China-India Brief #89


Published Twice a Month
February 14 – March 07, 2016

Centre on Asia and Globalisation
Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy

Guest Column

Systemic Balancing and Regional Hedging: Russia’s Relations with China and India

by Alexander Korolev

The Russia-China-India triangle represents a puzzle for the international relation experts. On the one hand, in the context of deteriorating Russia-US relations in the wake of the Ukraine Crisis, Russia has steadily increased its defense cooperation with China that has pushed China-Russia strategic partnership to a new level indicating that Russia aligns with China on a range of international issues.[1]  On the other hand, however, Russia has been trying hard to enhance its economic and defence links with India by selling advanced arms system to New Delhi so as Narendra Modi stated that Russia was and would remain to be India’s “most important defense partner[2].”  Given the troubled nature of China-India relations, Moscow’s policies of enhancing military and economic cooperation with both Beijing and New Delhi add layers of complexity to the Russia-China-India interactions making them poorly amenable to simple explanations.

To untangle this complexity and to understand the implications of Russia’s policies for China-India relations, one has to “zoom out” to encompass both international systemic and non-systemic (regional and domestic) prongs of Russia’s foreign policy. The former is “systemic balancing” against the US-led unipolarity, whereas the latter is “regional hedging” – a non-system-level “insurance policy” that is driven by causal forces other than the distribution of power within the international system. The trends unfolding at these two levels of great power politics are not in direct dependence on or confrontation with each other, and they can perfectly coexist while evolving in opposite directions.

As a systemic balancer, Russia challenges the American hegemony in multiple ways: it thwarts the American geopolitical projects in what is now called the “post-Soviet space,” as evidenced by the Russia-Georgia war of 2008 and the Ukraine Crisis of 2014; it intervened in Syria in 2015 with the subsequent “butting heads” with the United States over how to settle the Syrian crisis; it uses various multinational institutions to promote its own vision of multipolarity. Moreover, the Russian leaders perceive the United States as an imminent threat to its national security and fundamentally reject the current US-led global order by calling it a “unilateral diktat”[3] that has “no moral foundations for modern civilization[4].”  

These global policies of challenging the Unipole drive Russia’s alignment with China, which, like Russia, also resents American unipolar dominance, especially in the context of US’s Asia-Pacific rebalancing strategy, aimed at creating containment lines around China using American allies in Asia. In terms of material capabilities, China is the only ally for Russia that can add enough power to mount a consequential challenge to the unipolarity. At the same time, China and Russia have a shared vision of global threats that are related to the United States and, in addition to NATO’s eastward expansion and US rebalancing to Asia, include the American National Missile Defense agenda, “colour revolutions,” and the US potential energy intrusion in Central Asia. The pressure originating from the contemporary international system and the resultant incentives to resist the American global hegemony is the bottom line that drives China-Russia strategic cooperation. This does not imply that other non-systemic considerations are irrelevant for China-Russia relations. They are, in fact, relevant and important. However, they do not determine the general dynamics of China-Russia comprehensive strategic partnership.    

Russia’s relations with India are of different order and related more to Russia’s regional hedging rather than systemic balancing. Unlike relations with China, they do not directly originate from the “balance of power” or the “balance of threats” within the international system. Nor are they aimed at balancing the United States; India does not share Russia’s anti-unipolarity pursuit.
Rather, they exist at the levels other than the system level and are tied more closely to regional (interactional) or Russia’s domestic economic circumstances and aimed at securing Russia’s economic and geopolitical goals in Asia. Even more so in the context of Moscow’s “turn to the East” strategy, aimed at diversifying Russia’s Asia policies and accelerating the development of Russia’s Far East and Siberia. Thus, by selling weapons to India, Vietnam, and China, Russia tries to diversify its military export portfolio. A similar logic applies to Russia-India energy cooperation, which promises significant benefits for Russia’s nuclear, oil, and gas industries and helps Russia diversify its energy politics.

