New Delhi, Sep.25; Earlier this month, north-eastern Asia and northern Pacific Ocean drew global attention as Russian forces geared up for their biggest war games – Vostok 18 – since the end of the Cold War. This exercise took place from September 11 to September 17 at five ground testing areas and four aerial testing areas over the Sea of Japan and the Bering and Okhotsk seas.
Russia claimed that up to 300,000 troops (a third of the country’s armed forces), 1000 aircraft, 36,000 tanks and armoured vehicles were involved even as 3200 Chinese troops, 900 tanks and armoured vehicles as well as troops from Mongolia joined them in this endeavour. This raised the stakes even higher for the rest of the world.
This exercise was not merely a show of strength to the West but it also symbolised Russia’s growing rapprochement with China. These two countries which were once adversaries are now emerging as close partners. Border disputes between the two ended in 2004. As dissatisfaction with American policy has grown in Moscow and Beijing, a closer partnership is now looking enticing. The Trump Administration has declared these two nations as ‘strategic competitors.’
The timing of these exercises coincided with the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok which saw participation not only from the Chinese President Xi Jinping but also from a few of the closest partners of the US such as Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and South Korean Prime Minister Lee Nak-yeon.
Another interesting aspect of this exercise was that it was not a Sino-Russian joint military exercise. It was China that joined Russia in its largest military endeavour since the end of the Cold War though differences still exist between the two. China is still reluctant to increase investment in Russia and China also prefers the West when it comes to making investments or getting good education for Chinese youth. So this tactical shift in its behaviour can reverse itself very easily. For China, there is much to learn from Russia’s operational experience in war fighting. Though China’s military modernisation is leaving Russia far behind, its real time operational experience is rather limited. Russia’s experience in the Syrian conflict where it has sharpened its informational warfare and combined armed warfare techniques is something that Chinese military generals are eyeing with great interest.
The exercises highlight the growing divide between Russia and China on the one hand, and the US on the other. India has important stakes with all thea three powers involved. India’s relationship with the US has improved dramatically in recent decades. Though India is trying to diversify its defence requirements yet it remains dependent on Russia for its needs. The recent sanctions via CAATSA (Countering American Adversaries through Sanctions Act) by the US has the potential to further deteriorate its relations with Russia. Russia is very important for India in terms of nuclear security, cyber security, its intelligence needs as well as for securing crucial defence equipment such as S-400 anti-aircraft weapon systems.
China, meanwhile, has emerged as one of the biggest foreign policy challenges for India in recent times. Sino-Indian differences straddle various domains from growing trade deficit to border and water disputes. Pakistan continues to be a challenge to Sino-Indian relations. Though the Wuhan summit has tried to bridge the gap between the two countries, structural challenges continue to shape the divergent trajectory in Sino-Indian relations.
The fact that Sino-Russian relationship has grown to this extent where the two are now participating in joint military exercises underscores the rapidly evolving nature of this relationship and a fluid global strategic environment. Both are now more unified than ever in posing a challenge to the US-led global order. For India, this poses a real challenge. New Delhi has long maintained that it needs a close relationship with Moscow so that the Beijing-Moscow relationship could be dented. But India’s Russia outreach seems to have had a rather insignificant impact so far on the Russia-China dynamic. Russia is also reaching out to Pakistan despite Indian reservations and is changing its tune on the Afghanistan issue. It is now a strong votary of negotiating with the Taliban and has given short shrift to Indian reservations in this regard. Russia has been at the forefront of advising India not to challenge China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Given the challenge China poses to India on multiple fronts, this growing Sino-Russian collusion should ideally be at the top of the agenda when the Russian President visits India next month.
Global politics is evolving rapidly and great-power politics is back with a vengeance. History did not end in 1991 as Francis Fukuyama would have liked us to believe. Instead, it seems to have been a lull in a never ending contest between major powers.