The legend is that Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, during his path-breaking visit to India in 1955, told the Indians that all they had to do to get Russian help was to give a shout across the Himalayas. I don’t know how far this is true but it has an irrepressibly “Khrushchevian” ring about it.
This came to my mind with the news appearing that Beijing had proposed a meeting between the defense ministers of India and China, who happen to be in Moscow to attend the meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO).
One would assume that the Russian hosts had done their part in facilitating this exchange, the first political level meeting since the India-China standoff began in early May. What is absolutely certain is that Moscow is watching the India-China standoff and is aware of its grave implications for regional security and stability.
Having said that, the international environment remains complex and complicated. The tensions in Russia-US relations are at their highest level in the post-Cold War era. On the other hand, Russia-China relations are at their highest level in history.
The Indian government has keenly fostered close relations with the US, especially in the most recent past, while relations with China have touched a historically low point since normalization began in the 1980s.
The two “triangles” – US-Russia-China and the US-India-China – do not necessarily overlap. But in the prevailing calculus, they create synergy. What goes to India’s advantage is that it has excellent relations with both the US and Russia. Meanwhile, China’s relations with both the US and India remain tense, but then Beijing also seeks cooperation with both countries.
From the Russian viewpoint, it remains a matter of satisfaction that despite India’s deepening ties with the US, and notwithstanding growing pressures lately from Washington on New Delhi to whittle down its relations with Russia, the Russian-Indian relationship continues to be resilient in adapting to newer and newer conditions in a world order in flux.
Neither side is making undue demands on the other. Contradictions could appear if India edges closer to the United States’ “Indo-Pacific strategy” (code for containment of China). Russia has deplored the US strategy. But that is for the future.
Meanwhile, the rising tensions in India-China relations coincide with a significant deepening in Russia-China relations in the most recent period, as Moscow and Beijing have drawn closer to push back at US hegemony.
A high level of coordination and cooperation between Moscow and Beijing is apparent. For example, they worked closely to defeat the US move at the United Nations on “snapback sanctions” against Iran.
Again, in a recent message to Chinese President Xi Jinping, Russian President Vladimir Putin expressed readiness “to continue active efforts jointly with its ally China in order to prevent wars and conflicts in the world and ensure global stability and security.”
The military standoff in Ladakh has necessitated a big buildup of the Indian armed forces, and New Delhi is sourcing Russian weaponry. Indian Defense Minister Rajnath Singh is currently on his second visit to Moscow in the past two-months.
The Russian connection is crucial for India also for another reason. Russia is the only country that can act as facilitator for any eventual Chinese-Indian rapprochement. Russian diplomacy has shown to be adept at sequestering the country’s respective relationships with India and China.
All in all, in today’s circumstances, Russia has become a uniquely placed indispensable partner for India. Importantly, this is also the finest foreign-policy legacy of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, under whose watch the India-Russia relationship has steadily regained its verve.
Nonetheless, one should not overestimate Russia’s capacity to moderate the India-China border standoff. There are severe limitations in wading into boundary disputes between any two countries that impinge on their sovereignty and territorial integrity. This is one thing.
More important, the crux of the matter is that a dangerous situation prevails in eastern Ladakh. Realistically speaking, a restoration of “status quo ante” or an unconditional disengagement by the People’s Liberation Army frontline troops is not to be expected. In the Chinese perception, fundamentally, New Delhi has been pursuing “mission creep” that is not acceptable.
India’s sanctions lack any real bite. Its “Tibet card” and the “Quad” won’t impress the Chinese, either, and if India pushes the envelope, a severe blowback is almost sure to happen that may belie predictions. On the other hand, a prolonged standoff or race of attrition would put an intolerable burden on Indian resources.
The ubiquitous Americans are no longer the top dogs in Asia-Pacific region. In any case, it is unrealistic to expect them to do heavy lifting – deploy force, risk war, expend serious resources and invest America’s prestige and credibility – on issues that don’t relate directly to their vital interests or problems.
Public opinion in the US militates against any entanglement in a military conflict. To be sure, the US faces a conundrum, since it is trapped in this region but can neither transform it nor entirely wash its hands off it – be it Afghanistan and Central Asia or Pakistan and Iran.
Above all, the US’s domestic priorities will and should take precedence over any adventures abroad that are likely to absorb large resources or the president’s time. Evidently, squaring the circle in eastern Ladakh is going to be difficult even if India were to give a shout across the Himalayas.
M K Bhadrakumar is a former Indian diplomat.