Can India Become Vital to China's Plans to Dismantle the US-Centred World Order?

Against the backdrop of the ongoing Russia-Ukraine conflict, China is playing its cards tactically to expand its own influence at the expense of Russia, its 'closest ally'.

One of the strikingly clear outcomes of Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is how deeply dependent Russia has now become on China. As Russia’s most important trade partner and the strongest ally in the global system, China has become indispensable to Russia. While this is often described as an “axis against the US and its allies”, it is important to see how China is playing its cards vis-à-vis its “closest ally”.

A friend who specialises on China asked me to look at the places where China is placing its top-tier diplomats, especially in African countries like DR Congo. These are not places where the US or its allies have a strong influence, but Russia does.

But, ostensibly, China is not competing with Russia, but with the US-led alliance, so what explains this?

Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Photo: Kremlin

One way to read such moves is to understand that even if a US-China confrontation should play out, China wishes to delay it as long as possible, to be able to have its domestic and strategic environment in a better shape. And during the long interregnum, China wants to take advantage of the emerging situation that would see the weakening of any player, to help expand its own power.

Russia’s assault on Ukraine not only puts a strain on the US – with Republicans increasingly questioning support to Ukraine – and its allies but also weakens Russia, economically and diplomatically. And China is there to pick up the pieces.

In other words, if the world is to be divided – over the long term – into opposing camps, China would like to eat away weaker powers to have hegemony over the “anti-Western” camp. This is strategic common sense that goes back to Sun Tzu’s Art of War written 2,500 years ago, in which Tzu emphasised repeatedly never to attack a strong, well-entrenched enemy, but suggested using the time between open conflicts to strengthen one’s position.

Also read: Xi’s Russia Visit: What Did It Mean for Ukraine Conflict and What Does It Mean for India?

India in the Chinese scheme of things

Where does India fit into all this?

If Russia is the battering ram, India works excellently for China as a Trojan Horse. The US recently dismissed China’s peace plan on Ukraine, suggesting that it legitimises the Russian conquest of Ukrainian territories. But look closely at the plan. One would find that it bears a close resemblance to the positions India has taken at the United Nations by not condemning the Russian invasion, and by counselling for an “end to war” without ever putting forward ideas of justice.

It is little surprise that, despite the US dismissal, key European countries like Austria and Spain are urging China to discuss its peace plan with Ukraine – after all, this is the peace plan that the “rest of the world” other than the US, Europe or Russia has presented. It has the implicit backing of India. Despite the US diplomatic push for India to have its own peace plan, it has meekly suggested that it will join any peace process (but obviously not lead one) on the war.

As with the shrinkage of Russian space globally, the country that benefits most from this outcome is China, which is able to successfully portray itself as “the leader speaking on behalf of the Global South”.

Had it been India’s own position, then this would possibly not have mattered so much, but under the Modi regime, India has carefully toed the line, due to its own compulsions, which have led it to support Chinese positions globally, in opposition to those of the US and its allies. India has said nothing about Chinese actions in Hong Kong or Xinjiang, but then how can it, since its track record in Kashmir is comparable in its anti-democratic character and brutality? Similarly, Indian silence over China’s claim over Taiwan reflects its own bombast on taking, by force, Pakistan-administered parts of the former princely state of Jammu & Kashmir. And then there is the laughable contention of India as the “mother of democracy” based on WhatsApp history, and Jaishanker’s tantrums every time India slides down yet another rung of the democracy ladder.

These reflect nothing more than China’s more temperate assertions (though hardly temperate actions) on every country enjoying its own form of representation, and against the “export of democracy” by the US and its allies.

India may be face-to-face with China over its Himalayan borders, and it may even be a part of the Quad, a visibly anti-China alliance, but these only matter if the conflict comes to a head.

If, instead, what we are seeing is a long, drawn-out confrontation between the US and China, one inevitably hinging on democracy and international law, then India starts to look different, and far more like a part of China’s toolkit to dismantle a US-centred international order.

Omair Ahmad is the managing editor for South Asia at The Third Pole. He has worked as a political analyst and journalist, with a particular focus on the Himalayan region. He is the author of a political history of Bhutan and a few novels.