What Ukraine Invasion Means for China and India?
“There will be no escalation in the coming week either, or in the week after that, or in the coming month,” declared Vladimir Chizhov, Russia’s envoy to the European Union, on February 16th. This was just a week before Russian forces invaded Ukraine in a “special military operation” to “denazify” the country. The Russian invasion of Ukraine is not a unique crisis, as we have witnessed the invasions of Iraq, Libya, Syria and Afghanistan in the near past. However, the world’s most powerful countries have rarely used force to expand their boundaries or set up client states in their region since the end of the Cold War. The Russian Invasion of Ukraine, thus, questions the stability of the liberal international world order and places many non-western countries, including China and India, in an uncomfortable position.
The People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) position on the Ukraine crisis has swung between finding a balanced position and leaning in favour of Moscow. It has called for the use of political settlements and multilateral platforms, including the Normandy format, to seek a settlement to the Ukraine Crisis. But it has also blamed the United States (US) and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) for its historic aggression and the ongoing conflict. China has tried to stick to its long-held principles of non-interference and territorial integrity, but also showed support for Russia by highlighting Russia’s legitimate security reasons and NATO’s expansion in foreign minister, Wang Yi’s, official statement on the Ukraine crisis. It has also avoided any language that criticises Russia for its invasion, and has oscillated between suggesting that Russia has security concerns that justify its actions, to directly accusing the US of instigating the war.
Notably, Beijing has opposed the sanctioning of Russia and has reportedly decided to provide economic help as Russia comes under mounting pressure going ahead due to economic sanctions. In a symbolic gesture post the invasion, Chinese customs authorities issued a notice allowing the import of wheat from all Russian territories on February 24 – the day when Russia invaded Ukraine. Furthermore, the latest reports highlight that China has already decided to provide Russia with economic and financial support during its war on Ukraine and is contemplating sending military equipment, including armed drones.
Chinese dilemma stems from two factors: economic and on principles. First, Ukraine and China are strategic partners; China has been Ukraine’s largest trading partner since 2019; it is one of the major destinations of investments for the Chinese firms and also a member state of China’s Belt and Road Initiative. However, Beijing and Moscow share a closer relationship of “comprehensive strategic partnership of cooperation” [quánmiàn zhànlüè hézuò huǒbàn guānxì], which could also be interpreted as a de facto alliance.
But more importantly, Beijing faces a dilemma on principles, as universalist liberal internationalist order - the principles of “sovereignty, territorial integrity and non-interference” – is placed against the ultra-nationalist principles which support historical relativism and could justify actions using nomenclatures like “security concerns.” For now, Beijing looks to be inclined towards later - the same principles that the PRC has used in the past to highlight “American hypocrisy and double standards.”
Indian Policy Quandaries
Similarly to China, Indian policy quandaries stem from how to strike a balance between opposing Russia’s aggression and maintaining good relations with Moscow. Furthermore, its confusion also stems from balancing its relations between the Quad countries - which is emerging as an anti-China partnership - and Russia, which shares a historical relationship with India and also is its major weapons supplier. The India–Russia relationship is officially characterised as a ‘special and privileged strategic partnership’. The entente between Moscow and Delhi dates back decades, however, the bond is no longer the de facto alliance as it once in the 1970s and 1980s.
For India, it’s important that it should not be viewed as approving of Russia’s actions in Ukraine. Its “neutrality” stand, which resembles closely with the post-independence Non-Alignment movement, has already made it look the weakest link in the Quadrilateral security grouping. Worsening India’s dilemma is the fact that the Ukraine Crisis is unfolding when India-China are involved in military escalation on the Line of Actual Control (LAC).
Opportunities and Limitations for China and India?
Although the balancing act resembles challenges for China, the ongoing crisis also brings two major opportunities. First, the Pivot to Asia introduced by the Obama administration and the withdrawal of the forces from Afghanistan meant that the US would focus its diplomatic, military and economic resources in the Indo-Pacific region (for containing China). However, the recent crisis will again pull the US back in Europe, temporarily, allowing the PRC to fill the vacuum. Second, the US and the West’s response to the Ukraine crisis will be studied carefully in Beijing as it sets parameters for the US response in case of a Taiwan invasion scenario.
For India, the situation brings more challenges than opportunities. First, India has to walk a tightrope between the west and Russia – perhaps even play a silent bystander in the conflict. But more importantly, China’s rise in the Indo-Pacific region, if the US gets pulled back in Europe, would be a less than ideal scenario for India - perhaps also impacting the balance of power for the region in the future.
Suyash Desai is a research scholar working on Chinese defence and foreign policies. Currently, he is studying the traditional Chinese language at National Sun Yat-Sen University, Kaohsiung, Taiwan.