Ukraine crisis brings Russia and China together, but more than meets eye to their proximity First Post 17 Feb 2022 Maj Gen Harsha Kakar

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Ukraine crisis brings Russia and China together, but more than meets eye to their proximity First Post 17 Feb 2022

          The joint statement issued post the Xi-Putin summit during the Beijing Winter Games was a display of solidarity between two nations facing US economic pressures. Putin backed the Chinese stand on Taiwan, while China supported Russia on its security concerns. There was no direct mention of Ukraine, though it was evident where Chinese support lay. The joint statement emphasized the ‘new inter-State relations between Russia and China being superior to political and military alliances of the Cold War era,’ hinting that there could also be more than just diplomatic support.

The implications are that in case the US and the west impose sanctions, Russian trade with China, including supply of natural gas, would increase. Military support is ruled out. Putin’s visit to Beijing was intended to display Russian disagreement with western policies and principles, rather than affinity for Xi. Russia is aware that its comprehensive national power resulting in global influence is way below China. 

          Russia-China relations mushroomed with the US and Europe imposing sanctions on Russia for its actions on Crimea. China became a natural market for supply of Russian gas, its main exports. Supplies have increased over the years. However, income from sale to China is way below that to Europe, even with ongoing restrictions. China is currently Russia’s largest trading partner. China has not recognized Russia’s annexation of Crimea, as China imports agricultural produce from Ukraine and desires to keep relations with Ukraine on an even keel. Based on their locations and security concerns, Russia’s area of interest is Europe, while for the Chinese it is Asia. This makes backing each other prudent.

However, the battle for regional domination between the two is Central Asia, where Russia provides security through its led CSTO (Collective Security Treaty Organization) and China dominates financially through its Belt Road Initiative funding. China is attempting to replace Russian influence in the region, which Russia considers a threat as this is its backyard. The involvement of Russian troops in curbing the recent unrest in Kazakhstan conveyed its sphere of influence warning to China. The Putin-Modi summit held in Dec 2021 led to increased Indo-Russian defence cooperation for Central Asia, including India providing spares for Russian military equipment in service with Central Asian nations.

Russia would never seek to join any China led alliance or grouping as it would never want to be seen as a junior partner to Beijing. Currently, its economy is one-tenth of China. However, when it comes to challenging the US, both would project solidarity. On Ukraine, backing down by the US, would be a diplomatic defeat for Biden, which would harm his domestic rating. Making a permanent commitment on Russia’s demand on limiting expansion of NATO would put nations on the periphery of Russia at risk of being overwhelmed by Russian military power or compelled to form pro-Russian governments.

Russian deployment on Ukraine’s borders and China’s belligerence in the South China Sea as also against Taiwan have extended US concerns from Europe to the Indo-Pacific. With economic development being primary concern of nations, the Ukraine standoff has split NATO and US-Europe relations. Germany, a member of NATO, is loath to lose the almost complete NORD 2 gas pipeline from Russia supplying gas to it, which Biden threatens to block. Macron, who visited Moscow and held talks with Putin to determine a middle path, failed. The German chancellor, Olaf Scholz is expected in Moscow this week.

The Russia-China alliance is currently a new anti-US grouping drawing other nations into the alliance enhancing regional concern for the west. An example is the inclusion of Pakistan into this alliance. Prior to Imran’s visit to Beijing, Islamabad had approached Moscow for an Imran-Putin summit in Beijing, which was turned down. Putin kept rejecting invites to visit Islamabad. He was aware that Pakistan has little to offer. Post Xi-Putin talks in Beijing, there has been a change in perception, possibly prodded by Xi. Putin finally invited Imran to visit Moscow at the end of the month.

Pakistan is out of favour with the US and deeply indebted to China. Hence, an ideal nation to draw into an anti-US and anti-West grouping. Pakistan’s newspaper Dawn quoted SM Qureshi who while discussing Imran’s forthcoming Russia visit stated, ‘Pakistan’s commitment to not becoming part of bloc politics and to have cordial relations with all powers.’ This statement itself signifies why the visit is taking place.

Iran’s proximity to Moscow and Beijing is well established. To prevent it from tilting away, the US issued waivers in relation to Iran’s civil nuclear facilities. The waivers permit foreign countries and companies to work on civilian projects at Iran’s Bushehr nuclear power station, its Arak heavy water plant and the Tehran Research Reactor. These waivers were lifted by the Trump administration in 2018. Officially the US claims this is aimed at drawing Tehran back into talks on the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action), whereas the reality is that the US is sending a message that greater cooperation and maintaining distance from the Russia-China alliance would imply further lifting of sanctions.

Iran has a number of proxies in the Middle East, which could enhance tensions in West Asia impacting global oil supplies, which would limit US sanctions on Russia. In case Middle East oil storage facilities are impacted, oil prices would rise. These would cross acceptable levels in case Russia is also sanctioned. The recent missile strikes on UAE and Saudi Arabia display the power of Iran proxies, which have not been curbed despite air strikes. However, US attempts to keeping Iran neutral are unlikely to succeed. Another nation with close ties to Russia and facing sanctions of the US is Turkey. It will also prefer backing Russia or remaining neutral rather than participating in NATO activities, of which it is a member.

Any intervention by Russia in Ukraine will lead to induction of NATO and US forces into Eastern Europe. European powers whose naval vessels are currently in the Indo-Pacific would be pulled back. This could provide a window to China to grab some islands which it claims in the South China Sea. Taiwan may not immediately face any threat. An overstretched US may not be in a position to interfere.

The Ukraine crisis, as it prolongs, is leading to the creating of pro and anti- US groups, with nations like India remaining neutral. While it would open doors for China to push its claim lines, the anti-west grouping would work towards limiting US sanctions on Russia. Currently, it is wait and watch as to how the situation builds in the near future.