These parameters of Russia-India relations can be interpreted as hedging against China from the regional perspective. However, they lack the system-level causal force that underlies China-Russia relations. This does not make Russia-India relations unimportant. This simply makes them different – following different operational logic. Being a phenomenon of a different level, Russia-India relations can grow and prosper without challenging Russia-China relations, and vice versa, the global politics of Russia-China alignment does not necessary trespass into the regional hedging logic of Russia-India relations.

Such two-level configuration works well for the three countries and enhances stability of China-India relations. While Beijing does not embrace Russia’s transfers of most advanced weapon systems to India, it recognizes that a decline or termination of such transfers would make India shift from its current policy of diversifying military and military-technical links to a stronger leaning towards the United States. Russia-India partnership enables Beijing to utilize good relations with Moscow to facilitate its own dialogue with New Delhi in both bilateral and multilateral formats. Most importantly, it helps slow down the dangerous strengthening of a military and political alignment between New Delhi and Washington. For India, partnership with Russia, while valuable in its own right, also generates a good channel for developing cooperation with China. Russia, in turn, benefits from the diversification of regional contacts.             


[1] Ankit Panda, “Chinese, Russian Navies to Hold 8 Days of Naval Exercises in the South China Sea,” The Diplomat, 12 September 2016

[2] Nirmala George, “Putin turns to India to clinch new deals,” The Washington Times, 11 December 2014

[3] President of Russia, Meeting of the Valdai International Discussion Club (Moscow: the Kremlin, 24 October 2013)

[4]Speech and the Following Discussion at the Munich Conference on Security Policy,” President of Russia, 10 February 2007

Alexander Korolev is Research Fellow, Centre on Asia and Globalisation, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore.


The views expressed in the article(s) are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position or policy of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy or the National University of Singapore.


News Reports

Bilateral relations

China, India hold strategic dialogue in Beijing
Global Times, February 22
China and India exchanged their views frankly during a strategic dialogue held in Beijing on Wednesday, but experts said that their disputes on specific issues, including India’s bid to join the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) and antiterrorism, will persist. Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Zhang Yesui and Indian Foreign Secretary Subramanyam Jaishankar co-chaired a dialogue on Wednesday, exchanging ideas on some “friction points,” including the problem of India’s application to join the NSG, the Xinhua News Agency reported. This is the first strategic dialogue since Narendra Modi became Indian Prime Minister in 2014.

China, India pledge stronger ties
Global Times, February 22
Chinese State Councilor Yang Jiechi met with Indian Foreign Secretary Subramanyam Jaishankar on Tuesday, calling for stronger ties between the two neighbors.  Yang said China is willing to work with India to implement the consensus reached by the two countries’ leaders, maintain high-level exchanges and enhance strategic communication and practical cooperation, according to a press release. Jaishankar said India attaches great importance to its relationship with China and will strengthen dialogue and cooperation with China to further the bilateral ties.

Chinese media equates PoK and Taiwan, says India should agree to CPEC
Hindustan Times, March 6
India should cooperate in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) despite it passing through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, in the same way Beijing doesn’t object to New Delhi having economic ties with Taipei, the state media argued on Monday. Equating the status of the disputed region of PoK with Taiwan as a “sovereignty” issue, the comment piece in the state media argued that India should be “pragmatic” about the CPEC and participate in the $46 billion project for economic benefits. The Communist country sees Taiwan as a breakaway region. India’s argument against the CPEC – part of the larger China-led Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) connectivity project – has been that it violates India’s sovereignty.


