Hong Kong (CNN) — In Asia, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi called Vladimir Putin a “Dear friend”. Chinese leader Xi Jinping went a step further and called Russia’s president his “best and closest friend“.
But Russia’s war in Ukraine has cast doubt on Russia’s previously warm relations with Asian powers such as China and India.
Both China and India have refused to condemn Russia’s brutal invasion and both abstained from voting on United Nations Security Council and General Assembly resolutions demanding Moscow immediately stop its attack on Ukraine.
But with the United States making it clear that it views countries that do not condemn Putin’s war as aligned with Russia, the world’s two most populous nations face increased international pressure to speak out, or risk being seen as complicit.
That neither country has chosen to do so has exposed Russia’s enormous influence in Asia, where arms sales and untethered trade have allowed Moscow to exploit regional fault lines and weaker ties with the West.
In the United States and Europe, leaders have framed their response to the invasion as part of a broader ideological battle to defend democratic freedoms and the rule of law. But for two of Asia’s major powers, those lines are more blurred, with experts suggesting India and China are more motivated by self-interest.
Relations between China and Russia
As Russian troops massed on the Ukrainian border just weeks before Russia invaded, Xi and Putin have never seemed so close.
In a 5,000 word statement as the Beijing Winter Olympics began, the couple said the relationship between Russia and China “had no limits.”
The countries accumulated a record of $146 billion in bilateral trade last year and continued the tradition of joint training with a large-scale combined military exercise.
But the real key behind their closer ties is their mutual tensions with Washington.
Now their so-called limitless relationship is being put to the test.
Questions have already been raised about how much Xi knew about Putin’s plans. A Western intelligence report indicated that Chinese officials asked top Russian officials in early February to wait until the Beijing Olympics were over before beginning an invasion.
Until now, China has refused to condemn the Russian attack or call it an “invasion.” and has said he understands Moscow’s “legitimate security concerns.” Chinese state media have also repeated Russian talking points on Ukraine. And on Wednesday, Guo Shuqing, chairman of the China Banking and Insurance Regulatory Commission, said that China will not participate in the sanctions.
But Beijing also has ties to Ukraine, which has China as its largest trading partner. Ukraine joined Xi’s flagship Belt and Road development and infrastructure initiative in 2017, and last year Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky hailed Ukraine as a potential “bridge to Europe” for China. Freight trains to Europe pass through Ukraine, and the country has been a major source of goods like corn and barley for China, a trade that might not have been interrupted if Russia had executed a rapid regime change, rather than what it did. which appears to be a destructive invasion.
In a call with his Ukrainian counterpart last week, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said China was “deeply distressed” by the conflict.
And while there is potential for China to benefit economically from a more dependent and isolated Russia, Beijing he will also worry that his companies will be entangled in Western sanctions against Russia. The Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, a Beijing-backed development bank, said on Thursday that he suspended all his activities in Russia as “the war in Ukraine unfolds”.
China will also have to deal with possible fallout in its relations with the West.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has brought Western allies together like no other issue in recent years, and China’s tacit support has not gone unnoticed.
Some analysts have pointed to parallels between Russia’s plans for Ukraine and fears about the future of Taiwan, an autonomous democratic island that the Chinese Communist Party claims as its own and does not rule out taking by force.
“Ukraine is a wake-up call for Europe, North America and other democracies,” said Steve Tsang, director of the SOAS China Institute at the University of London.
“Suddenly there will be countries in Europe and elsewhere that will realize that they have to prepare for eventualities that, since the end of the Cold War, for more than 30 years, we have not considered necessary.”
“In that context, China’s assertiveness and China’s stated ambitions on Taiwan will worry many more countries,” he said.
Relations between India and Russia
There is an elephant in the room when it comes to India’s relationship with Russia: China.
India, the world’s largest democracy, has sought to counter China’s growing influence in the Asia-Pacific region. One sign of that is India’s role in the Quad, an informal security grouping with the US, Japan and Australia that has recently become more active.
