Analysis: Have China and India shifted stance on Russia war?

Willy Kurniawan/Pool Photo via AP, File
Chinese President Xi Jinping attends a session at the G20 Leaders’ Summit in Nusa Dua, Bali, Indonesia, Wednesday, Nov. 16, 2022.

NUSA DUA, Indonesia (AP) — China and India, after months of refusing to condemn Russia’s war in Ukraine, did not stand in the way of the release this week of a statement by the world’s leading economies that strongly criticizes Moscow.

Could this, at last, signal a bold new policy change by Beijing and New Delhi to align themselves with what the United States and its allies believe is the best way to end a war that has brought death and misery to Ukraine and disrupted millions of lives as food and energy prices soar and economies crack?

There’s certainly an eagerness by a world weary of war to see it as the beginning of a shift by the burgeoning global powers.

Look close enough, however, and there’s enough subtlety, not to mention spots of vagueness, in both the official statement released at the end of the Group of 20 summit in Bali, Indonesia, and in actions from China and India themselves, to raise questions about whether a real change is underway.

Their positions will become clearer in coming weeks, but for now both nations, which have significant trade ties with Russia and have so far stopped short of outright criticism of the war, may simply be looking out for their own interests and keeping future options open.

Figuring out what exactly happened in Bali matters because there’s growing worry that without political and diplomatic pressure by China and India, Russia will be far less likely to end its war.

The conflict in Ukraine loomed large over the two-day summit on Bali, which was attended by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. News early Wednesday of an explosion that rocked eastern Poland prompted U.S. President Joe Biden to hastily arrange an emergency meeting with Group of Seven and NATO members at the summit.

The backroom wrangling at the G-20 over how to address Russia’s invasion in its statement was “very, very tough,” summit host Indonesian President Joko Widodo said.

“Most members strongly condemned the war in Ukraine and stressed it is causing immense human suffering and exacerbating existing fragilities in the global economy,” the statement said.

The less-than-universal language — “most members” — signals the presence of dissent, as does an acknowledgement that “there were other views and different assessments” and that the G-20 is “not the forum to resolve security issues.”

The final product, however, was seen by some as a strong rebuke of a war that has killed thousands, heightened global security tensions and disrupted the world economy.

The public statement used language from a March U.N. resolution that deplored “in the strongest terms the aggression by the Russian Federation against Ukraine” and demanded “its complete and unconditional withdrawal” from Ukrainian territory.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said the G-20 summit’s “surprisingly clear words” on Ukraine “wouldn’t have been possible if important countries hadn’t helped us to come together this way — that includes India and it also includes, for example, South Africa.”

“This is something which shows that there are many in the world who don’t think this war is right, who condemn it, even if they abstained in the votes at the United Nations for various reasons,” Scholz said. “And I am sure that this is one of the results of this summit: the Russian president stands almost alone in the world with his policy.”

John Kirton, director of the G-20 Research Group, called it a “big breakthrough” and an “active shift” by China and India in which they joined the “democratic side of the great immediate geopolitical divide.”

Privately, however, some diplomats were wary about declaring that China has shifted its stance on Russia.

Chinese President Xi Jinping may have simply made a decision to not be seen as a spoiler or outlier during face-to-face meetings with other leaders in Bali. The statement also allows China to avoid going all-in with a Russia that is looking more and more isolated as it increases attacks on civilians and civilian infrastructure.

What Beijing hasn’t done is change — or even publicly question — its fundamental relations with Russia.

China has closely aligned its foreign policy with Russia in recent years, as pipeline projects and natural gas sales have brought them closer economically.

It has refused to publicly criticize Russia’s aggression or even refer to it as an invasion, while criticizing sanctions and accusing the United States and NATO of provoking Putin, although it has warned against allowing the conflict to go nuclear.

Just weeks before Moscow’s invasion, the Russian and Chinese leaders met in Beijing, where they signed a joint statement affirming that their bilateral relationship had “no” limits.

It was unclear whether China pushed for the softening language in the G-20 statement acknowledging “other views and different assessments” and that the G-20 is “not the forum to resolve security issues,” but Shi Yinhong, professor of international relations at Beijing’s Renmin University, said it has pushed for such phrases on other occasions.

For India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has also avoided criticism of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Modi, however, indicated for the first time in public India’s discomfort with the attack when he met Putin in September.

“I know that today’s era is not of war,” Modi told Putin.

That message “resonated very deeply across all the delegations and helped to bridge the gap across different parties and contributed to the successful outcome of the document” in Bali, Indian Foreign Secretary Vinay Kwatra told reporters.

Navdeep Suri, a retired Indian diplomat, said he sees a subtle shift in India’s position in dealing with Russia.

China, however, may be “in a far more awkward position than India because China is the one that promised unlimited support to Russia a few days before the invasion,” Suri said. “China has (now) gone along with such tough language, including the unconditional and complete withdrawal of Russian forces from Ukraine.”

Dilip Sinha, another retired Indian diplomat, noted that India continues to buy oil, to trade with Russia and to abstain from U.N. resolutions critical of Russia.

“There is a feeling of bravado in India that it has its way. I don’t see any change at all in India’s policy on Russia on the war in Ukraine,” Sinha said.