Opinion & Analysis

India, China & Ukraine: Politics and Conflict

As the Russian invasion of Ukraine enters its second week, international criticism of the Putin regime grows and heavy economic sanctions are already beginning to impact Moscow. The invasion has laid bare the realpolitik between China, Russia and India, huge nations with complex relationships. 

The AMC asked International Relations expert Professor Robert Patman for his views on China, Russia, and the war in Ukraine 


China has said it respects Ukraine’s sovereignty, and it abstained from a vote at the UN designed to counter Russia’s moves. Is this significant ?

 The Chinese abstention is significant and shows how conflicted the Chinese leadership is on this question. Given China’s public emphasis on the narrow Westphalian conception of sovereignty – non-interference in domestic affairs and respect for territorial integrity – China should have roundly condemned Putin's regime and its flagrant disregard for these principles.

But China values Putin’s authoritarian regime as a junior partner and counterweight to the perceived threat of US global dominance. So Beijing opted to abstain on the vote deploring Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

In doing so, it sent Moscow a pointed message without lining up with the US and other powers.

The message is that Ukraine is a good friend of China and Beijing has billions of dollars of investment in that country. As it signalled in 2014, the Chinese govt. supports the territorial integrity of Ukraine and does not believe the problems between Russia and Ukraine can be resolved by force.

China and Russia signed the “No Limits” Partnership last month – is it an important pact or was it window-dressing for the Olympics ?

China and Russia have a history of difficult relations and their relationship is essentially based on a ‘marriage of convenience’ based on their common support for a ‘multipolar’ world. That is a world order that is not dominated by the US.

However, we should not exaggerate the significance of the China-Russia Strategic Partnership. China is a superpower whose economy is likely to be bigger than America’s by 2028 where as Russia is a heavily armed regional power that has an economy smaller than that of Italy.

I think the “No Limits” Partnership between Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin certainly highlighted the improvement of Russian-China relations, but there was little indication China would follow the Putin line on Ukraine.

I think the importance of the meeting in February was symbolic rather than substantial.

Is China emboldened by Russia’s move on Ukraine ? .. does it give Beijing impetus to move on Taiwan ?

The Chinese leadership may be divided on that question. Some hardliners may be encouraged by the precedent of the Putin regime’s illegal invasion of Ukraine, but I do not think that this will be the dominant view in Beijing. After all, Ukraine is an internationally recognised independent sovereign state. The same cannot be said for Taiwan.

At the same time, some elements in the Chinese leadership may have been disturbed by Mr. Putin’s unilateral decision to recognise the independence of armed separatists that are located within the borders of Ukraine. The implications of this will not be lost on the Chinese government that has its own minority groups to deal with. 

What happens if China pulls its tacit support for the invasion? .. how worried do you think Xi Jinping could be about the upcoming 20th CCP National Congress? 

 I am not sure the China position is one of tacit support or tacit opposition. One thing is pretty clear. China’s prosperity and the legitimacy of the CCP leadership rests on economic growth and continued participation in the global economy. China will not want to do anything that jeopardises its access to key markets such as Japan, EU and the US.

India has frustrated its QUAD partners by refusing to criticise Russia following the invasion– what do you see as the primary reasons behind this ?

On the face of it, this is a surprising decision by the Modi govt. Like China, India likes to adhere to a strict Westphalian understanding of state sovereignty in international affairs and the Ukraine is a democracy.

Nevertheless, the Modi govt. looked past these principles to abstain and not vote at the United Nations against Putin’s Russia in relation to Ukraine. This reflects New Delhi’s reliance on its old Cold War ally for energy, weapons and support in conflicts with neighbours like Pakistan.

Indian leader Nahendra Modi and Vladimir Putin have a good relationship. Would Modi step up as an honest broker to nail a peace deal ?

 No, I do not think so. Putin seems to be looking for full control of Ukraine rather than simply establishing partial control.

Does India risk credibility in the QUAD by its attitude to the current crisis, in thinking it can sit on the fence because the other QUAD partners need it too much ?

 The problem with India’s stance is that it looks inconsistent and is not likely to inspire confidence in the Quad about New Delhi’s willingness to confront authoritarian regimes per se

 Does Delhi misunderstand in some way the lens through which Washington sees Russia and Putin ?

 Yes, I think there is a real risk of that. The Biden administration is privately convinced that Trump’s presidency emboldened Putin and is determined to severely punish Putin’s regime through sanctions to remind Moscow that it cannot continue to expect a play weak hand well.

Has India damaged its reputation at the UN ? .. “stained by association” , as US President Joe Biden put it. 

 Yes, I think the Modi government has damaged India’s international reputation by not clearly standing up for a democracy in Ukraine that is being invaded by an old authoritarian friend of New Delhi.

In an increasingly interconnected world, it is probably more important than before for leaders to be seen to ‘walk the talk in diplomatic terms.

How does the QUAD and NATO go forward from here ? 

 If members of NATO and QUAD fail to deal robustly with Putin’s blatant assault on the rules-based international order in Ukraine, they will be weakened when it comes to dealing with China’s assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific and elsewhere.

If Russia's military campaign in Ukraine is deemed a failure, could Putin be ousted ?

Yes, I believe so. I think the recent assessment of Lithuania PM Ingrida Simonyte is spot on. Even if Kiev falls, Putin will not be able establish a pro-Russian regime that is acceptable to the Ukrainian people.

The Ukraine invasion could signal the beginning of the end for the Putin regime, but how long this will take remains to be seen.


 - Asia Media Centre .