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Asia Stream: The China-Russia-India love triangle

Both China and India refuse to condemn Russia's actions. What's keeping Beijing and Delhi from ditching Moscow?

NEW YORK -- Welcome to Nikkei Asia's podcast: Asia Stream.


Every week, Asia Stream tracks and analyzes the Indo-Pacific with a mix of expert interviews and original reporting by our correspondents from across the globe.

New episodes are recorded weekly and available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify and all other major platforms, and on our YouTube channel.

This week, we look at China and India, the major powers that still haven't condemned Russia's invasion of Ukraine and chose to abstain from reprimanding Moscow at the United Nations. What factors are compelling Beijing and New Delhi to stand by Russia?

We report the latest on Russia's China connection, while Dhruva Jaishankar of the Observer Research Foundation America tells us about India's delicate balancing act.

Asia Stream is hosted by Wajahat S. Khan, our digital editor and executive producer, and produced by both him and Jack Stone Truitt.

Related to this episode:

Quad urges India to condemn Russia over Ukraine, Mar 4, 2022

Analysis: China's CIPS cannot rescue Russian banks from SWIFT ban, Mar 3, 2022


TRANSCRIPT [not edited for copy and grammar]

(theme music in)

WAJAHAT S. KHAN, HOST: Hello and welcome to Asia Stream -- where we track, report, and analyze the issues and interests of the world's largest region. I am Waj Khan, Nikkei Asia's digital editor, here in New York City.

Today's episode: The China-Russia-India love triangle / The Sino-Indo-Russo love triangle.

As Russia's invasion of Ukraine turns into a brutal, all out war, beyond the casualties - which continue to pile - and the refugees - who continue to flee - and the sanctions - which continue to hurt the Russian economy - and the misinformation - which continues to be manufactured from all sides - the world is taking stock of who is standing by the side of Vladimir Putin.

This list is short. It features the usual bad boys of the international order - North Korea, Iran, Syria, and a smattering of less relevant actors - but two major powers really stand out for not condemning Russia's actions.

China and India.

The evidence lies right here, in New York.

Since the beginning of this year, the United Nations Security Council has met half a dozen times, and the General Assembly has met twice, to discuss Ukraine and reprimand Russia.

In the many votes and resolutions, both China and India continue to abstain. Besides their official lack of condemnation, many see this as a sign of support for Moscow.

But why are Beijing and New Delhi putting themselves in this position?

On the surface, China and India seem like an unlikely pairing.

China is the world's largest and most powerful authoritarian regime. The people's republic has exercised a very different strand of communism compared to the Soviet Union, and the Communist Party of China isn't, by any means, headed down the path the USSR took three decades ago.

As for India, well, the world's largest democracy, has turned into one of the world's most dynamic economies, with a robust Constitutional clarity for fundamental rights and a century-long tradition of voting.

Thus, it's no surprise that China and India are rivals. As the largest nations in Asia, indeed the world, this is expected. They've been on a war footing since 2020. They claim each other's territory. India just diplomatically boycotted the Beijing Olympics, but only after the Chinese gave the honor of torchbearer to a soldier who had fought Indian forces. Of course, India's western leanings have irritated China. Delhi has joined the US-led Quad that is meant to keep China in check in the Indo-Pacific. Meanwhile, Beijing has armed and supported India's archenemy, Pakistan, for decades, and continues to support and invest in other countries in India's neighborhood.

So why are both these rivals supporting Russia?

What does Moscow offer that both Beijing and Delhi are going out on a limb for it?

The answer for China is clearer: Both Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin enjoy a warm relationship. Russia has been moving increasingly closer to China in its economic ties with the People's Republic, and depends on the great Chinese hunger for energy for much of its oil and gas exports. Of course, Russia's is a much smaller economy, but in their rhetoric and actions, both Moscow and Beijing are equal partners in being declared anti-Western regimes, which continuously question and critique the U.S.-led order.

But what about India? Russia and India's dynamics are quite different. They barely trade. Unlike China and Russia, they don't have a common border. Yet, the ties between Moscow and Delhi go back decades, and are primarily based in security. India lives in a tough neighborhood. Since independence, it has fought one war with China, three with Pakistan, and countless skirmishes with both. To secure itself, it started tilting towards Moscow in the 1950s, as it became the first non-Communist country to receive Soviet weaponry. Over the decades, the Russia-India defense relationship has developed into the most robust one in the world. Today, Russia is the world's second biggest arms exporter, and India is its largest, and most loyal customer. Over 60 percent of India's armory is Russian-made or licensed.

Still, India is a democracy, and has shocked many observers by not criticizing Russia's actions. Is it that dependency on Russian weapons which is causing India to risk it's democratic credentials with the West? Or does Delhi have a larger scheme to consider, like ensuring that it's old Cold War ally and weapons dealer, Russia, doesn't go all out into the arms of its nemesis, China.

Thus, the China-Russia-India love triangle.

It's going to be a heck of a show. Tune in to understand the war behind the war.

You're listening to the sound of Asia, streaming in your ear.

From Nikkei Asia, this is Asia Stream.

(Theme music out).

KHAN: Now, the elephant - or perhaps in this case dragon - in the Russia-Ukraine war room is China. From Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin meeting on opening day of the Olympics, to however this conflict shall end, China's effect on Putin's decision-making and vice versa have played a massive role in the development of this invasion. Joining me in the studio to discuss it further is Asia Stream Correspondent Jack Stone Truitt. Jack, thank you for being here.

JACK STONE TRUITT: Thank you for having me

KHAN: So Jack, there seems to be a flurry of information out there about what China knew about Russia's invasion and when China knew it. What's going on here?

TRUITT: That is the central question right now as it relates to China's role in all of this. The New York Times has just reported that senior Chinese officials told their Russian counterparts in early February not to invade Ukraine while the Olympics were still ongoing, which of course would indicate that China had some knowledge of Russia's plans. This comes after earlier reporting that the U.S. actually shared classified intel with China months ago in the hopes they could do something to prevent it. So it seems extremely unlikely that Xi was not aware of Putin's plans to invade. We may never know, but it's possible Xi simply did not take the threat of a Russian invasion seriously, or that he simply miscalculated with the information he had.

KHAN: Ok but let's step back a bit. Why is China a part of the conversation regarding a conflict centered around NATO, taking place halfway across the world from Beijing.

TRUITT: So let's go back to that meeting between Putin and Xi in early February at the start of the Olympics. Putin is amassing troops on the border. The U.S. is warning of a possible invasion and threatening sanctions, and none of it seems to be dissuading the Russian President, and maybe that's in part because he feels that China has and will have his back.

KHAN: Other than rhetorically or sending in military support, how can China support Putin while the rest of the world cuts him off?

TRUITT: Since the invasion, the global response has been pretty unified and severe. Russia is cut off from European and American airspace, many oligarchs have had their assets frozen or seized, and most notably the global payments system known as SWIFT has banned several Russian banks from using it. All in all, Russia has been extremely economically isolated. And this is where China comes in. As the world's second biggest economy, access to Chinese capital could help mitigate these sanctions, and China's own Cross-Border Interbank Payment System (CIPS) could come into play instead of SWIFT. Though neither can fully make up for the kind of economic isolation Russia is experiencing.

KHAN: So...have they actually done any of this yet?

TRUITT: Not quite. So far China's response has been relatively nuanced and muted. They've yet to call Russia's actions an invasion and continue to harp on NATO expansion as playing a role in this conflict, but China's UN Ambassador Zhang has said that the "situation has evolved to a point which China does not want to see." The invasion also violates all concepts of national sovereignty - something Beijing takes very seriously.

KHAN: And they've begun to use that S-word, sovereignty, quite often at the UN too. So, difficult one to answer, but what does this all mean right now for Mr. Xi?

TRUITT: It's far too early to make any major declarations. But recall that on the eve of Russia's invasion one major talking point was whether or not it would serve as a blueprint for China to possibly invade Taiwan. So far, the obstacles Russia has faced both in the invasion itself and from the global response to it may serve as a warning sign to the difficulty China could have in a military campaign of their own. It also could bolster America's resolve in defending the island. Just this week a delegation arrived in Taipei including former Sec. of State Mike Pompeo to affirm U.S. support.

