During the annual meeting of the India-Russia Intergovernmental Commission on Military-Technical Cooperation, held in Delhi on October 26, Indian Defense Minister Manohar Parrikar and his Russian counterpart Sergei Shoigu fine-tuned the terms of the defense partnership between the two countries, which had been revived, after a four-year hiatus, on the margins of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) summit in the western Indian state of Goa eleven days earlier.
This development will inevitably raise concerns in China. In the balance of power of Asia-Pacific, in fact, the relaunch of the long-running Indo-Russian defense cooperation will strengthen the military position of Delhi, which potentially remains a regional rival to Beijing, while at the same time making the Sino-Russian comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination — the highest level of diplomatic relations for China — a bit less strategic and more uncoordinated.
China at gunpoint
Among other arrangements included in the arms deal sealed in Goa, Moscow will equip Delhi with five S-400 Triumph air defense systems at a cost of US$5 billion. Many in India view this acquisition as a game-changer in the military equation of South Asia.
The S-400 long-range air defense missile platform can destroy aircraft, missiles and drones as far as 400 kilometer away and its radar is able to detect planes at a range of 600 kilometer. The Russian-built surface-to-air missile apparatus will beef up Indian defenses along the borders with China and Pakistan. India could dispatch two S-400 systems against China, at the western and eastern sectors of the largely disputed 4,056 kilometer Line of Actual Control (LoAC), and three against Pakistan along the Line of Control (LOC).
With this purchase, in particular, Delhi will secure aerial strategic parity with Beijing in the Himalayan region, where the two countries are locked in long-standing border disputes, given that Chinese airborne capacities would be undermined.
India’s Ministry of Defense expects to finalize the S-400 agreement in four to sixth months and stations the system in 2020. Delhi will be the second purchaser of this air defense platform. Last year, indeed, China inked with Russia a US$3 billion contract to buy a number of S-400 batteries, which media reports placed at six. For most military analysts, this acquisition was intended to deter American military moves in the East and South China seas, rather than any Indian military buildup.
A threat to Beijing
The Kremlin’s sale of S-400 units to Delhi is clearly a blow to China, not least because Beijing and Moscow have deepened bilateral ties over the past two years. Just in mid-September, the two countries conducted their first ever naval drills in the South China Sea, with the Russian government voicing cautious support for Chinese territorial claims over these contested waters.
The Indo-Russian arms deal weakens Beijing’s strategic position all along the LoAC. In this dynamic, there is no trace of the “mutual support” and “mutual trust” that Chinese President Xi Jinping and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin proclaimed last June, during the latter’s state visit to China, and that should orientate the handling of each side’s core interests.
It is not the first time that Russia’s weapons trade negatively affects China’s regional stakes. Like the defense agreement with India, Russian weapons sales to Vietnam — a claimant in the South China Sea as opposed to China — challenge the strategic scope of the relationship between Beijing and Moscow as well.
China’s non-alliance policy backfires
China has harshly criticized the United States’ decision to deploy a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense missile defense system in South Korea against the North Korean nuclear and ballistic threats, as it would alter the strategic balance in the area. But, in the case of India’s acquisition of Russia’s S-400 systems, Beijing has had to swallow the bitter pill, at least officially. It should however sound like an alarm bell for Chinese leaders, who cannot but note that their much-trumpeted partnership with Moscow is anything but unswerving.
If, on the one hand, a non-alliance policy gives Chinese leaders some sort of free rein, on the other it grants Beijing’s “strategic partners” the same chance; and Russia is coherently adapting to Asia-Pacific’s diplomatic marketplace, which is replete with strategic partnerships and where also Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi can boast the strategic nature of the Indo-Russian entente.