On Indian Diplomacy, Sino-Russian Eurasia, and the West: Towards a Geopolitical Transformation of India?

Vladimir Putin’s visit to the People’s Republic of China on May 16-17 has sparked speculation about collusion between the two dictatorships and Xi Jinping’s possible reservations regarding the war in Ukraine. It is often claimed that India, along with Iran, is part of this anti-Western club. This overlooks the fact that the disputes between China and India are longstanding and profound. According to the author, it is by resolutely turning towards the West that India, potentially isolated in a Sino-centric Greater Asia, can make significant progress in terms of development and power. Despite our reservations due to the increasingly authoritarian nature of the Indian regime, the West should support it.

We are familiar with the historical ties between India and Russia, a legacy of the Cold War, when Communist China was perceived as a threat by both Delhi and Moscow1. At the end of the Cold War, the global strategic landscape had changed, but the Russo-Indian relationship held firm. While Russian diplomacy sought to create a Moscow-Delhi-Beijing-Tehran axis in line with the Primakov doctrine, the effort foundered on the hostility between Communist China and India, pushing the latter to draw closer to the West in general, and the United States and France in particular.

Sino-Russian Eurasia Overshadows India

In Anglo-American and Western geopolitical visions, India is sometimes likened to a “maritime democracy,” an essential piece on the Rimland, a term describing a chain of peninsulas and territories stretching from Western Europe to South and East Asia, passing through the Middle East2. Thus, India is mainly viewed through the prism of the Indo-Pacific, to counterbalance the geopolitical ambitions of Communist China, from the “Asian Mediterranean” (the South and East China Seas) to the straits of Hormuz and Bab-el-Mandeb, these geostrategic passages to the Mediterranean Sea and Europe, at the western end of the “new silk roads” dear to Xi (the Belt and Road Initiative).

As suggestive as it may be, this geopolitical representation should not overshadow the fact that the Indian subcontinent is a substantial land and demographic mass3 (3.3 million square km, 1.4 billion people), grafted onto Eurasia as it is conceived and concocted in Beijing and Moscow. On its Himalayan borders, India faces the fait accompli policy of Communist China, which, dissatisfied with merely conquering a part of Kashmir (see the 1962 Sino-Indian War and the Chinese annexation of Aksai Chin), is intensifying its efforts. Since June 2020, the Chinese army has controlled part of the Ladakh plateau, while other military incidents occur along various segments of a nearly 3,500-kilometer Himalayan border4.

While tightening ties with Pakistan, notably through the logistical corridor between Uyghur Xinjiang and the port of Gwadar (through Pakistani-controlled Kashmir), Communist China is establishing a powerful military presence in Tibet and on the Sino-Indian borders. The goal is to enhance the Chinese army’s intervention capacity on Indian territory, with force and promptness, revealing much about Beijing’s medium and long-term intentions (see note 4).

Faced with the Chinese threat, India can no longer rely as before – during the Soviet era – on resolute support from Russia. On the one hand, the ongoing and determined engagement of the Russian army in Ukraine and Putin’s deliberate opening of a western military front strain the Russian military-industrial complex. While Russo-Soviet designed equipment and weapon systems still account for 70% of the Indian army’s arsenal, purchases have already been reduced in recent years (40% of annual arms imports), in favor of the United States, France, and a myriad other players (including Israel). Moreover, the immediate needs of the Russian army are already causing delays in arms contracts and deliveries to India. This situation is unlikely to improve, which means that the Indian army is turning even more towards its Western partners5.

More importantly, it must be clear that Moscow, in its relations with India, will take care not to antagonize Chinese interests. A few years ago, the Russian idea was to identify points of balance on the grand Asian stage, compartmentalize strategic issues, and not sacrifice everything to the Sino-Russian relationship — without much success, it must be said. Given the importance of the alliance with Communist China, without which the Kremlin could hardly finance and conduct its war in Ukraine, it is and will be increasingly difficult to maintain a semblance of balance between Beijing and Delhi.

Narendra Modi during negotiations with Putin in Bishkek in June 2019 // kremlin.ru

In the near future, if Russian leaders were not aware of this, one must think that their Chinese counterparts would not hesitate to remind them of the need to reduce the scope of the Indo-Russian military-industrial partnership. In truth, this geopolitical situation, beyond the necessities of the moment, only reveals the Kremlin’s preferences, as could be discerned through the themes of Eurasianism and the tropes of Russian geopolitical discourse. Consciously and deliberately, Putin, in this “Very Great Game,” decided to bet on the effects of Communist China’s rise and, consequently, subordinated the Indo-Russian relationship to the Beijing-Moscow axis. In sum, hostility towards the West and Russia’s territorial ambitions in Europe take precedence over everything else6.

Delights and Poisons of Sino-Russian Exchanges

Practicing shameless cynicism, an attitude sublimated in the West by develping-world intellectuals who want to believe that the “Global South” is reinventing the world, Indian leaders value the windfall effect caused by Western sanctions against Russian hydrocarbon exports. Delhi has not condemned the Russian aggression against Ukraine, refuses to sanction Moscow, and encourages the development of Indo-Russian trade, which was still marginal on the eve of the “special operation” of February 24, 2022.

