In mid-September, Vladimir Putin sat down with both Xi Jinping and Narendra Modi in a meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Council. The statements coming out of this meeting marked a departure from the apparent tripartite pseudo-alliance between the three countries surrounding the Russia-Ukraine question; Putin acknowledged that China had "questions and concerns" about recent Ukrainian gains, while Modi chastised the Russian leader, declaring that “now is not the era of war” in the midst of the meeting. The three countries previously presented a quasi-united front on the topic of war (especially Moscow-Beijing, with a common earlier fear that a Ukraine invasion could serve as an antecedent to a Chinese invasion of Taiwan). Yet, this eventful meeting marked an about-face. Two questions are at the heart of this change in international politics: why did these countries previously share a perspective on the war in Ukraine and why have they since shifted?
Why have Beijing and New Delhi operated with political partiality in Putin’s favor with the Russia-Ukraine Conflict?
China, India see U.S. world order as exclusionary; perceive Russia as alternative
Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the U.S. has operated as the sole power in a unipolar system, allowing the country to act on its interests abroad with limited pushback diplomatically. China and India, in tandem with the pursuit of their economic and security interests, value the pursuit of ‘eminent country status,’ in which they would be recognized by current geopolitical power brokers as legitimate and influential emerging states. With the United States turning a blind eye to the maintenance of a healthy relationship with China and India (thus, effectively debarring them in the eyes of their respective governments), their cooperation is increasingly unlikely.
As noted by economic analyst Rohan Mukherjee, the United States was once in a very similar position in the early nineteenth century. Excluded from the international order by the European powers in the 1810s, the U.S. opted to repeatedly challenge the status quo by vehemently opposing British and French legislation that banned private vessels in maritime warfare. Eventually, the European position was reversed due to newfound American influence. Contemporarily, China and India are operating from the same playbook.
China, India prefer a multipolar world
It is to no one’s surprise that Beijing and New Delhi have been seeking geopolitical alternatives to the U.S.-led world order. For instance, New Delhi has been seeking a permanent seat on the UN Security Council for the last several years, with India’s Foreign Minister stating that the country deserved "due recognition" for its contributions to global order and his calls for “reformed multilateralism,” to which the “Permanent Five” (P5) did not publicly respond. An adjustment to the established P5 would shift influence away from Western interests and toward developing nations like India. Beijing, already occupying a position on the Security Council, has felt ostracized from other international institutions and organizations, such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, whose top positions are largely held by American and European nation-states. Aggravated by this apparent lack of inclusion, China launched the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank in 2014, aiming to improve economic and social conditions in the continent at large. Shortly after its introduction, the U.S. pressured Asian countries to boycott the organization, to which China’s vice minister of commerce responded that the U.S. treats the international order like a basketball game, in which they want to “set the duration of the game, the size of the court, the height of the basket and everything else to suit itself.”
Why the shift now?
At the root of this foreign policy adjustment is a recasting of expectations. Back-to-back Ukrainian victories in Kharkiv and Donetsk in the last four weeks were not on Moscow's radar, and thus, not on Beijing’s and New Delhi’s either. In China and India’s eyes, these military losses have made Putin’s Russia look like a less palatable alternative to the U.S. world order they have existing qualms with.
Additionally, U.S. diplomats have recently ramped up efforts to deter Russian nuclear usage by increasing dialogue with the Chinese and Indian governments. The U.S. Department of State has noticed a restrained approach by Xi in engagements with the Russians, as Xi has not signed any economic or military agreements with Russia since February, owing to probable wariness with regards to Ukraine. Seeking to capitalize on this trend, the U.S. hopes that Xi can be utilized as a voice in Putin’s ear to prevent escalation. For India, a historically more Washington-adjacent actor than China, American worries about nuclear escalation have been well-received and noted by Indian officials, with India’s foreign minister stating “The nuclear issue is of particular anxiety [for us].” This combination of internal wariness surrounding recent developments and external pressure from powerful actors is enough to warp Xi’s and Modi’s approach to the Russia-Ukraine Conflict, though an alteration in any of those ingredients is significant enough to precipitate another reassessment of their relationship with Putin.