Russia is poised to deliver its sophisticated S-400 air defense system to India. Image: Twitter

On January 26, India’s annual Republic Day will likely be celebrated in style with parades, shows and spectacular displays by the nation’s armed forces. New Delhi’s show of strength this year will be especially closely watched amid high and rising military tensions with China, which first erupted in violent skirmishes along the Himalayan border in May 2020.

China may have provocatively pre-empted India’s parade on December 29 when it officially “standardized” the spelling of 15 places — eight villages, four mountains, two rivers and a mountain pass — in areas of the northeastern Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, essentially giving them new Chinese-sounding names.

China lays claim to about 90% of Arunachal, which it refers to it as Zangnan, or “southern Tibet.”

But as tensions bubble and rise between Asia’s two giants, Russia sits quietly, if not perilously, in the middle of the most volatile Himalayan border standoff seen in decades. China and India are the world’s top two buyers of Russian military hardware, and any border war would be fought with both sides deploying arms and equipment procured from Moscow.

Such a scenario would put Russia-China ties to a crucial test, one that would further complicate the prevailing narrative of a New Cold War pitting Moscow and Beijing on one side and Washington and its allies on the other. Russia and China have formed a broad strategic partnership that has deepened in recent years vis-à-vis United States in theaters ranging from the Asia-Pacific to the Middle East.

But Russia’s legacy strategic ties underwritten by lucrative arms deals with allies and partners forged during the previous Cold War and who are now aligned overtly or at least partly against China’s various regional ambitions could ultimately limit how closely Beijing and Moscow draw together as New Cold War strategic allies.  

Russian and Chinese soldiers take aim in a 2018 joint military exercise. Image: Twitter

Nowhere is that contradiction more apparent than in the standoff in the South China Sea between China and Vietnam over contested territory and the militarization of maritime features. Russian arms represent 84% of Vietnam’s military hardware imported from abroad, a legacy of the two sides’ old Cold War alliance as communist brothers-in-arms then opposed to both the US and China.

“As tensions between Vietnam and China in the South China Sea escalated from the mid-1990s, Russia became instrumental in the modernization of Vietnam’s armed forces [and ] Moscow’s military assistance has helped transform the Vietnamese military into one of Southeast Asia’s most modern and capable armed forces, providing Hanoi with a limited but potent deterrent against China,” Ian Storey, a security analyst at Singapore’s Yusof Ishak Institute, notes in a December 2021 report on Russia’s arms sales in the region.

Russia’s increasingly sophisticated arms sales to India are likely also viewed dimly in Beijing. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), Russia exported US$7.53 billion worth of military equipment to India from 2015 to 2019, while Chinese imports of Russian wares amounted to $4.76 billion during the same period.

But, as Storey points out in his report, “Russia’s most important traditional customers — especially China and India — are committed to developing their domestic arms industries to reduce dependence on foreign suppliers in order to achieve a higher level of self-sufficiency.”

India is also eager to diversify its imports, with the United States and France being the main partners in defense procurement. For its part, as Storey also states, China “is a particular source of frustration for Russia because some of its arms exports are copied or retro-engineered from military equipment originally purchased from Russia.”

Russia, the world’s second-largest arms exporter after the United States, is finding lucrative new markets in Southeast Asia, where many states are seeking to arm to deter a rising China. Russia is now a bigger arms supplier than the United States in the strategic region, seen as a key battleground for influence between Washington and Beijing.

According to SIPRI, from 2000 to 2019 Russian military sales to Southeast Asian nations totaled $10.70 billion compared with $7.86 billion during the same period for the United States. Russia’s regional sales advantage is likely growing as Moscow cultivates a new, reliable partner in military-run Myanmar.

Myanmar’s military is using Russian helicopters and other weaponry to bombard ethnic rebels and pro-democracy resistance groups. Image: Twitter

While Myanmar’s junta is deploying Russian arms against rising pro-democracy and ethnic armed forces, the weapon purchases also hedge its traditional dependence on China. Russia is also cranking up weapons sales to Indonesia and even Malaysia, both of which have rising disputes with China in the South China Sea.

That is hardly surprising as “unlike the US and European countries, Russia does not make defense sales contingent on the human rights record of the receiving country,” wrote Storey in his study.

Russia’s military hardware is also cheaper than similar equipment offered by the US and Europe, and unlike Western exporters, “Moscow is often willing to accept payment using a combination of hard currency and barter trade, including commodities,” he notes.

For the US, where human rights issues must be weighed against geostrategic considerations, policymakers have to tread carefully so as not to upset or even antagonize allies and partners. The US recently lifted an arms embargo on Vietnam, an ally in the South China Sea contest vis-a-vis China, but given Hanoi’s abysmal human-rights record US politicians are unlikely to endorse any game-changing arms sale to Vietnam.

India, an even more important regional ally, is set to take delivery of Russia’s S-400 advanced missile-defense system as part of a wider $5 billion arms deal with Moscow. Such an advanced weaponry purchase from Russia would normally trigger US sanctions in accordance with the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), which was promulgated in 2017 to penalize Russia’s defense industries.

But because India’s cooperation is increasingly needed to counter China, the US will ultimately likely turn a blind eye to the sophisticated arms deal, which while being Russia’s single richest arms deal in recent years will also inevitably be deployed to neutralize China’s threat including on the Himalayan border.

The S-400 missile-defense system can tackle air threats from up to 400 kilometers away.

Russia is set to sell its sophisticated S-400 anti-missile defense system to both China and India. Image: Facebook

China, the first nation to acquire Russia’s S-400, has already deployed part of its arsenal at air bases in Xinjiang and Tibet – not far from the contested border areas with India at Ladakh and Arunachal. India could soon have the same Russian-made systems on its side of the border, setting the stage for a possible China-India war with Russian armaments launched from both sides.

Apart from the need to import defense systems from Russia to counter China, India also reportedly wants more of a role in Afghanistan, where Russia, China and Pakistan remain key players following the Taliban’s seizure of power and America’s military withdrawal.

As a US ally, India was a major player in Afghanistan before the Taliban’s takeover. But closer defense cooperation with Russia could bring India back into the equation, which will be plain to see when the presidents of five Central Asian, former Soviet republics will be in attendance as foreign guests on the Rajpath in New Delhi on January 26.

While the old Cold War had mainly clear battle-lines, its 21st-century incarnation is a mish-mash of overlapping and sometimes conflicting partnerships where it is difficult to discern friend from a foe.

That realpolitik fact will challenge China and Russia’s anti-US alliance in Asia, where Moscow is poised to crank up arms sales to restore its regional influence and prestige – often at China’s strategic expense.

Follow Bertil Lintner on Twitter at @gardlunden