KHAN: Of course it could also be a lesson in how to navigate the choppy waters of an international sanctions regime as well. A bit of wargaming to see what happens when you invade a little piece of real estate that may or may not be yours, by international law. So, how about going forward?

TRUITT: Remember that it's a critical year for Xi who is seeking to secure an unprecedented third term during the party congress in the fall, and given the broad global consensus condemning Russia's invasion, it's unlikely he will make any major moves and risk a political backlash at home.

KHAN: Right, any major moves like risking WWIII Jack Stone Truitt, thank you for joining us.

TRUITT: Thank you.

KHAN: Now, just before he got to China to meet Xi Jinping at the Olympics, guess where Vladimir Putin was.


Just as Russian troops were amassing on the Ukrainian border in December, Putin was in Delhi, for what was his second international trip during the pandemic.

Putin's tour was meant to coincide with yet another important weapons deal with India, one of many the two countries have inked since the 1950s.

This time, Russia was delivering the sophisticated S400 air defense system to the Indians.

Worth around $5.4 billion dollars, the S400 is considered as one of the most advanced weapons platforms in the world. But more than what it can do - which is shoot down enemy aircraft from the ground - it is the politics behind the system that are more intriguing.

By buying the S400 from the Russians, the Indians have risked sanctions from their new partners, the US. The Turks, who are NATO allies of the US, purchased the same system from the Russians and triggered the wrath of those sanctions from Washington, which essentially cut off Turkey from most future weapons deals with the US.

By buying the system, the Indians, who are not US allies, but are increasingly active in groups like the Quad - a security partnership between the US, India, Japan and Australia - have exposed themselves to the same.

The thinking is simple: With its rival China, nuclear-armed, and nemesis Pakistan, also nuclear-armed, on its borders, and a decades-old defense relationship with Russia still intact, why should India bet all on American weapons?

Some think this explains why Delhi didn't condemn Moscow when its invasion began. Although prime minister Modi appealed to Putin "for an immediate cessation of violence" in a phone call on the first day of the war, Indian officials have steered clear of blaming the Russian president. Instead, New Delhi continues to stay in touch with both Moscow and Kyiv as it has prioritized evacuation operations for thousands citizens on Ukraine's borders.

But balancing acts are tricky, and risk upsetting the same parties one is trying to please. Is India risking it's democratic credentials?

To discuss this complicated place that India finds itself in - an indispensable partner of the West on the one hand, but an old customer of Russia's on the other - I spoke to Dhruva Jaishankar, the Executive Director of the Observer Research Foundation America. He is also a Non-Resident Fellow with the Lowy Institute in Australia, and former fellow at the Brookings Institution and the German Marshall Fund. Here is our conversation.


To discuss this complicated place that India finds itself in - an indispensable partner of the West on the one hand, but an old customer of Russia's on the other - I am joined by Dhruva Jaishankar, the Executive Director of the Observer Research Foundation America. He is also a Non-Resident Fellow with the Lowy Institute in Australia, and former fellow at the Brookings Institution and the German Marshall Fund. Dhruva thank you for joining Asia Stream.

KHAN: Dhruva, welcome to Asia stream.


KHAN: All right now, Drew, let's get straight to business. India needs both the US and Russia to contain China, we've heard this story, but explain the dilemma to us. How is it on the ground? What are the actual compulsionsthat are keeping India in this weird, tricky balancing high wire act?

