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Elective Affinities: Iran, India and China’s Responses to the Ukraine War

Iran, India and China have found themselves dragged into the crisis in Ukraine, as their wagons remain hitched to the invading power for complicated reasons.

Tied to the aggressor: China's Xi Jinping and India's Narendra Modi with Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2017. Image: Reuters / Alamy

'Sooner or later Russia will be back, and we do not know what kind of Russia that will be. It may fall subject to some form of totalitarian tyranny, fascist or communist; it may resume its earlier role as the leader of pan-Slavism or Orthodox Christianity; it may succeed, after so many failed efforts…it may resume or reject its former imperial ambitions. But this much can be said with certainty: that, whatever kind of regime rules in a resurgent Russia, it will be vitally concerned with the Middle East – a region not far from its southern frontier wherever that may ultimately lie...'

– Bernard Lewis, The Future of the Middle East, 1997

It was inconceivable, when Vladimir Putin lambasted Lenin for encouraging Ukrainians to think of themselves as a distinct people on 21 February, that the war clouds over Kyiv would sweep Beijing, Tehran and New Delhi to the rim if not eye of the storm. IndiaIran and China cannot wish this conflict away, as their wagons remain hitched to the invading power for complicated reasons.

Iran is not, as Khrushchev wished, the ‘rotten apple’ fallen into Russia’s lap. Putin is frequently obliged to cajole Tehran, and the two countries’ 200-year-old ties have been punctuated by occupation and war. However, both autocracies thrive on self-righteous, anti-hegemonic posturing contra the liberal rules-based norms of governance and inter-state relations. Both, like China, have a single enemy, ‘democratic activism and the language of liberal democracy’, as Anne Applebaum stated to BBC Newsnight.

In the ongoing negotiations over a return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), a sunset clause in 2025 is sought by messianic mullahs as eagerly as the Hidden Imam’s return. Meanwhile, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi dismisses reviving the agreement because Tehran has, according to Fereydoun Abbas-Davani, ex-head of the Iranian Atomic Energy Organisation, a ‘system’ to create a nuclear weapon. Uranium enrichment at the end of 2021 stood at 60%, and the Iranians are aiming for 90% purity. If the deal is revived, billions of unlocked dollars will be channelled to regional militias – Lebanese, Palestinian, Syrian, Iraqi and Yemeni – long funded by hydrocarbon exports. Russia, per the JCPOA, was the recipient of surplus uranium from Bushehr and Tehran, as well as a supplier of stable isotopes to Fordow. Not that Moscow desires to see a nuclear Iran if talks fail. Tehran demands that no future US administration will trash a second deal. It commends Moscow as a ‘strategic partner’ and postures against JCPOA 2.0, but precious little is achievable without bilateral talks with Washington, something Iran refuses and Israel repudiates, as President Joe Biden might give away too much.

Russia and Iran both thrive on self-righteous, anti-hegemonic posturing contra the liberal rules-based norms of governance and inter-state relations

Biden thinks India gives too little. Washington and London privately understand that New Delhi is in hock to Russian weaponry. As I explained in my letter to the Financial Times: ‘There is a marked Indian aversion to interfere even when much more, economically and politically, is at stake: New Delhi abstained from joining the international coalition to liberate Kuwait and its tightrope balancing act between the GCC vs. Iraq enabled it to ride out that imbroglio. India is aware Putin has been more voluble than Xi Jinping in deploring its decision to join the Indo-Pacific Quad. Strategic autonomy, not residual Indo-Soviet bonhomie, led it to cancel a recent Russian order for 21 MIG-29 jets, helicopters and anti-tank weapons’.

Indians and their commentariat are generally well-disposed towards Moscow. A common refrain is Soviet support during the third Indo-Pakistani War of 1971 – Indians routinely forget that Khrushchev reneged on supplying MiGs and that Kennedy rescued India in 1962. South Block old hands know what a hard bargainer the USSR, like Russia, was on trade and military deals. Transactional pragmatism propels Indo-Russian ties. It is questionable whether Indian reticence is predicated on not provoking China. Sino-Indian frontier flare-ups and fatalities have been ongoing since 2017. Neither Putin nor any potential successor will pull Indian chestnuts out of the fir e: Mikhail Gorbachev, as the last visiting Soviet premier in November 1986, declared that the USSR could not be relied upon for support in any future Indo-Chinese showdown. The Soviets, like the Indians in 1962, had a brief border war with China in 1969. Gorbachev oversaw the first joint demarcation settlement in May 1991, and the 30-year-old Sino-Russian boundary dispute was formally declared resolved by both parties in December 1999.

India is the second-largest importer after Saudi Arabia and third-largest military spender after the US and China. Washington, since 2007, has secured deals with India worth over $21 billion. New Delhi has agreed over $80 billion worth of arms deals during the last 15 years. Moscow is still its largest supplier and spare parts provider. But it will take time before India begins to not just diversify but also ramp up indigenisation: 310 items added by the government, since 2020, to a list of banned imports will not only encourage domestic production of weapons systems, technologies and ammunition in the public and private sectors – vital during the post-pandemic recovery – but also combat strategic vulnerabilities involving software breaches of newer defence and electronic platforms.

Such breaches are likely to emanate from China. Beijing, meanwhile, enjoys a growing relationship with Russia: Putin and Xi boast that Sino-Russian ties have ‘no limits’, recalling China and Pakistan’s ‘sweeter than honey’ affirmations of the past.

China knows it is deeply integrated with Western supply chains, leading to mutual consequences if any decoupling should occur

In response to the Ukraine war, India has dispatched medical aid to Kyiv, whereas China is blocking coverage of Premier League football matches lest its citizens watch full-throated Britons intersperse cheers for their teams with those for President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s doughty Ukrainians. Things have plainly gone pear-shaped for the Chinese, who were grateful that Putin postponed his invasion until after the Winter Olympics so as not to steal their thunder, and mounted cyberattacks on almost 600 Ukrainian websites including the Ministry of Defence, state railways and national bank – all while attempting to maintain public deniability. The Ukrainian State Security Service noticed a spike in attacks 24 hours before war broke outTell-tale tools and methods deployed by the People’s Liberation Army’s cyberwarfare unit were on display, which were distinct from Russian disruptive practices. China is known to hold offs hore bonds and engage, like Russia, in illegal currency transactions. Benn Steil surmises that should the Russian central bank need greenbacks, Chinese banks could sell their treasury holdings and transmit dollars to the Chinese central bank, which would then credit them to its Russian counterpart. He posits, ‘If we’re right about the money flows we’ve tracked, the Russian central bank has at least $80 billion in Treasury bonds – as well as renminbi and gold – it could liquidate to pay its bills without much difficulty’.

China knows which side its bao is buttered. Sino-Russian bilateral trade is worth £87 billion, compared to that with the West at £950 billion, and is not entirely stable – state-run energy consortium Sinopec pulled out of a Russian gas marketing venture worth half a billion dollars to avoid sanctions. China knows it is deeply integrated with Western supply chains, leading to mutual consequences if any decoupling should occur. Holding the world’s largest foreign exchange reserves is worthless if they are inaccessible. Nor is China self-sufficient in energy or food. Ukraine may have temporarily distracted focus away from the South China Sea, leaving Xi ‘unsettled’ by the resolve of ‘self-obsessed’ Westerners otherwise viewed as lacking the will to fight or take a stand.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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