Vladimir Putin in videoconferenza (La Presse)

Will Russia Take Sides on the India-China Border Dispute?

The border tension between India and China — which erupted again into conflict last month — has triggered concerns from Russia, given its good relationship with both conflicting parties.

Russian Presidential Spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, expressed Moscow’s concern over the military clash between Beijing and New Delhi in the disputed Ladakh in Galwan Valley last month. However, Peskov was optimistic India and China would be able to resolve the dispute soon.

Russian Statement: Wants Stability in the Region for Both Nations

“Certainly, we are watching with great attention what is happening on the Chinese-Indian border. We believe that this is a very alarming report. But we consider that the two countries are capable of taking necessary steps to prevent such situations in the future and to ensure that there is predictability and stability in the region and that this is a safe region for nations, first of all, China and India,” Peskov said last month.

The border dispute between Beijing and New Delhi is seen as a test for Russia’s partnership with both conflicted countries. Speculations have emerged whether Moscow will take sides with either of them or refrain from acting as a mediator.

What’s Behind the China-India Border Dispute?

The fight in Ladakh in the middle of June — which claimed the lives of 20 Indian soldiers and escalated tensions significantly — was the third after past clashes in 1962 and 1975.

The Galwan River Valley—known for its harsh climate—is located along with the West sector of the Line of Actual Control (LAC). Legally it is inside India’s territory and close to Aksai Chin. China controls the disputed area despite it being claimed by India.

Ladakh is India’s highest altitude. It is a desert with a temperature reaching minus 20 Celsius degrees during the winter.

Former colonel and Indian military observer Ajai Shukla told BBC last May that Galwan had been the hot spot as that is the nearest LAC to a new road constructed by India along the most remote and most vulnerable LAC in Ladakh. The road construction has raised China’s suspicion as the road can potentially serve to mobilize India’s troops and military equipment if a conflict erupts.

Russia’s Friendship with China and India

China’s numerous conflicts with the US — ranging from the trade war to the most recent military show in the contested South China Sea — have brought Beijing closer to Moscow. Russia’s relationship with the US also continues to face some hurdles such as Washington’s accusation that Russia meddled in the 2016 election and the U.S. departure from the Cold War arms treaty, the Ukraine issue and more.

In the Cold War, China and Russia — former rivals to the then-communist power in the Eastern bloc—have forged a partnership in some sectors such as energy and infrastructure. Both signed an economic agreement worth $20 billion USD in numerous industries, such as technology and energy in June of 2019.

In March 2020, Russia’s crude oil exports to China jumped 31 percent, while China’s oil import from Saudi Arabia dropped 1.6 percent compared to the same period last year.

Russia also maintains a good relationship with India, spanning over seven decades. The latter’s prime minister Narendra Modi hailed the India-Russia ties as special during his visit to Vladivostok during the East Economic Forum in September last year.

Trade between India and Russia reached $11 billion USD in 2018. Russia has supplied more than 65 percent of India’s defense equipment for the past ten years, Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) data revealed

Who is Russia Siding With?

The tension with China at the LAC prompted India to order Russian missiles and bombs. Russia’s S-400 will be expected to arrive by the end of 2021.

Such a situation triggers the next question: Will Russia defend India instead of China? The answer is not that simple, even though Russia and China are competing to be a global superpower despite their good relationship.

Russia will unlikely interfere in the India-China stand-off as Moscow is optimistic that New Delhi and Beijing can settle the dispute without outside help.

During the trilateral meeting of the Russia-India-China (RIC) at the foreign ministerial level through a video conference held after a clash in Ladakh, Russia refused to touch the border issue involving both Asian nations.

“The agenda does not involve discussing issues that relate to bilateral relations of a country with another member of this format,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov stated ahead of the meeting.

The Bottom Line: India Cannot Rely on Russia

Russia may be the main exporter of India’s military equipment. However, that does not mean that India can heavily rely on Russia given that Russia does not want to sacrifice ties with China and has lifted arms embargo to Pakistan, which has been in dispute with India over the Kashmir issue.

“Even from a national security perspective, it does not make sense for India to acquire Russia’s defense equipment anymore,” Rajagopalan from Observer Research Foundation told South China Morning Post (SCMP).

Despite maintaining good ties with India and China, Russia does not always share common ground with them on specific issues. For example, Russia takes a neutral stance over China’s claim over the contested South China Sea and has asked the Kashmir dispute to be resolved based on the UN charter. China also rejects Russia’s claim over Crimea.

Taking sides with one of the conflicting nations will ruin Russia’s relations with both countries. Therefore, staying out of the conflict is their natural preference.