JAISHANKAR: And so first of all, I wouldn't say that the object has to contain China. I think that's not necessarily the Indian objective or that of any other country. But there is a serious concern about a disputed boundary between India and China in 2020. It was it's a major it is a major security challenge. But beyond that, I think India sees like other countries concerns about Chinese assertiveness in the Indian Ocean region concerns about the Belt and Road Initiative about its market principles and trade practices and on counters with global norms, freedom of navigation and overflight being just one of them. So there's a whole variety of concerns about China's growing strategic challenge for India. And in this context, India has sought partners in many places, most importantly, the US which shares many of those concerns, but also Japan, Australia, those four countries, of course, constitute the Quad which has now been formalized and now meets on a regular basis. But an old partner has also been Russia. And India has had this relationship a defense relationship with Russia from the late 1950s. It has had an aid relationship from the mid 1950s. Before that, India was actually among the first recipients of outside non communist recipients of Soviet aid. In 1971, of course, India and then the Soviet Union signed a treaty and since period last 20 years of the Cold War in the very firmly tilted in towards the Soviet Union in the 1990s and 2000s. A lot of that relationship continued, but it was really became mostly a one dimensional defense relationship. And even to this day, about 60% of India's Defense imports, if you take it over a five or 10 year span, come from Russia. That share has been declining the US US exports to India have grown, French exports have grown, Israeli exports have grown but Russia remains the biggest external supplier of Indian military hardware including for some very critical components for critical platforms: Sukhoi 30 fighters which also frontline fire, along with Rafale fighter jets are so the frontline fighters that India has, a nuclear attack submarine nuclear powered attack submarines which Russia leases and a whole range of ballistic missile defense India has entered into an agreement of somewhat controversial agreement about importing S 400 ballistic missiles defense system.

KHAN: So, Dhruv, that clearly creates a more complicated narrative than the one which one usually reads that, oh, India, has been dealing with the Russians for all so so many years. And India is not in a comfortable spot with China. And thus, it needs Russia to balance it off. Because there's more actors here, right? India's relationship with China may be tense, yes, the two countries have been at war footing essentially for the last couple of years but they trade so much more than Indian Russia, for example. Meanwhile, the Indian relationship with the US hasn't been static, as you pointed out, they've been increasingly proximate. They trade. From a zero, literally nail from 2007 or eight, the defense ties have now ballooned to up to I think maybe 20 billion or so. Of course, the American Indian trade relationship and strategic relationship is getting closer, literally by the moment. But this is not a balancing act. This is a triple or quadruple act if you throw in the neighbors as well, the Pakistan's of the world, which are moving closer to Moscow, the Myanmar's of the world, which are moving closer to Beijing. So can you explain to me how complicated it is? What is the way forward for them as far as what can they do and what can't they do?

Look, I think it's quite clear. India has two major, major security concerns China and Pakistan. The China concern has grown in recent years, the Pakistan concern as comes and goals, and they've been crises in the recent past. But it's seen as a more manageable problem. But definitely the overarching concern. And there is it's not just in the South Asian context, not just with between India and China, this is now you know, having a global implication. So this question of India, Russia relations, in some ways, the central dilemma and all of that, and I think there is some genuine concern and there's no reason to unnecessarily antagonize the Russian relationship, to push them away to push them as they see it into the arms of China. That is starting to happen. Anyway, there is a growing Russia-China relationship. It's gotten much, much deeper and much faster than many had anticipated, and sometimes not completely in Russia's favor since 2014. Russia has become much more dependent on China, including for energy exports, but it's translated into a number of other areas. So for example, we're seeing Russia- China cooperation in what will ones consider very sensitive domains such as ballistic missile defense, which was completely off the table since the 1960s. But now is back we seeing, as you mentioned, new Russia Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan was was in Moscow just last week. So we're seeing starting to see some exploratory ties, there are both commercial and security related, you're starting to the Russian position on Afghanistan. And until the 1990s, India and Russia were cooperating quite closely in supporting the Northern Alliance against the Taliban. But essentially, from India's point of view, Russia has switched sides now in today's become much more accommodating of the Taliban largely due to what they perceive as internal security reasons. But it also has led to a greater coordination with China and Pakistan. So I think these are the sort of ground realities that are changing in the India Russia relationship. But that being said, I think there it remains one of India's, you know, intermediate diminishing points, where remains one of India's critical partners, defense being again, the key pillar, but civil nuclear and nuclear commerce is quite significant, for example, space cooperation, energy cooperation, including both coal investments that India has in the Far East and the oil and natural gas, again, it remains an important partner. And from India's point of view, there's no unnecessary reason to push it further away, given the continuing importance for Indian national security

KHAN: Fair, now, moving forward. We're going to project things, it's there's already signs that by striking this tricky high wire balancing act, through India risks in the end, nobody being happy with it. It risks losing Russia, it risks the White House, where the American President, last week had a quite a terse remark about the Indians. And of course, on the ground, one has seen problems arise between the two missions of the United Nations as well, the US and the Indian Mission. If you were a war gamer, or a betting man, play this out for us, how will India manage to really hurt either one of its relationships?

JAISHANKAR: Look, I think the current crisis, particularly it's been a week, less than a week since the full invasion by Russia, of Ukraine and emotions are running high in Washington still, and not just Washington, European capitals and elsewhere. I think what a crisis like this has done is it has brought out all of the skeptics of the US-Western relationship in India in full force. And it's brought out all the skeptics of the India relationship in the US and full force. And I think that's going to happen, people who it reinforces their viewpoints that this is a relationship that's not going to materialize. But I think it's important to keep a few things in mind, which is one, I think, over the long term, the big geopolitical competition is not going to be between the US and Russia, it's going to be between the US and China. And in that sense, the analogy doesn't fully hold of those Cold War era analogies where India was trying to make choices between the US and the Soviet Union. I think a second thing is that again, look at the broader trajectory of India, Russia relations on the one hand and in the US relations, and they tell two rather different stories. And I think what again, most people who follow that know that and know that's the case, I think the third thing to keep in mind is I think there has been a great deal of understanding particular on the part of the US pre US officials of India's predicament. And we saw the State Department basically say that now obviously, they would like onside, and there has been given India's position at the UN Security Council, there has been extra scrutiny of India's position that otherwise might not have been there. So I think we're in for a period of jostling right now. But again, the longer term structural factors, I think, will define the relationship over the long run in the US relations have gone through far worse in the recent past, as I see it.

KHAN: And last couple of questions. Yes, it's early days in the war. But even in the build up, and since the debates began at the United Nations, one has seen a very slow change in India's positioning and language. One has seen a similar change coming from Beijing as well, the other partner of Moscow, but this is quite different from 2014. When, of course, the Crimea was taken by the Russians. And India, A) abstained and B) did not support those sanctions. It seems like the language is beginning to change. Just moments ago before this interview, there was a vote on the floor of the UN General Assembly, where India again abstained from voting. Can you perhaps reflect on how different things are from 2014 to now? And now in the last couple of weeks? How have the Indians been changing their position especially since Prime Minister Modi has started to engage with leaders on the ground?

JAISHANKAR: I think it's complicated. The number one priority right now and maybe for a couple more days, at least perhaps another week will be the safety and well being of about 20,000 Indian citizens who are in Ukraine and we've had at least two deaths as of now of those Indian citizens what one was a medical emergency but their their well being is the number one priority and that requires maintaining good relations insofar as possible with the Ukrainian authorities as well as European neighbors, Poland, Slovakia, Moldova, Romania, Hungary, but also with Russia as well. And in fact, today, the shelling of Kharkiv in particular, the some something like 4000 Indian students whose evacuation is still up in the air requires, in some ways, the Russian authorities. So I think that's actually the number one priority. But that being said, there have been a few developments since India's first initial position was articulated at the UN Security Council on this issue in late February. One is you have seen India now, as you mentioned, China, but repeatedly mentioned respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, finding diplomatic solutions, non military solutions, and end to conflict. And I think that's about as pointed as they will get when it comes to Russia, despite abstaining on the vote. The second thing is, I think Prime Minister Modi, after speaking to Prsident Putin on the first day of full hostilities on Feb. 24th 25th did eventually also speak to President Zelinsky. And I think that sort of helped to some show in some ways where India was positioning itself. And then also India has provided some humanitarian assistance planeload that just arrived in the last day or two to Ukrainian border via Poland and Romania. So I think that these have transpired since India, staked out its original position. It hasn't led to a change in votes and in any way. And I said, Because of India's continuing relationship with Russia, I'd be very surprised if it would dramatically change its position on that front. But these things have been some indicators. What has gone into that I think the big difference in 2014 is the scale of the conflict if nothing else, so one was a very limited action in Crimea and the Donbas. But this is obviously on a scale that is completely different. And I think that this has to be taken into account the sanctions that the West is imposing on Russia, likely to be much are already much more severe on an order of magnitude, but also likely to be much more long lasting from this, and that will have secondary implications for India, amongst other countries. I think that's the main thing that differentiates today from the 2014 context.

