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Untangling alliances, ideologies in Russian aggression

Complex history and politics are key factors in Russia, China, India relationships
Political and economic relationships between Russia, Indian and China are deep, intertwined and complex. 

What are Canadians to make of the countries showing ambivalence in their willingness to criticize Russia for waging war on Ukraine?

In a vote earlier this month at the United Nations General Assembly, 141 countries voted to adopt a resolution condemning the Russian military assault. It is not surprising, analysts say, which were among the five countries that opposed the resolution. The list included Russia, Belarus (its ally in the attack), as well as dictatorial regimes with close links to Moscow (North Korea, Syria).

Less clear is the position of the 35 countries that abstained from the vote. They range from world powers with shared interests against the United States (China) and states with close historical links to Moscow (South Africa, Mongolia, Vietnam) to countries whose positions are much more nuanced (India, United Arab Emirates).

But while all these countries may have abstained from the vote condemning Russia, their reasons for abstaining reveal fundamental differences in positions and ideologies, said one leading foreign policy analyst.

“For some, a symbolic vote at the UN Security Council seems important,” said Shuvaloy Majumdar, Munk senior fellow at think-tank Macdonald-Laurier Institute and the former director of policy at federal Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “For me, there’s also the material things being done – that nations are undertaking ... in their bilateral relationship with Russia. Some are supporting Russia generally, with how they voted with an abstention but are then backing Russia in other ways. India also voted with an abstention, but it’s a very different qualifier.”

The contrast between the Indian and Chinese abstention votes, Majumdar said, is key to understanding just how different the positions behind the same vote can be.

In India’s case – perhaps the most surprising UN abstaining vote for some – Majumdar said it is crucial to understand that country’s history, geopolitical position and democratic nature and its growing alliances with partners like Australia and Japan to counter Chinese expansion in Asia.

“For India, they do have a tradition of non-alignment,” Majumdar said, noting New Delhi has largely maintained that position against regional alliances since the founding of the modern Indian republic in 1950. “Only in the last number of years with Chinese aggression have they become more focused on a new alliance to replace their non-alignment.”

What India’s non-alignment has had to contend with since the 1950s is the ongoing conflict at its borders with not only China but also Pakistan. When the West started warming to China in the 1970s to counter the Soviet Union and to capitalize on the opening of the Chinese economy, India had to look elsewhere for its defence requirements.

That elsewhere was the Soviet Union, a relationship that continued after the USSR devolved into the Russian Federation. Today, as much as 60% of the Indian defence supply chain may be linked to Russia, Majumdar said, and abstaining from a UN vote demonstrates the fact that those links are still needed to protect the country’s territorial sovereignty while new supply chains with democratic partners are being established.

“What was really interesting to me was the qualifying explanation that they gave through their ambassador at the United Nations, in which they laid bare their discomfort with what Russia is doing,” Majumdar said. “They’ve deployed four ministers surrounding the Ukraine issue to engage the Ukrainian government.... Yes, they are beginning to diversify their defence supply chains to democratic, trusted partners. But those things take time.”

That also speaks to Canada’s need to increase its voice in supporting democratic partners globally like India to avoid future situations like this, he added.

“We have an Atlantic coast and a Pacific coast, which again, there’s only a handful of countries that can say that. We have the capacity to help define the alliance among the world’s democracies in terms of how we think about our shared rivals and their intentions.... That’s what we should be doing.”

The Indian example contrasts sharply with China’s, where Majumdar said Beijing’s abstention was accompanied by a softening of import rules on Russian commodities like wheat.

Gordon Houlden, director emeritus of the China Institute at the University of Alberta, agreed that Beijing will likely continue to side with Russia (even with the UN abstention) based on a “no limits” friendship statement jointly issued by the two countries just before the 2022 Beijing Winter Games started last month.

And while Houlden agreed that Beijing will likely side with Moscow for the foreseeable future when it comes to dealing with the West, he added that China – with a singular focus on stability at all costs – was unlikely to be fully support Moscow’s decision to invade Ukraine.

That hesitance may be reflected in both the UN abstention vote and in China-led international institutions like the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) putting lending in Russia and Belarus on hold.

“China has an opaque system where the leadership … doesn’t broadcast its innermost thinking policy process,” Houlden said. “I don’t think [Russian president Vladimir] Putin was upfront with China about precisely what it was going to do ... because China did not make any serious effort to deal with some 6,000 Chinese nationals in Ukraine. So I think Beijing has been taken aback to some extent ... including by western reaction and the coherence of NATO.”

In that sense, Houlden said Chinese programs that are more directly under the purview of president Xi Jinping, such as the controversial Belt and Road Initiative, will likely continue to engage Russia, while initiatives with a more international management scope (i.e. the AIIB) will pull back to ensure European and other trade partners do not treat such institutions with the same strong rejections they issued towards Russia.

But Houlden noted that Russia’s economic struggles in the face of overwhelming western sanctions may push it closer to China – but in a way where the post-Second World War dynamic of the USSR playing a “big brother” role to the then-fledgling People’s Republic is reversed.

“China is certainly not a client state of Russia like Belarus or Syria,” he said. “The power equation there is now completely different.”