Essentially, it concerns oil, with imports covering 85% of India’s needs. At the beginning of 2022, Russian oil represented little more than 3% of imported volumes; now, it is two-fifths, with India becoming the second-largest buyer of Russian oil, behind Communist China (Russia provides half of China’s imported oil). Thus, Russian oil destined for India has overtaken that from Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and the United Arab Emirates.

This oil is processed in Indian refineries, with some even being exported to Western markets7. As things stand, Washington and Brussels are accommodating this, provided that the price of a barrel of Russian oil sold to India does not exceed $60. Let us recall the G7 decision, adopted in December 2022, to set this limit, threatening sanctions against shipowners, insurers, and companies ensuring the transport of Russian oil bought at a higher price. Although Russian oil players partly circumvent this measure through a fleet of “ghost tankers,” the measure still has proven effects8.

Some Indian politicians loudly rejoice in the development of cheap Russian oil imports, as if they were playing a nasty trick on the West. Yet, the trade imbalance with Russia is growing, with India remaining a third-tier exporter, especially compared to China, whose manufactured products and capital dominate the Russian market. Moreover, Moscow and Delhi have not agreed on a bilateral payment system that would allow trade in rubles and rupees9.

Certainly, Russian exporters initially agreed to be paid in rupees, accumulated in accounts opened in Indian banks, but they now do not know what to do with this currency, as Indian products represent only 1% of Russian imports. A figure summarizes the situation: Russian exports to India are sixteen times greater than imports from the same country. Moreover, the rupee is hardly convertible on currency markets (1% of market activity).

Thus, Moscow now intends to be paid in yuans (the renminbi), this currency allowing it to settle massive imports from China, including dual-use technologies, machine tools, engines, and other goods that fuel the Russian war economy10. Besides the conversion costs this would entail, the use of the yuan in Indo-Russian exchanges would imply strengthening the currency and financial system of the Chinese rival; a rival with which India is in conflict on the Himalayan borders, in South and Southeast Asia, and more broadly in the Indo-Pacific region.

Soviet poster “Indians and Russians – brothers!” from 1956.

The Aporias of “Multi-Alignment”

The issue of oil exports and their settlement shows, on the one hand, that the game is becoming more complex for Russia, and on the other hand, that India’s “multi-alignment,” presented by its foreign minister as a panacea, is not as easy as it seems. “De-dollarization” may be presented as a unifying theme of the BRICS, but it is not easy to implement, as the Johannesburg summit (August 22-24, 2023) demonstrated. In fact, such a process would primarily benefit Communist China, which India refuses.

Faced with the formation of a Sino-Russian Eurasia north of its borders, India claims to position itself as the leader and spokesperson of the “Global South,” a strategic option supposed to compensate for the imbalance with Communist China. This is at least what its diplomacy explains, which seems to be guilty of overconfidence: Beijing, with Moscow’s support, dominates the BRICS+, the beating heart of the “Global South11,” and will not let Delhi take the lead of this group with uncertain contours but in which part of the power dynamics of the 21st Century is defined.

To do so, Xi Jinping has comparative advantages far superior to those Narendra Modi can mobilize, notwithstanding the theme of Shining India. The total GDP of Communist China is five times that of India, and the per capita income is ten times higher. The latter is particularly important because it indicates the surplus a country can devote to its power politics. Indeed, the pace and magnitude of Chinese military modernization surpasses Indian (real) efforts in this area12.

Greater Asia is undergoing a geopolitical transition that could establish Communist China’s dominance, supported by an Eurasian Russia on which India cannot rely. At least when it comes to facing Chinese geopolitical threats, on land, at sea, and even in India’s supposed “backyard” in South Asia13. The great caution of Narendra Modi in the face of Chinese aggression in the Himalayas, despite his reputation as a “strongman,” is indeed a recognition of this state of affairs.

Rather than citing Kautilya’s ancient treatise on strategy or referring to some collection of ancient stratagems, Indian leaders must acknowledge the real power dynamics, Russia’s “Chinese pivot,” and their implications for Asia’s future. The fact is that the Indian Prime Minister’s neighborhood policy and joining the SCO (Shanghai Cooperation Organization) in 2017 did not prevent Communist China from expanding its borders at India’s expense.

With India’s neighbors all joining China’s Belt and Road Initiative, and the countries of the “Global South” inclined to follow the law of the strongest, Delhi’s room for maneuver is much more limited than the bravado about “multi-alignment,” multipolarity, and national interest suggests14. Moreover, it will take a generation to hope to bridge the wealth and power gap with China. In the meantime, in the short and medium term, many events could occur, as the world moves towards what Jacques Blamont called a “singularity” (see his Introduction to the Century of Threats, Odile Jacob, 2004). In short, one must prepare for the worst.

