Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Vladivostok next week as the chief guest at the Eastern Economic Forum, and for the annual bilateral summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin, comes at a time of Asian geopolitical flux. The US-China trade war has escalated, South Korea-Japan ties are under strain, Beijing appears poised to militarily crush Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement, and the deepening Sino-Pakistan strategic nexus has emboldened Islamabad to step up bellicose rhetoric against India.
The larger Asian challenges centre on ensuring respect for existing frontiers and establishing a pluralistic and stable regional order. India is wedged between two closely aligned, nuclear-armed and revanchist states that lay claim to large Indian territories. China is also the primary impediment to a stable balance of power.
Asia’s geopolitical landscape will be shaped by five key powers: America, China, India, Japan and Russia. Equations within this strategic pentagon will profoundly influence Asian geopolitics. As Asia’s geographical hub, China is especially vulnerable to the same geopolitical game it plays against India — strategic encirclement — if the other four powers cooperate with each other.
A joint grand strategy to manage a muscular China could aim to put discreet checks on the exercise of Chinese power by establishing counterbalancing coalitions around that country’s periphery. However, US President Donald Trump, with his unilateralist and protectionist priorities, has still to provide strategic heft to his “free and open Indo-Pacific” strategy. Consequently, China still pursues aggression in the South China Sea, as exemplified by its ongoing coercion against Vietnamese oil and gas activities within Vietnam’s own exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
Meanwhile, US sanctions against Russia and tariffs against China have counterproductively fostered a partnership between the world’s largest nuclear power and second-largest economy. Russia and China, however, are not natural allies but natural competitors. China’s rise has paralleled Russia’s decline.
Today, Chinese expansionism is bringing Central Asia’s ex-Soviet republics under China’s sway and threatening Moscow’s interests in the Russian Far East. Russia, the world’s largest country by area and richest in natural resources, shares a long border with a resource-hungry China, whose population is 10 times larger.
Chinese President Xi Jinping has called Putin his “best and bosom friend”. Yet, beneath the surface, all is not well. Despite booming economic ties, the Russia-China relationship is marred by political suspicions and wariness. In the India-Russia case, it is the reverse. Bilateral trade has shrunk noticeably, but political ties remain genuinely warm. An open secret in Moscow is that Russia’s main long-term geopolitical challenge centres on China. The marriage of convenience between the bear and the dragon is unlikely to last long, given their history of geopolitical rivalry, including Chinese-initiated military clashes in 1969.
When the rupture happens, it will have as profound an impact globally as the 1960s’ Sino-Soviet rift, which led to the US rapprochement with China. Indeed, the US-China strategic collusion since the 1970s contributed significantly to Soviet imperial overstretch and to the West’s ultimate triumph in the Cold War. Today, however, America, instead of establishing itself as a natural wedge between Russia and China, has become a bridge uniting them against it.
For India, the China factor has always been central to its strategic ties with Moscow. Indira Gandhi skilfully engineered Bangladesh’s birth after entering into a friendship treaty with Moscow — with a mutual-security assistance clause — to deter China from opening a second front against India. As the declassified Richard Nixon-Henry Kissinger transcripts attested, this duo sought to egg on China to attack India when Indian forces intervened to end the East Pakistan genocide (in which up to 3 million people were killed and nearly 400,000 women were raped, with almost 10 million fleeing to India).
Today, with the spectre of Asian power disequilibrium looming, the China factor has gained greater salience in India’s relationships with Russia, Japan and America. If these four powers worked together, China would find itself boxed in from virtually all sides, extinguishing the prospect of a Sino-centric Asia. Strategists both inside and outside the Trump administration have this logic in mind when pushing for rapprochement with Russia. But current US domestic politics will not allow that. Moreover, Russo-Japanese relations have yet to be normalized, thus constituting a missing link in the strategic pentagon.
By contrast, Modi’s visit underscores that Russia, with its strategic capabilities and vantage position in Eurasia, remains a key country for India’s geopolitical interests. Russia shares India’s objective for a stable power balance on a continent that China seeks to dominate.
Modi’s visit will yield a military logistics pact with Russia of the kind that India has already concluded with America and France, and is negotiating with Japan and Australia. The visit will also seek to diversify India-Russia cooperation by going beyond the four traditional areas — defence, energy, space and nuclear. With all like-minded powers, India seeks close friendship without dependence.
Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist.