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The Sino-Indian Rivalry and the Russian Connection

The ongoing tensions between China and India have grabbed global attention despite the ongoing efforts to contain the COVID-19 pandemic. There are many arguments given for why tensions have been escalating between the two countries that range from growing power disparity between China and India, and the role of India’s decision to suspend Article 370 and declare Ladakh as a union territory along with Jammu and Kashmir, to the aggressive road building initiatives undertaken by the Indian government over the years which have made it possible for Indians to increase patrolling of the Line of Actual Control (LAC) substantially. No doubt, the ongoing tensions between China and India will continue to be analyzed in the future as well.

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We show how Russia will be one of the central players in how the Sino-Indian rivalry develops at least in the medium term because Russia remains a key supplier of fighter jets and associated defense goods to both China and India. Also, we show the limitations of Russia’s influence due to the nature of the current crisis, as well as the longer-term trends in India’s weapons acquisitions that include diversifying suppliers and ramping up indigenous production of aircraft.

How Defense Imports make Russia is an Important Actor: Although both India and China import large quantities of weapons, as shown in Figure 1 below, India relies far more on imported weapons. In the last ten years, India has spent anywhere between 4 to 10 percent of its military expenditures on imported weapons, peaking in 2013 at a little over 10 percent. However, it is also noteworthy that the money spent on imported weapons, as a percentage of total military expenditures, has been declining since 2014 albeit with a new spike in 2018. While we suspect this may be function of domestic politics surrounding the acquisition of the Rafale fighter aircraft from France, it requires a more detailed study in the future. On the contrary, as shown below, China has spent a much smaller proportion of its increasing military budgets on imported weaponry: ranging from little over 1 percent in 2009 to 0.33 percent in 2019.

As the Sino-Indian rivalry becomes deadlier, Russia will have to engage in a balancing act of its own as it will have maintain its biggest defense client, India and keep its largest trading partner, China, happy. That said, EU constitutes the largest trading block for Russia, giving it some leverage over China, too. As per the arms transfer data, exports to India and China constitutes roughly 45 percent of its total arms exports between 2009-2019. Figure 2 shows the yearly variation from 2009-2019 in the total percentage of Russian arms transfers accounted for by India and China. What also becomes evident is that the Indian share of total Russian arms transfers is significantly higher than that of China, although China still constitutes a little south of 20 percent of all Russian arms exports. Indian share of Russian arms exports had been on a decline since 2014, however, 2018 and 2019 witnessed an increase in India’s share of Russian defense exports. With Indian defense minister Rajnath Singh’s visit to Russia, it may be expected for India’s share of Russian arms exports to increase further.

However, Russian leverage over the India-China rivalry based on arms exports has limits because of the parameters of the Sino-Indian rivalry. As shown in Figure 3, India consistently spends the most on importing aircrafts, followed by ships – particularly in 2012 and 2013. India spends a very small amount of money on importing artillery, tanks, missiles, engines, air defense systems etc. As shown in figure 4, while China is spends less than India on imported weapons, it also depends on imports principally for aircrafts, specifically importing engines for many of its indigenously manufactured platforms.

Consequently, in a limited border clash, like the one currently ongoing, excessive analysis of import dependence may not be directly relevant because even if we see the use of firepower by the two armies, India and China would largely be self-sufficient. The problems related to import dependence would kick-in if the conflict spirals into an all-out war where both China and India will have to deploy aircraft and anti-ballistic missile systems like the Russian made S-300 and S-400 operated by both China and India.

Finally, China heavily relies on Russia for all its imports, although France and Ukraine have also been supplying China on a consistent basis, as shown in Figure 5. India also imports from France, Israel and increasingly the United States. The French Rafale has already been inducted into the Air Force with the first set of jets to arrive soon with its trained crew. Given a longer time horizon of 3-5 years, it is unlikely that the United States would be willing to supply arms to China that it would be willing to supply to India. For example Boeing and Lockheed Martin have been pitching their F-18 as well as F-16 fighter jets to India for its Air Force’s growing needs. Furthermore, India’s move towards inducting indigenous platforms like the Light Combat Aircraft could also reduce its dependence on foreign suppliers, which would include Russia.

In conclusion, whereas Russia is a critical third-party in the Sino-Indian rivalry because of its arms exports to both countries. However, its influence may be limited at present and may decrease over the years. Thus, a Russian strategy of exerting continued influence would be to ramp up deliveries of weapons systems, especially aircrafts, while also trying to keep competitors such as the United States out of these markets.

(Vasabjit Banerjee is an assistant professor of political science at Mississippi State University. His primary research interests are contentious politics and the political-economies of state- formation in developing societies, specifically South Asia, Latin America, and Southern Africa).

(Prashant Hosur is an assistant professor of political science at Clarkson University whose research focuses on International Relations and Comparative Politics, with a regional focus on South Asia).


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