Russia’s attack on Ukraine reveals fault lines in Asia
Both China and India have refused to condemn Russia’s brutal invasion outright, and both abstained from voting on United Nations Security Council and General Assembly resolutions demanding Moscow immediately stop its attack on Ukraine.
But with the United States making clear it views countries that don’t condemn Putin’s war as aligned with Russia, the world’s two most populous nations are facing increased international pressure to speak out — or risk being seen as complicit.
That neither country has chosen to do so has illuminated Russia’s outsized influence in Asia, where arms sales and no-strings-attached trade have allowed Moscow to exploit regional fault lines and weaker ties to the West.
In the US and Europe, leaders have framed their response to the invasion as part of a broader ideological battle to uphold democratic freedoms and the rule of law. But for two of Asia’s major powers, those lines are more blurred, with experts suggesting India and China are motivated more by their own self interests.
China and Russia
As Russian troops massed on the border with Ukraine just weeks before Russia invaded, Xi and Putin had never seemed closer.
But the real key behind their tightening ties are their mutual tensions with Washington.
Now their so-called limitless relationship is being tested.
In a call with his Ukrainian counterpart last week, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said China was “deeply grieved” by the conflict.
China will also have to contend with potential fallout in its relationships with the West.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has united Western allies like no other issue in recent years and China’s tacit support has not gone unnoticed.
Some analysts have pointed to parallels between Russia’s designs on Ukraine and fears over the future of Taiwan — a self-governing island democracy that China’s Communist Party claims as its own and has not ruled out taking by force.
“Ukraine is a wake-up call for Europe and North America and the other democracies,” said Steve Tsang, director of SOAS China Institute at the University of London.
“You will suddenly have countries in Europe and elsewhere realizing that they have to prepare for eventualities that since the end of the Cold War, over 30 years, we have not thought necessary.”
“In that context, the assertiveness of China and the Chinese declared ambitions over Taiwan will get a lot more countries more worried,” he said.
India and Russia
There’s an elephant in the room when it comes to India’s relationship with Russia: China.
India, the world’s biggest democracy, has looked to counter China’s growing influence in the Asia-Pacific region. One sign of that is India’s role in the Quad — an informal security grouping with the United States, Japan and Australia that’s recently become more active.
India isn’t looking at the situation in Ukraine in terms of their relationship with that country — it’s thinking about the dangers in its own backyard, Happymon Jacob, an associate professor of diplomacy and disarmament at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, said.
“This isn’t about going against the West or supporting Russia,” Jacob said. “(India’s government) hasn’t explicitly supported Russia, but they have to take a more careful, nuanced approach.”
So far, India has tried to play both sides — Modi has spoken with both Zelensky and Putin, and has pledged humanitarian aid for Ukraine. Modi hasn’t explicitly condemned Russia’s attacks — he’s called for “an immediate cessation of violence” and “concerted efforts from all sides” to negotiate, according to a read-out of his February 24 call with Putin.
“India needs Russia to stand up to China,” said Harsh V. Pant, a professor in international relations at King’s College London and head of the Strategic Studies Program at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi. “It will have to balance its historic ties with Russia with its burgeoning ties with the West.”
And there’s domestic pressure too — after an Indian student was killed during Russia’s shelling of Kharkiv last week while buying groceries, there’s been growing calls within India to help evacuate the hundreds of other Indian students stuck in the northeastern city of Sumy, which has come under heavy bombardment in recent days.
Even before Russia invaded Ukraine, this tangle of relationships was sometimes fraught. Now with widespread condemnation against its actions, Russia is likely to be considered a pariah state in the West. And that could make its relationships with countries like China and India even more important.
“In (Putin’s) first stint as President, he put a lot of emphasis in rekindling old Soviet ties with Asian partners,” said Hervé Lemahieu, director of research at the Australia-based think tank the Lowy Institute. “He does have ballast in Asia … and, as we’ve seen, he has more than just China to rely on.”
Both China and India are maintaining the friendship out of self-interest — but for very different reasons.
China has a “clear interest” in making sure people like Putin stay in power, says SOAS’s Tsang.
“They share two primary strategic interests: one is to take the American global leadership down a notch or two. The second is to make the world safe for authoritarianism,” Tsang said.
But Beijing’s support is conditional — if the Russians are unsuccessful to the point that they can’t aid the countries’ shared aims, China could recalibrate its support, he said.
As for democratic India, security and development concerns may come first.
“In Asia, the fundamental challenge for most is China’s rising power, China’s huge force,” Manoj Kewalramani, chair of the Indo-Pacific Research Program at the Takshashila Institution in Bangalore, said.
“This binary of democracy and autocrats is problematic — the world is much more complicated.”