Gazi Hassan and Mona Thakkar
Major Players and Geopolitics
The Asia-Pacific region is at the centre of global geopolitics with major powers competing for influence and control. Chinese assertiveness and expansionism is growing in the region, particularly in South China Sea, by claiming all and parts of the disputed islands and simultaneously building military and naval bases on these islands. The US, on other hand, is enforcing its own narrative of Asia-Pacific by renaming its US Pacific Central Command to Indo-Pacific Central Command, envisioning a rule-based order with freedom of navigation in the high seas and international waters. The US favours countries such as Japan, Australia and India who share the same visions as its own. Following this, the revival of the Quadrilateral (Quad), an informal security alliance comprising the US, Japan, Australia and India has been perceived to attain the goal of freedom of navigation based on rule of law. Japan and Australia have held this alliance in high regard by referring it as the “arch of democracies” striving for stability in the region.
China views this as an attempt to encircle and constrain its outreach. That being said, China has pushed for its own geopolitical and economic narrative. In order to advance its foothold in the region, China through its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) invests in the countries located across the strategic locations, waterways and chokepoints. While China asserts its power through its economic muscle, Russia exercises its influence through its diplomatic outreach by acting as a mediator in peace processes involving conflicts. In Syria, Afghanistan and elsewhere in the Middle East, the pragmatism of engaging with all the parties has consolidated Russia’s position.
Building Alliance and Shared Vision
China and Russia have come closer due to the economic and political issues they face in confronting the US. The opening of the 5 billion ‘Power of Siberia’ pipeline that will deliver natural gas from Russia’s Far East to the western China is the most ambitious project since the fall of the Soviet Union. Under the agreement, Russia is expected to pump 38 billion cubic metres of gas to China annually. The co-operation in energy sector also expands to developing the Yamal LNG and natural gas in Artic and oil infrastructure. It has also opened up the avenues for military and strategic co-operation. The relationship has seen an upward turn with Russia’s biggest military drills Vostok 2018 witnessing the participation of 3,200 troops from China. This year’s TSENTR 2019, a multi-national military drills, alongside China and Russia, involved two major adversaries—Pakistan and India. This has brought attention to how Russia and China have managed to attract traditionally hostile allies for a multinational military drill.
While the deepening of collaboration between China and Russia is driven by the geopolitical realties of the region, the picture is not as rosy as it looks. Chinese increasing energy needs and its over-reliance on the imports from the Strait of Malacca have sought to diversify its energy resources by pursuing energy co-operation with Russia and tapping the Central Asia natural resources through its BRI.
However, Chinese increasing involvement in its backyard is being viewed with an element of suspicion by Russia as a challenge to its dominance in the region. Moreover, Russia views Chinese economic presence in its far east with unease as it benefits China economically and threatens Russia’s indigenous business. Another major concern is the apprehension over the irregular influx of Chinese migrants altering the demographic makeup of the region. China needs Russia to prevent its isolation in the Asia-Pacific and Russia’s dependence on China for exporting its natural gas, which keeps the economy floating. Further, the co-ordination is also evident in the UNSC where both veto the US or Europe-led initiatives. Both the countries espouse a similar view of democracy, shared opposition to human rights and undermining the US and its allies’ influence in the region. Their changing equation with the US will determine the trajectory of their bilateral relations.
Contrasting Views and Apprehensions
Russia is pivoting its focus towards the East Asia due to Asia-Pacific’s increasing importance in the geopolitical system and where Russia along with China can checkmate the US’s growing unipolar order. This posturing has led to Mark T Esper, the new Pentagon chief, to shift the focus to China and Russia—an alliance in the making. The potential challenge of growing Sino-Russian strategic convergence signals to the shift in the balance of power in the region and highlights the importance of preserving Washington’s alliance with the like-minded partners like Japan, South Korea and India. However, the sustained commitment towards its allies is withering away in the form of withdrawing from the regional security architecture or threatening to legislate punitive measures on its allies or demanding concessions from them who rely on the US security umbrella.
The US President Donald Trump’s lack of interest in preserving the security alliance in Europe (NATO) and absence of diplomatic efforts in bridging the divide between Europe and Turkey cast a doubt on how he is going to uphold the commitments to informal security alliance of QUAD. With this, India has got into a dilemma and is not willing to give Quad a semblance of eastern NATO. It is largely viewed that the hindrance to the rationalisation of the Quad as a concrete security alliance stems from India’s hesitance to formalising the group. Though there is confluence amongst the Quad members due to Chinese growing military capabilities and its flexing of muscles, the formation of this alliance is not getting materialised. As Quad aims for thriving maritime security and co-operation of navies and maritime surveillance, it is a less proactive instrument for India as the Chinese threat comes more from the land rather than sea.
Uncertainties and India’s Approach
India has done justice to its geostrategic location by investing in the maritime infrastructure such as building military and naval bases in the Andaman and Nicobar islands, getting access to the French naval base in the Reunion Island and signing naval defence pacts with Seychelles, Mauritius in the Western Indian Ocean region and building ports like Chabahar and Sabang deep-sea port in Indonesia. A strong geopolitical development which will undermine India’s interest only will add a sense of urgency in formalising the alliance.
The deeper engagement of Russia and China will pave the way for more co-operation at various multilateral forums like the SCO, BRICS, etc., which can limit India’s options. Further, Russia’s rapprochement with Pakistan is crucial for asserting itself as a major stakeholder in Afghanistan by negotiating with the Taliban through Pakistan and China. In the midst of decreasing US support, Pakistan has attracted Russia’s attention. China may exploit this blossoming proximity to forge a trilateral Russia-Pakistan-China alliance, impeding India’s interests. This makes it even more imperative for India to bring Russia back into its fold and proactively engage with Russia to decrease the prospect of its growing proximity with China and Pakistan.
Gazi Hassan is Senior Research Associate at CPPR-Centre for Strategic Studies and Mona Thakkar is Research Intern at CPPR-Centre for Strategic Studies
Views expressed by the authors are personal and need not reflect or represent the views of Centre for Public Policy Research