India, having confronted Chinese border aggression over the past 22 months, has taken a restrained stance on the Russian invasion of Ukraine, underscoring its focus on countering Beijing’s military actions without affecting its close relationships with the United States and Russia. The new U.S.-Russia Cold War, however, promises to compound India’s strategic challenges.
India is the only member of “the Quad” to refrain from openly condemning Russia for invading a sovereign country. In fact, like its archnemesis China, India abstained from the Feb. 25 vote at the United Nations Security Council on a U.S.-sponsored resolution deploring the Russian invasion as a violation of the U.N. Charter. India, however, has implicitly criticized Russia’s abandonment of the path of diplomacy and called for an end to all violence.
Unlike Japan and Australia, which are under the U.S. security (and nuclear) umbrella, India has to deal with China on its own, as the current Himalayan border conflict has highlighted. And while China poses a pressing military challenge for India along a more than 4,000-kilometer-long land frontier, the U.S. has never considered a land war against China and its primary objective is nonmilitary — to counter China’s geopolitical, economic and ideological challenges to its global preeminence.
India’s solo struggle to rein in an expansionist China in the icy Himalayan region has helped influence its measured response to the Russian aggression against Ukraine. After all, which head of a Western government has condemned China’s aggression against India or even urged Beijing to pull back its forces from the Himalayan frontier?
U.S. President Joe Biden has not uttered a word on the subject. His State Department on Feb. 3 urged India and China to find “a peaceful resolution of the border disputes,” and then added in general terms, “We have previously voiced our concerns of Beijing’s pattern of ongoing attempts to intimidate its neighbors.”
The Biden administration, unlike former President Donald Trump’s administration, has placed outreach to Beijing as a high priority, and has been wary of publicly supporting India against Chinese aggression. Indeed, Biden’s recently unveiled Indo-Pacific Strategy refers to China’s military actions against India since 2020 not as “aggression,” but in neutral language — as “the conflict along the Line of Actual Control with India.”
In May 2020, a shocked India discovered that China had stealthily encroached on several key border areas in the northernmost Indian territory of Ladakh. The discovery led to the first deadly Chinese-Indian military clashes in the Himalayas since 1975, including China’s first combat deaths in over four decades.
By locking horns with China in tense military standoffs despite the risk of a full-scale war, India has openly challenged Chinese capability and power in a way no other power has done in this century. China has massed up to 200,000 soldiers along the frontier, but India has more than matched the Chinese force deployments — with the steadily increasing induction of new weapons and troops by both sides amplifying the risk of renewed border skirmishing, if not outright war.
The U.S.-India strategic partnership, meanwhile, continues to strengthen. The U.S. has already surpassed Russia as the largest arms seller to India. American defense transactions with India, according to the State Department, went from “near zero in 2008 to over $20 billion in 2020.”
Still, in an effort to make India its sole arms client, the U.S. has sought to leverage a domestic law — the 2017 Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act — to downgrade Indian defense ties with Moscow. Russia, however, remains a critical source of arms and military technology for India.
In the current Himalayan military crisis, Russia, despite its deepening entente with China, has transferred weapons to help strengthen India’s defenses. It is advancing the delivery of its S-400 air and anti-missile defense system that India urgently needs as a protection against China’s forward deployment of an array of lethal missiles.
The latest Western financial sanctions on Moscow, however, threaten to affect Russia-India defense trade by complicating the issue of payments. The escalating sanctions could also impede India’s plans for greater investment both in the Russian oil and gas sector and in Russia’s Far East.
The U.S., with the aid of its energy sanctions on Iran, has emerged as an important source of crude oil and petroleum products for India, the world’s third-largest oil consumer after America and China. And its new sanctions on Russia are expected to facilitate greater American arms exports to India.
More fundamentally, the advent of the new Cold War promises to make India’s neutrality more challenging. Biden has made clear that he has embarked on a strategy of Containment 2.0 against Russia.
The new U.S. sanctions, which Biden has called “the broadest sanctions in history,” seek to disrupt the Russian economy. Simultaneously, Biden is planning to ensnare Russia in a military quagmire in Ukraine through massive arms supplies to the Ukrainian armed forces and other resistance forces. He has asked Congress for a staggering $6.4 billion for this mission.
However, U.S. power now faces a double whammy: China’s military, economic and technological challenge on a scale the U.S. has not seen before and a re-militarized Russia challenging the NATO creep to its borders.
But with its strategic focus shifting to shoring up European security, the U.S. is pouring military resources into that theater — and the main casualty of such a shift is likely to be Asian security.
By compounding America’s strategic overstretch and distracting it from the China challenge, the new Cold War will open greater space for Chinese President Xi Jinping’s aggressive revisionism. It will also likely advance China’s economic power and energy security by making Beijing the main beneficiary of the new Western sanctions on Russia.
India may have no dog in the fight, yet — like Japan — it will not be able to escape the larger strategic ramifications of the conflict over Ukraine. This could prove a watershed moment in international relations and complicate India’s ability to walk a diplomatic tightrope.
Brahma Chellaney, a longtime contributor to The Japan Times, is a geostrategist and the author of nine books, including “Water: Asia’s New Battleground” (Georgetown University Press).