And it has a defense relationship with Russia: Estimates vary by more than 50% on the amount of India’s military equipment that comes from Russia. That equipment is vital given India’s ongoing tensions on the border with China, which could escalate again. India also has a strained relationship with neighboring Pakistan, which erupted into crisis over its disputed border region of Kashmir in 2019.
In the meantime, India Signed $5 Billion Arms Deal With Russia in 2018 for an air defense missile system, although well aware of the sanctions that the United States could impose through the Anti-American Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) from the US side.
India is not looking at the situation in Ukraine in terms of its relationship with that country, it is thinking of the dangers in its own backyard, said Happymon Jacob, an associate professor of diplomacy and disarmament at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi.
“This is not about going against the West or supporting Russia,” Jacob said. “(The Indian government) has not explicitly supported Russia, but it needs to take a more careful and nuanced approach.”
Until now, India has tried to play both sides: Modi has spoken with both Zelensky and Putin, and has promised humanitarian aid for Ukraine. Modi has not explicitly condemned Russia’s attacks; he has called for “an immediate cessation of violence” and “concerted efforts by all parties” to negotiate, according to a readout of his Feb. 24 call with Putin.
Russia and India have a long history of friendly relations, dating back to the Soviet era when the USSR helped India win the 1971 war against Pakistan. There is also the relationship between Putin and Modi, who was one of only two world leaders Putin traveled to last year, for a visit to New Delhi in December.
“India needs Russia to stand up to China,” said Harsh V. Pant, professor of international relations at King’s College London and director of the Strategic Studies Program at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi. “He will have to balance his historic ties to Russia with his burgeoning ties to the West.”
US defense trade with India has increased from almost zero in 2008 to over $20 billion in 2020. And as Russia’s war continues, Putin may have less defense support to offer to countries like India “with the unbelievable defection rate in Ukraine,” said Ian Hall, a professor of international relations at Griffith University.
And there is internal pressure, too: After an Indian student was killed during Russia’s bombing of Kharkiv last week while shopping for groceries, there have been increased calls from within India to help evacuate the hundreds of other Indian students. trapped in the northeastern city of Sumy, which has been under heavy shelling in recent days.
China and India will be with Russia out of self-interest
Even before Russia invaded Ukraine, this tangle of relations was sometimes strained. Now, with widespread condemnation of its actions, Russia is likely to be considered a pariah state in the West. And that could make her relationships with countries like China and India even more important.
“In (Putin’s) first term as president, he put a lot of emphasis on rekindling old Soviet ties with Asian partners,” said Hervé Lemahieu, director of research at the Australia-based think tank Lowy Institute. “He has ballast in Asia…and, as we’ve seen, he has more than just China to rely on.”
Both China and India maintain the friendship out of self-interest, but for very different reasons.
China has a “clear interest” in making sure people like Putin stay in power, says SOAS’s Tsang.
“They share two main strategic interests: one is to reduce American global leadership by one or two points. The second is to make the world safe for authoritarianism,” Tsang said.
But Beijing’s support is conditional: If the Russians don’t succeed to the point where they can’t help the countries’ shared goals, China could recalibrate its support, he said.
Elsewhere in Asia, America’s allies South Korea and Japan have condemned Russia. Singapore has also imposed sanctions against Russia. And although the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) issued a statement last week which did not condemn or refer to Russia’s actions as an invasion, eight of the 10 members voted in favor of the UN General Assembly resolution calling on Russia to immediately cease its use of force in Ukraine. Only Laos and Vietnam abstained.
As for democratic India, security and development concerns may come first.
“In Asia, the fundamental challenge for most is the growing power of China, the enormous strength of China,” said Manoj Kewalramani, chair of the Indo-Pacific Research Program at the Takshashila Institution in Bangalore.
“This pairing of democracy and autocrats is problematic: the world is much more complicated.”