News Reports

China and India in the Regions

India, China seek common ground on Afghanistan
The Hindu, February 28
Despite differences on a number of issues, including over the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), U.N. designation of Masood Azhar as a terrorist, and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, India and China began to look for a “common ground” on Afghanistan during Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar’s visit to Beijing last week, official sources told The Hindu. Officials reportedly even discussed the possibility of “joint development projects” that could be undertaken despite economic rivalries between the two countries in other parts of the subcontinent. The Foreign Secretary’s visit, which saw a restructured “Strategic Dialogue” with Chinese executive Vice-Minister of Foreign Affairs Zhang Yesui, also witnessed an effort by both sides to “stabilise India-China relations” at a time the world is experiencing a new “volatility,” a senior official said.

China trying to rope India, Russia in cyber pact against West
The Times of India, March 2
China wants India and other BRICS countries to accept its idea of “cyber sovereignity” that would allow each country to govern the cyber space in the manner they want without facing interference from other countries. Beijing plans to move a proposal for cross-border agreement on the issue at the next BRICS summit, which China will host, later this year. “As BRICS host this year, China stands ready to work together with Russia and other BRICS partners”, Long Zhou, Coordinator, Cyber affairs division of the Chinese Foreign Ministry, told journalist today after releasing a white paper on international cooperation in the cyber space. China is due to host BRICS summit later this year.

India, US, Japan cooperation necessary to face China: Scholars
Business Today, March 6
Cooperation between India, the United States and Japan is necessary to face the Chinese assertiveness in the strategic Indian Ocean and Pacific regions, a group of Indian and American scholars have said. The scholars during a day-long conference here on Friday agreed that cooperation between the two countries, as well as with Japan, “will determine the parameters of security” in the Indian Ocean and Pacific regions in the face of an assertive China. China has taken an increasingly hardline stance in its territorial disputes in the East China Sea, the South China Sea and over Taiwan, which Beijing claims as its own. The subject was discussed at the conference on the future of US-India relations under the Trump administration, organised by the Hudson Institute and the New Delhi-based Vivekananda International Foundation (VIF).

‘Having India, China as its neighbours great opportunity for Nepal’
The Kathmandu Post, March 5
Nepal’s Ambassador to India Deep Kumar Upadhyay has remarked that geographic location of China and India as Nepal’s neighbour is a great opportunity for the country.Addressing the concluding session of a three-day interaction programme on ‘Nepal India relations: Economic Development and Cooperation’ jointly organised by Policy Research Foundation (NITI Foundation) Nepal, International Cooperation Council India and Nepal India Cooperation Forum, Birgunj, Ambassador Upadhyay said Nepal had already stepped into seizing such opportunity for economic benefits. Acknowledging India’s role in reducing energy crisis in Nepal, he demanded easy access for Nepali products to the Indian markets. Efforts were on to see an exchange window for Indian currency notes of 1,000 and 500 denomination remaining in Nepal in the aftermath of the decision of the Indian government to demonetize such notes.

Netanyahu wants foreign ministry to highlight China and India
Jerusalem Post, March 6
Reflecting the growing importance of East Asia to Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced on Monday his intention to open two new bureaus in the Foreign Ministry: one for China and another for India. But some ministry officials said this will never happen, because of budgetary constrainsts. Netanyahu, who is also the country’s foreign minister, has put furthering ties with Asia and Africa high on his diplomatic agenda. Following his ground breaking visits to Singapore and Australia last month – the first sitting prime minster to do so – he is scheduled to travel to China for the second time in four years this month.


News Reports

Trade and Economy

India’s satellite launch ramps up space race
Global Times, February 19
Following India’s record-breaking satellite launch last week, China will likely fast-track the commercialization of its rocket launches to vie for the world’s burgeoning small satellite launch market, according to Chinese satellite experts. On Wednesday, India’s space agency successfully put 104 satellites into orbit from a single rocket, smashing the previous record of 37 set by Russia in 2014. “The launch indicated that India can send commercial satellites into space at lower costs, giving the country’s competitiveness in the global race for the burgeoning commercial space businesses,” Zhang Yonghe, director with the new technology department of the Shanghai Engineering Center for Microsatellites, told the Global Times. Commercial rocket launch services should be a promising market, fueled by private firms like Beijing Shareco Technologies Co which is intent on infusing communication with satellites.

