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Opinion | Russia and the India-China clash

With the dynamic between the three nations changed radically since 1991, Russia will not provide India an edge over China in a prospective war

Russia will not provide us an edge over China in a prospective war, nor will it take our side.
Russia will not provide us an edge over China in a prospective war, nor will it take our side.

US President Donald Trump wants desperately to insert himself into the India-China dispute but the two countries have sensibly ignored him and turned to Russian President Vladimir Putin as a neutral intermediary. Russia’s friendship with India is long-standing and its ties with China have been severely strained in the past. However, the two relationships have been moving in opposite directions. While India has shifted towards the American orbit, China and Russia have come steadily closer.

I saw one sign of that three years ago on a visit to Russia. We started in St Petersburg during its famed White Nights, a period of time around the summer solstice when the sky never darkens over the gorgeous metropolis on the edge of the Arctic Circle. Moscow, our next destination, was equally marvellous, familiarly cosmopolitan and yet very different from West Europe in ways difficult to pin down.

It was impossible to miss the Chinese presence in both cities. Members of Chinese tour groups crowded in front of the paintings in the Hermitage museum, more intent on getting pictures in the few seconds they had in front of the most famous exhibits than on absorbing the power of the art. They filled Red Square and filed noisily through the incredibly atmospheric, though unexpectedly small, chapels of St Basil’s Cathedral. I confirmed later that China, by a wide margin, accounts for the most tourists to Russia from outside the erstwhile Soviet Union. China also took over as Russia’s largest trading partner in 2010.

Russia is a relatively young nation and China a very old one. The first time they shared a connection was in the 13th century, when the armies of Chingis Khan and his heirs incorporated both into the largest contiguous empire in history. In the 15th century, the indigenous Ming dynasty that had succeeded the Mongols in China isolated the Middle Kingdom from the world. Russia, around the same time, began a preposterous expansion after overthrowing Mongol rule. From an unremarkable duchy in Eastern Europe, it grew steadily to become the largest country in the world, stretching as far as Canada once it had annexed Alaska. It became, in the process, the only European nation to share a border with China, chewing off chunks of what used to be Chinese land during that country’s debasement in the 19th century.

After the Bolshevik revolution of 1917, the Soviet Union supported China’s nationalist and communist parties in their fight against Japanese imperialism and, when the Chinese communists gained victory in the civil war that ended in 1949, it appeared to be the start of a durable and powerful alliance. Instead, the relationship turned dysfunctional and bellicose. Josef Stalin died in 1953 and was soon denounced by his successor, Nikita Khrushchev. China’s Mao Tse Tung, viewing this as a deviation from Marxism, denounced Khrushchev. The split caused fissures in communist parties across the globe, and India was no exception. The Communist Party of India continued its adherence to Moscow, while a breakaway faction, the Communist Party of India (Marxist), took the Chinese side.

Having positioned itself as the truly Marxist country, China should have been implacably opposed to the arch-capitalist nation, the US. Instead, based on the idea that his enemy’s enemy was a natural friend, Mao warmed to the US in the 1970s. And so it was that, entering the 1990s, democratic and notionally non-aligned India was a close friend of the Soviet Union and communist China had comfortable ties with the US.

China and Russia grew amicable after the breakup of the Soviet Union, settling border disputes that were once as tense as the current situation in Ladakh. But the dynamic between the two has altered dramatically, for Russia is now decisively the junior partner after decades of being dominant. In 1991, Russia’s average per capita income was $3,485 (around 2.6 lakh now), while China’s was just a tenth of that, at $334. Now they are neck and neck, with China in the low 10,000s and Russia in the low 11,000s, and it is only a matter of time before China pulls ahead. Given China’s massive population, its gross domestic product is now 8.5 times that of Russia.

Needless to say, China enjoys a trade surplus with its enormous neighbour. The late Raj Kapoor once joyfully sang, Mera joota hai japani, ye patloon inglistani, Sar pe lal topi rusi, phir bhi dil hai Hindustani (to use Salman Rushdie’s translation: O, my shoes are Japanese, these trousers English, if you please, on my head, red Russian hat, my heart’s Indian for all that). Russia, like the rest of the world, now glumly intones, Mera joota hai chini, ye patloon chini, sar pe lal topi bhi chini (to paraphrase, everything’s made in China). Despite Putin’s best efforts, his country remains over-dependent on oil, gas and its other natural riches and needs a China hungry for these products to keep prices at levels that balance its books.

Speaking of Raj Kapoor, the emotional bond that existed back when Russians loved Hindi movies and Indians grew up reading Soviet Land magazine has weakened considerably. There remains a wellspring of goodwill between the countries but the relationship has turned transactional, with India tied somewhat reluctantly to its legacy of Soviet weaponry.

The Union government’s first announced purchase in the aftermath of the border skirmish on 15 June was for an additional 21 MiG 29 fighters and 12 Sukhoi Su-30 MKI aircraft. Russia will sell those to us happily but it equips the Chinese with the same aircraft. Besides, the intellectual property stealing and reverse engineering wizards in China have taken important strides towards indigenizing fighter production. Russia will not provide us an edge over China in a prospective war, nor will it take our side.

Russia and China have both endured an increasingly toxic relationship with the US and it may be that the problems run deeper than the disruption caused by the current occupant of the White House. A number of commentators expect a polarized world order to emerge in the next decade, with China and the US as its hubs. If that happens, India might be forced to pick a side for the first time in its independent history, and it is clearer than ever, given the events of the past month, which side that will be.

Girish Shahane writes on politics, history and art.

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