: “I would put my country’s national interests first and I would put my energy security first … Why should I not buy [Russian oil]?” While doing so irked the United States, Indian leaders probably judged that Washington would look past India’s imports, considering America’s need for Indian participation in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue.
Both China and India have pursued their relations with Russia in ways that serve their broader national interests. Ultimately, China wants to prevent Ukraine (and by extension the West) from decisively defeating Russia, in large part because Beijing would like an ally that is sufficiently strong to be helpful in its own competition against the United States. Meanwhile, India would like a Russia that is strong enough to act independently of China and can help prevent it from becoming Asia’s dominant power.
Through a Glass Darkly
Russia has benefited from its ties with both China and India. Yet the longer the Russian-Ukraine War (and the accompanying Western economic sanctions) lasts, the more Russia will become dependent on them. Surely, Russia would rather not forego either one. In fact, Moscow would like Beijing and New Delhi to become friends. But the deep mistrust that divides China and India makes that unlikely. And, if an open conflict was to break out between the two countries, both sides would likely appeal to Russia for support. Hence, both would be wise to consider what Russia might do in that situation.
At this writing, it seems like a reasonable bet that Russia would tilt towards China, unless New Delhi can top the benefits that Beijing brings to the table with Moscow. China not only is more tightly connected to Russia, literally by pipelines and railways, but also possesses economic and technological strengths that India lacks. Plus, there is little doubt that China and Russia share a common adversary, the United States, making Beijing a more reliable partner.
Such a Russian tilt would clearly be bad for India, were it to get into a war with China. Beijing would likely prevail on Moscow to limit its engagement with New Delhi. At a minimum, India would be unable to count on Russia to pin down large numbers of Chinese divisions, and would probably find itself facing the full force of China’s military. Even a nominally neutral Russia would be detrimental to India. For example, were Russia to embargo arms and spare parts to both sides, such an action would penalize India far more than it would China.
Moreover, even without a war, China’s closer bilateral relations with Russia could encourage Beijing to pursue its interests more forcefully in South Asia, whether on its disputed Himalayan border or with India’s surrounding neighbors. That too could shift the power balance between China and India and lead to greater regional tensions. While India has sought to deal with such a possibility through warmer relations with Australia, Japan, and the United States, among others, New Delhi’s embrace of the West has been very slow, likely the product of India’s traditional mistrust of it. But given how close the Russian-Ukrainian War has brought China and Russia, New Delhi might want to pick up the pace.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.