India can learn from China’s experience when tackling power shortage problems
Global Times, February 21
Efforts made by India to deliver reliable electricity are being closely watched by Chinese investors as the nation draws in interest from manufacturers. With concerns expressed by some media over Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s electricity push, China’s ongoing pricing reform in electricity may prove helpful. With reports saying that power remains inadequate or non-existent for 240 million Indian people, the nation needs to urgently increase its power generation capacity. However, this will not be easy with current problems in India’s electricity sector. According to a recent report by the Financial Times, “utilities in at least four Indian states are months behind on payments” to companies who generate the electricity.

Xiaomi races to gain larger slice of global smartphone cake
Global Times, February 22
China’s Xiaomi Inc is setting out to snap up a share of new emerging smartphone markets abroad, as it is struggling with a domestic sales drop. The Beijing-based company revealed its ambitions this week. On Wednesday, it further enticed smartphone lovers in the Middle East and North Africa with the release of its three latest smartphone models – Mi MIX, Redmi Note 4 and Redmi 4A – at an event in Dubai. The launch event came soon after Xiaomi announced its official entry into Pakistan on Monday through a partnership with Smart Link Technologies for distribution and after-sales services. Pakistan, the world’s sixth most-populated country, has become one of the fastest-growing smartphone markets since the introduction of third- and fourth-generation network standards in 2014.

Is Indian data turning Chinese?
Bloomberg, March 1
Being the fastest-growing large economy in the world is India’s destiny, and even the most poorly conceived economic policy imaginable can’t stop destiny. At least, that is, if you believe the government’s statisticians, who said on Tuesday that India’s GDP grew at 7 percent in the very quarter that the government withdrew high-value currency notes from circulation. Is India becoming another China, with incredible growth momentum and statistics nobody quite believes? One hopes not. But the government should be careful to see the new numbers for what they are — and aren’t. To say the data is startling is an understatement.

China lowers growth target to 6.5%
Global Times, March 6
China has lowered its GDP growth target slightly to around 6.5 percent for 2017, compared with a range of 6.5-7 percent last year, a government work report said Sunday.  Against the backdrop of sluggish world economic growth, backsliding on globalization and growing protectionism, Premier Li Keqiang said China is enjoying many good conditions for sustained economic development, as part of a report at the opening meeting of the annual session of China’s top legislature, the National People’s Congress. This closely-watched target is a 25-year low, down from last year’s real growth of 6.7 percent. The previous low was a 6 percent target in 1992, according to the Xinhua News Agency.


News Reports

Energy and Environment

China, India accounted for half of world’s pollution-related deaths in 2015
Global Times, February 16
China and India accounted for more than half of the total number of global deaths attributable to air pollution in 2015, researchers in Shanghai said in a study published Tuesday. The US-based Health Effects Institute (HEI) found that air pollution caused more than 4.2 million early deaths worldwide in 2015, making it the fifth highest cause of death, with about 2.2 million deaths in China and India. The institute’s study, the first of its kind, was based on the Global Burden of Disease (GBD) project, a database backed by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation that tracks the role that behavioral, dietary and environmental factors play in deaths across 195 countries. New evidence and methodologies mean that the estimate is significantly higher than the figure published by the World Health Organization last year, which put the number of global air pollution-related deaths in 2012 at 3 million, HEI said.

China’s war on smog lifts metal, coal stocks in India
Hindustan Times, March 2
Indian metal and coal stocks shined in bourses after China imposes curbs on steel, aluminium and coal output, which may hike prices and improve valuations of companies in competing nations. The BSE metal index was up 1.5% to hit 12,306.54 in intraday trade in a firm Mumbai market whose benchmark Sensex was up 0.3%. National Aluminium jumped as much as 7% while Vedanta gained 3%, Hindalco and Coal India 1% each in intraday trade.



