Ukraine crisis: Lessons for India on Chinese behaviour
While distinct from the Chinese incursions in Ladakh, Russia's actions towards Ukraine can help provide us with lessons regarding Chinese foreign policy towards India
As over a hundred thousand Russian troops surround Ukraine, the odds of Russia invading Ukraine have substantially increased over the past few weeks. Some Indian commentators think that the best thing for India to do is to keep its distance from the emerging conflict, and this view seems to be shared by the ministry of external affairs. However, stepping away from the discussion over India’s possible foreign policy choices, the Russia-Ukraine crisis can help New Delhi learn more about Beijing’s behaviour in a world marked by changing power distribution and profound uncertainty.
Since its annexation of Crimea in 2014, Moscow has been waging a proxy war in Eastern Ukraine through the Russian-backed Ukrainian separatists. Now, the scale of the Russian military mobilisation, coupled with Washington’s refusal to guarantee Moscow a formal halt to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)’s eastward expansion, risks turning that eight-year-long proxy war into a direct one. Such assertion by Russia seems similar to Chinese external actions over the past couple of years.
While characteristically and functionally distinct from the ongoing Chinese military incursions in Ladakh, the Russian actions towards Ukraine can help provide us with a series of lessons regarding Chinese foreign policy towards India.
First, in the current world order, both Russia and China see themselves as non-status quoist powers. As the United States (US) and its allied Western European states are embroiled in chaotic domestic politics, their propensity to act globally has been exceptionally limited, especially, given the post-War standards. While both Moscow and Beijing want to use this opportunity to challenge the prevailing aspects of the world order, they both are approaching this moment from different positions.
During the Cold War, Soviet Russia used to dominate eastern and central Europe, and more specifically, had a veto over Europe’s security architecture. Once the Soviet Union collapsed, it lost its veto powers, and the US facilitated an eastward shift of western security architecture through successive NATO expansions. Now, Moscow not only sees Ukraine as the last frontier, but also wants to use this moment to get some of its veto powers back. Meanwhile, in the post-War era, China has never had those kinds of veto powers in its neighbourhood, whether it is Taiwan, India or the South China Sea. For Beijing, this is the time to establish its sphere of influence, and push the US to the periphery. To put it simply, Russia wants to go back to its position of strength, and China wants to begin to establish its rightful position of dominance.
Second, and relatedly, there is an urge to see how the domestic democratic political systems in Ukraine and India, compel Russia and China to adopt assertive foreign policies towards their neighbours. This analysis is flawed. It is not about Ukraine or India’s internal political systems, but how those systems drive these countries to make certain foreign policy choices. Therefore, whether it's Russia’s eight-year-long proxy war in Eastern Ukraine or China’s fait accompli in Ladakh, both these conflicts are as much about sending a signal to Kyiv and New Delhi, as much they are about signalling to Washington DC.
Regardless of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s friendly endeavours towards Russia, Moscow can’t help but see him and half of his country as an American proxy. Similarly, New Delhi spent years trying to carve out a “nuanced” relationship with Beijing and DC. But China doesn’t see any nuance here. For decision-makers in Beijing, the “Indo-US alliance” is a foregone conclusion. And when Beijing felt comfortable enough, it went ahead and captured a piece of Indian territory.
Third, in foreign policy analysis, there is a tendency to see past behaviour as a guide for future actions. Such analytical thinking can be a major handicap. Russia spent eight years in Ukraine flaring a proxy war. Until six months ago, no one predicted that Moscow would give up this proxy war and threaten a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Similarly, while India and China had had a few border skirmishes over the past decade, everyone — including the Indian government — was confident that a bloodless border would continue to be so.
Fourth, let’s consider the nature of conflict itself. Both Ukraine and the Ladakh crisis represent “gray zone conflict”. “In other types of limited warfare, such as insurgency or terrorism, conflict is limited by the actors’ capabilities. In the gray zone, by contrast, conflict is limited because capable actors want it to be so— they are intentionally pulling their punches,” write scholars J Gannon, Erik Gartzke, John Lindsay, and Peter Schram. “Rather than overt military actions that attempt to resolve issues or disputes, gray zone conflict involves destabilization, disruption and subversion.”
For eight years, Russia had been conducting a gray zone conflict in Eastern Ukraine, to destabilize a country that had undergone a profound political shift starting in 2014, with the exit of its former authoritarian and Moscow-leaning president, Viktor Yanukovych. Military actions of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in Ladakh since May 2020, represent a similar use of gray zone conflict to destabilize New Delhi’s security calculations. Now, while Russia is threatening a shift away from such a conflict and towards a more direct one, China might have just begun its use of gray zone conflict towards India.
Finally, for a country to begin a conflict against another one, generally, its benefits need to outweigh the costs. From Russia’s perspective, if it does eventually conducts some military actions in Ukraine, Kyiv neither has the defence wherewithal nor the economic capacity to levy any serious costs on Moscow. In terms of the resulting American response, it is clear that the US does not consider Ukraine a high enough priority to intervene militarily. And most importantly, Russia seems to have decided that it is ready to pay the cost of the US and European sanctions.
A similar calculation might have driven Chinese actions in Ladakh. In an insightful paper titled “Cautious Bully”, scholar Ketian Zhang showed that China’s use of coercion against its neighbours depends on “the need to establish resolve and the economic cost of coercion”. While the current world economic order is marked by intense economic interdependence, the Indo-Chinese one is mostly asymmetric. Zhang shows that China’s intercedence with its Western peers is very symmetrical, as the former relies on them for a whole set of technological and integral inputs. While not as symmetrical, China relies on many Southeast Asian inputs and is deeply entangled with these economies via the global value chain.
However, it has no such reliance on India. And on the contrary, India depends on China for a whole lot of cheap consumption. This is what makes the India-China interdependence asymmetrical. It also helps explain India’s growing trade imbalance with China, even as their armies continue to face off each other in Ladakh.
At the moment, it is impossible the predict the direction of the Russia-Ukraine conflict. But even if Moscow and DC manage to find a diplomatic solution, it is safe to say that this would not be the last episode of Russia’s aggressive behaviour in Ukraine and beyond. This also holds true for China. After all, both Russian and Chinese actions are as driven by the underlying structure of the current global system at play, as they are by the policymakers in their respective capitals.
Srijan Shukla studies international politics and business at NYU and is managing editor of NYU’s Journal of Political Inquiry
The views expressed are personal