KHAN: Dhruv, finally, please expand on why the Indian vote and positioning in this entire gambit matters. Frankly, Pakistan's abstained as well, but it's not as important. Perhaps the UAE has abstained, but again, not as important. So many Middle Eastern countries, Southeast Asian countries are sitting this one out. Nobody really cares. But India keeps on, whether it's in the press, or in the great conversation about this conflict. India keeps on popping up as an important significant fence sitter, why does India matter more than other countries when it comes to its weighing in this conflict weigh in on that for us?

JAISHANKAR: So I think, broadly three reasons or some combination thereof, I think one is the fact that India is on the UN Security Council, which puts it in greater gives it greater scrutiny than if it had not been on the on the Security Council at this point of time. So I say compared to is, at least initially, Israel or Indonesia's position, which was similar, India and the UAE really are the ones that have abstained. And I think there has been a desire on the part of the US to if they can swing India, that the UAE sort might follow suit. At least that's what's believed. And that would essentially isolate China and Russia on the Security Council. So in that sense, I think India is really seen as the key swing vote at the UNSC at the General Assembly, much broader, many more countries abstained on it. But I think if you look at it, India is perhaps the largest democracy on that. And I think that, I think, is what would have stood out to a lot of people examining, examining that. So I think that's in some ways, why at the UNGA perhaps that matters. I think the third reason is on more on the economic front, which is if the idea is to impose a crushing sanctions on Russia, and the more sub large economies you can peel off and from the US point of view, or friend from the European point of view, the more cooperation you can get from the larger economies, the more it will isolate Russia economically. And I think China may be a bridge too far. I think nobody believes that China will fully follow the sanctions, although they may be secondary sanctions that will affect Chinese companies. But the other big one would be India, you know what we've seen even Singapore, Japan, South Korea cooperate, Australia cooperating a lot of the sanctions getting I think, India and to some degree, some of the Middle Eastern economies on board, some of the Southeast Asian economies on board would be from their point of view, high priorities in terms of isolating Russia economically. So I think for these reasons, you've seen the attention, which you haven't seen in past crises affected or focused on India,

KHAN: And forgive my persistence. If the Americans were to hold a gun to Delhi's head today, what would that gun be? And second part is, what would India do about taking a position on this predicament?

JAISHANKAR: I doubt we get to that point, because again, as I said, I think there's a degree of understanding and a degree of cooperation and connect to in this ub day to day job coperation going on between India and the US and a whole bunch of issues including defense that's ongoing right now. And giving an ultimatum like that won't help at this point with with the partnership is just developing it in many ways. But that being said, I think if India was forced to choose on the defense side today, it might choose Russia, if it was just if we're just looking at the defense relationship.

KHAN: Wow. That's quite a claim.

JAISHANKAR: Yeah, yeah, again, more than 50% of your defense imports, when your defense industry is still very integrated with Russia. That's that's the case. But I think if you were to the look at the overall relationship, and that includes the economic relationship, and clearly I think India's interests, live much more with the West and look at Indian businesses are much more integrated into the West, dependent on financial systems in Europe and the US. So I think if you look at the overall sort of relationship, it's quite clearly if I were to look at so do our cost benefit analysis, I think it quite clearly which way it lines up. But if if we're just looking narrowly at the defense relationship today, I think Russia still would be still remains the biggest most important partner for India.

That was Dhurva Jaishankar of ORF America from Washington DC.

That's it for Asia Stream this week.

(Theme music in)

KHAN: As always, I encourage you to head to Nikkei Asia at for more in-depth coverage of the Ukraine invasion, and all things related to Asia. If you enjoyed this podcast, please share, subscribe and leave us a review -- and hopefully, a five-star rating! And a reminder that Nikkei Asia is currently offering an exclusive discount for our podcast listeners: to redeem please click the link in the episode description. This episode was produced by myself and Jack Stone Truitt. I'm your host, Waj Khan.

Let's stream on, next week.

(Theme music out)

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