India must involve itself in the China-Pakistan One Belt, One Road initiative to stay in the game
Hindustan Times, March 1
The recently held strategic dialogue between India and China provides a useful reality check on the state of the play. Over the past year, the relationship had reached an impasse owing to China’s unwillingness to support India’s entry into the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group and to allow Masood Azhar of Jaish-e-Mohammed to be placed on the United Nations Security Council’s terror list. In both cases India had insisted that these were litmus tests of its ties with China. New Delhi’s stance stemmed from an under-estimation of the growing importance of Pakistan to China and from an over-estimation of its own clout. If the former underscored the inability of the government to get the measure of China-Pakistan convergence, the latter flowed from the curious belief that international influence was mostly about talking ourselves up.

Uneasy dance with the dragon
India Today, March 2
When Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar arrived on February 22 at the snow-covered Diaoyutai state guesthouse, a massive complex that was once Mao Zedong’s residence in the heart of Beijing, his Chinese counterpart, Zhang Yesui, thanked him for, of all things, the weather. “Thank you for bringing our first snowfall of the year,” the executive vice-foreign minister said, adding hastily lest his remark be misconstrued, that this was “a positive sign” in Chinese culture. With the rest of the world in flux, officials in Delhi and Beijing say, both countries are this year hoping for a thaw in ties, strained in 2016 by frictions on several issues. From its continued shielding of Pakistani terrorist Masood Azhar at the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) to its stalling of India’s entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), China appeared to be blatantly batting for its “all-weather” ally Pakistan, at the cost of its ties with India.

New Delhi’s objection to CPEC in Kashmir not to its own benefit
Global Times, March 6
India has argued that the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) poses threat to its sovereignty in Kashmir since the Beijing-initiated project goes through the disputed area that India claims. With its continuous opposition toward the CPEC, New Delhi has lodged protests against Beijing and expressed its disapproval of the project many times, triggering a new India-China friction point. That explains why India has downplayed the China-led Belt and Road initiative which includes the CPEC. China is neutral on the India-Pakistan dispute over Kashmir. Since 1947, claims over the territory have led to two massive wars between India and Pakistan, with continuation of sporadic armed clashes in the past decades. China, along with the majority of the international community, remains neutral and hopes the dispute could be solved through peace talks.

India using Dalai Lama card risks worsening bilateral ties
Global Times, March 6
Despite objections by China, India will host the Dalai Lama in a disputed region on the China-India border in the coming weeks. On Friday, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang warned India of the seriousness of the Dalai issue and the sensitivity of the boundary question, and urged it to refrain from actions that would further complicate the question. Responding to Geng’s remarks, Indian media outlet the Daily News & Analysis quoted Indian official sources as saying that the “Tibetan spiritual leader” was on his way to India for a religious trip and New Delhi was surprised at Beijing’s new-found “sensitivities” as the Dalai Lama has undertaken numerous such visits earlier.


Books and Journals

Buddhism in Current China–India Diplomacy
Journal of Current Chinese Affairs, 2017
Buddhism is being emphasised strongly in both Chinese and Indian public diplomacy, as they both seek to increase their soft-power attractiveness. This article by David Scott finds that while Buddhism has served to draw the two countries together in their bilateral relationship, their current invocation of Buddhism as a bridge is in many ways an ahistorical reconstruction. The article also finds that Buddhism operates as a tool of diplomacy in a competitive way, as China and India both seek influence among Buddhist countries elsewhere in Asia and among international Buddhist organisations. Finally, this article finds that whereas China’s use of Buddhism is straightforwardly tactical and to a degree disingenuous, India is able to incorporate genuine spiritual elements into its use of Buddhism, albeit within a setting of Hindu reinterpretation of Buddhism. In the future, China could shift from a short-term tactical to a long-term normative use of Buddhism within international socialisation scenarios.

Compiled and sent to you by Centre on Asia and Globalisation and
the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore