China’s rise has such a deep impact on the structural base of the international system, that India’s longstanding cordial relations with Russia cannot be taken for granted anymore.

In the past few years, there is a larger concurrence within the international community that there is a revival of great power rivalry, perhaps one which could outmatch the previous ones in history. There is a tectonic shift underway in the international order. China’s expanding bonhomie with Russia is a crucial determinant of this shift. China and Russia never had a stable relationship in the past century. They are currently witnessing a thickening global partnership. China and the United States have had predictable ties for the past five decades. They do not have it anymore among them. These sets of developments are perhaps the best indications of the impending recalibration of the world’s geopolitical equilibrium.
India’s relations with Russia, China and the US has seen a complete reversal from how it was during the larger part of the 20th century. India had always had concerns about Western imperialism in the past. Today it has concerns about a new imperialism from the East. The Sino-Russian partnership has taken a significant turn, one which may be difficult to reverse. This has endangered its traditionally friendly views about Russia. This has also put into question some of the deep set assumptions of India about its engagement with the great powers. In short, the world is in the cusp of a new era, and India is heavily impacted by it. India’s security and development will depend on what choice it will make in this new era; if there is a room for choice, that is.

China’s strategic partnership with Russia has evolved substantially in the post-Cold War era, approaching the level of an alliance. During the Cold War, China’s relationship with the Soviet Union was mostly antagonistic. The relations started off as an alliance, which hardly lasted a decade, as bitter mistrust emerged between Maoist China and the post-Stalinist Soviet Union. Further, indifference deteriorated into rivalry and subsequently into hostility during the 1960s. The relations remained at its nadir, until a severely weakened Soviet Union mended ties during its final moments. The collapse of the Soviet Union led to the emergence of the Russian Federation, and the bilateral relations incrementally was raised to a positive trajectory as a result of numerous Confidence Building Measures, especially on the borders, as well as the revival of economic, political, technological and military cooperation.
Today, China’s Xi Jinping and Russia’s Vladimir Putin have completely reversed the course of governance of their countries, with Putin rolling back Boris Yeltsin era liberalization and Xi reversing Deng Xiaoping era reforms. Today, both the countries are working on a shared sphere of influence in Central Eurasia through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, and eschewing their dependence on Western economies by cooperating more with each other—from energy pipelines and transport corridors on earth, and towards pooled outposts in outer space.
China and Russia have their own geo-economic complementarities. Russia has a vast, sparsely populated land area with a huge wealth of natural resources; whereas China has the largest population on earth, with a huge demand for resources. Geopolitically, their convergences are shaped by the emerging reconfiguration of the world order, as well as the intensifying regional dynamics in Eurasia and the Indo-Pacific. Russia’s efforts to become part of the West after the collapse of the Soviet Union proved to be counterproductive, resulting in its reversal from a Euro-Atlanticist orientation under Boris Yeltsin to a renewed Eurasian orientation under Putin. China’s economic engagement with the United States since the Sino-American rapprochement is ultimately on a similar path of late, where “decoupling” seems to be the zeitgeist.
Xi’s China and Putin’s Russia are on a convergent course, resembling the Stalin-Mao bonhomie although with a radically altered power equation. The most important factor binding the two together is the shared objective to undermine American global dominance. Moreover, at the regional level, both powers are increasingly asserting themselves to push the US influence out of Eurasia and the Indo-Pacific. The Russian annexation of Crimea and China’s territorial grab in South China Sea are more than just isolated incidents. They reinforce a growing pattern wherein the two are aspiring for regional hegemony and at the same time hastening the decline of unipolarity at the global level.

aIndia’s neighbour Pakistan has effectively turned into China’s client state, and Russia’s new customer for defence equipment. Even Iran, which used to lie in India’s concentric ring of friendship circumscribing the adversarial Western neighbourhood, has become heavily reliant on Russo-Chinese political and economic support. Its impact is now being demonstrated in Iran’s cold shoulder towards India’s regional connectivity and security interests. Afghanistan seems to be headed in the same direction, with the Taliban raising their political stakes in a brutal power struggle with a pro-American and India-friendly regime. Myanmar’s democratic backslide, Nepal’s political instability and the Sri Lankan government’s China obsession are all dismal developments in India’s neighbourhood invigorated by the prevailing geopolitical tectonics.

India’s relations with Russia and China follow distinct paths. With Russia, India has a very strong relationship going back several decades into its consistent friendly relations with the Soviet Union. However, its relations with China, though initially propelled by misplaced notions of civilizational synergy and anti-imperialist outlook, reset itself to cautious co-operation based on material convergences at the economic level and political exigencies of the evolving world order. China’s rise has such a deep impact on the structural base of the international system, that India’s longstanding cordial relations with Russia cannot be taken for granted anymore.
In this scenario, India for sure does not face the same foreign policy and national security choices presented before it in the previous Cold War. In this case, there is no “third way” or “middle path” option. India belongs to the group of nations which believes in the democratic model of governance, with features which best fit the Indian conditions. The Quad is an embryonic manifestation of such a group of nations. In the Cold War, there was a significant chunk of countries in the decolonized world which wanted to keep themselves aloof from the pressures of the bipolar struggle and concentrate on the basics of nation building. Then, India was one amongst them.
Today, India has come a long way and is an aspirant global power, while others have grown into middle and regional powers who have charted their own economic success stories, mostly in Asia. China, for the short term, proved to be beneficial in boosting and sustaining their economic growth and infrastructure base. However, China has crossed regional political red-lines and has overstretched itself in the Indo-Pacific. As a consequence, China has created a hostile international environment for itself. A revanchist Russia today is left with no other option than to take refuge under China’s economic umbrella. The United States today, increasingly aware of its own limitations, is providing a favourable setting for countries in the region to band together to protect their shared interests from what are seen as predatory policies of China. The Covid-19 pandemic is perhaps the last straw on the camel’s back.
If the ancient raja mandala and modern realpolitik are the pole stars to guide India through this renewed era of great power rivalry, they would certainly point towards shedding the historic baggage of non-alignment.
Dr Anand V. is an Assistant Professor and Coordinator of the China Study Centre at the Department of Geopolitics and International Relations, Manipal Academy of Higher Education in Manipal, Karnataka. The views expressed in this article are personal.