To conclude

It is therefore essential that Indian leaders accurately assess the situation, overcome rhetorical hubris and the anti-colonial syndrome of the “Global South,” to effect a geopolitical transformation in the face of a China allied with Russia. They need to accept the consequences of this massive fact, which gives substance to the “MacKinder nightmare”: anticipate the loosening of Indo-Russian ties, or even the decoupling of Delhi and Moscow. It is by resolutely turning towards the West that India, potentially isolated in a Sino-centric Greater Asia, can make significant progress in development and power.

As the world moves towards a bipolar framework, inherent in a large-scale conflict, it will be necessary to go beyond participation in bilateral or multilateral bodies, such as the Indo-Pacific Quad. Western leaders, for their part, must reconnect with a certain classicism, recognizing the specificity of foreign policy, and taking into account India’s unique weight and particularities. Such a civilization-state — “India larger than the world,” as a Borges character says — will not be an easy and compliant ally, inclined to be admonished. Nevertheless, it is towards a form of alliance that we must work, even if it may have shortcomings.

Associate professor of history and geography and researcher at the French Institute of Geopolitics (University of Paris VIII). Author of several books, he works within the Thomas More Institute on geopolitical and defense issues in Europe. His research areas cover the Baltic-Black Sea region, post-Soviet Eurasia, and the Mediterranean.


  1. See Jean-Sylvestre Mongrenier, “The Strategic and Geopolitical Limits of the Partnership Between Delhi and Moscow,” Desk Russie, April-May 2023
  2. The Rimland is a concept that refers to the classic theses of Halford MacKinder and Nicholas Spykman on the need to counteract the geopolitical unification of the “Heartland,” the heart of the Eurasian “great island.”
  3. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his party, the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party, i.e., the “Indian People’s Party”), represent a telluric Hindu nationalism that denies the Indo-European fact as contrary to the autochthony thesis.
  4. Annexed by Communist China, Aksai Chin is part of historical Ladakh, at the junction of Xinjiang and Tibet. After the 1962 war (2,000-4,000 dead), Chinese and Indian soldiers clashed several times, notably in 1967 and 1975. In 2017, clashes occurred on the Doklam plateau (west of Bhutan). In 2020 and 2021, incidents took place twice in Sikkim (an Indian territory between Nepal and Bhutan), then on the Ladakh plateau, with repercussions the following years (see the December 2022 clashes in Arunachal Pradesh, near Bhutan). On both sides of the “Line of Actual Control” in Ladakh, tens of thousands of Indian and Chinese soldiers are now gathered. The Chinese objective would be to completely lock down Xinjiang and, more generally, to always have a military option in northern India.
  5. Founded on the sale of Scorpene submarines and Rafale aircraft, the Franco-Indian strategic partnership was established in 1998. In addition to military-industrial cooperation, there are joint military training exercises and logistical agreements in the Indian Ocean, with the “Annual Franco-Indian Defense Dialogue” crowning this arrangement. See “Focus on the Strategic Partnership Between India and France,” Ministry of the Armed Forces, October 12, 2023.
  6. For their part, Chinese leaders seem to be preparing for a conflict with the United States, in which case “Eurasian Russia” would be an indispensable ally, providing them with a geostrategic “great rear.” Already, the close petro-gas links between Beijing and Moscow have profoundly altered the geography of energy and could allow Communist China to overcome the “Malacca dilemma,” i.e., to greatly reduce their heavy dependence on flows from the Middle East through the Indonesian straits.
  7. See especially the two refineries of the Indian conglomerate Reliance in Jamnagar, in western India (Gujarat state), and that of the Indo-Russian group Nayara Energy, located in the same part of India. These refineries import Urals oil, which differs little from Iraqi oil, which has limited the required technical modifications. These refineries are located in the state where Narendra Modi became “chief minister” in 2001, until the BJP’s (Hindu nationalist party) legislative victory led him to head the Indian government in 2014.
  8. See Julien Bouissou, Francesca Fattori, and Riccardo Pravettoni, “The Ghost Fleet: Investigation into the New Routes of Russian Oil,” Le Monde, August 6, 2023.
  9. The Mir (Russia) and Indian (UPI) payment systems are interconnected, but Mir is mainly grafted onto the Chinese CIPS payment system, which displeases New Delhi.
  10. See Julien Bouissou and Marie Jégo, “Russian Oil Deliveries to India Hampered as Moscow Refuses to Be Paid in Rupees,” Le Monde, December 12, 2023.
  11. Russian diplomacy uses the term “Global Majority,” avoiding questioning the spatial contours of this concept, allowing it not to specify Russia’s geopolitical position (a Northern or Southern country?), and finally, referring the West to its status as a demographic and civilizational minority.
  12. The Chinese military budget is three times that of India.
  13. Besides Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Myanmar are part of the “new silk roads,” open their ports to the Chinese fleet, and depend on Beijing’s loans and investments. Ostensibly centered on India, regional organizations (South Asia and Bay of Bengal) include Beijing’s client states.
  14. See Jean-Sylvestre Mongrenier, “On the Vanity of the Multipolar Concept,” Desk Russie, March 24, 2024.

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