In focus
Ruslan Pukhov's article for Defense News on the future of Russian-Western relations, part 1
Ruslan Pukhov's article for Defense News on the future of Russian-Western relations, part 2

India Urgently Seeks Russian Missile System After China Clash

India Urgently Seeks Russian Missile System After China Clash
Source: Bloomberg
By Sudhi Ranjan Sen and Henry Meyer

India is pushing Russia to speed up the delivery of a missile defense system as ties with China deteriorate following the worst military clash between the Asian nations in four decades.

The request comes as China and India’s foreign ministers met on Tuesday in their first face-to-face interaction since a fight along their disputed Himalayan border killed 20 Indian soldiers and an unknown number of Chinese troops. India and China agreed to deescalate the situation along their undemarcated boundary, Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said at a regular news briefing Tuesday in Beijing.

Last week’s clashes -- along with revelations that China held 10 Indian soldiers in military custody for days afterward before releasing them -- came amid rising nationalism stoked by both governments as they jostle for regional influence. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is keen for an early resolution of the border dispute as he risks a drop in popularity if the army suffers more losses.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov hosted the virtual trilateral meeting with China’s Wang Yi and India’s Subrahmanyam Jaishankar after Moscow emerged as a key player in thawing relations between the two neighbors.

“India and China have every means to solve any problems that arise in their relationship,” Lavrov said after the meeting. “I don’t think that India and China need any help.”

Yet another meeting between Defense Minister Rajnath Singh and his Russian counterpart in Moscow could prove just as important for India as it looks to increase its defense capabilities. They are expected to discuss the India-China border tensions and New Delhi’s desire to ensure an unimpeded and early supply of military spares from Russia, long one of the country’s top defense suppliers.

Singh plans to seek the advanced delivery of the Russian S-400 anti-aircraft missile defense system -- currently due in December 2021 -- and the purchase of Russian-made jet fighters Su-30Mki and MiG-29, people familiar with the details said. India and Russia signed the S-400 deal worth than $5 billion in 2018.

Balancing Act

The missile system will provide heft to the country’s otherwise antiquated air defenses, while the additional fighters will boost the capability of the Indian Air Force. It needs 10 more squadrons of fighters to supplement the 32 currently in operation, said the people, who asked not to be named citing rules on speaking to the media. A squadron has between 16 and 18 warplanes.

Defense Ministry spokesman A Bharat Bhushan Babu declined to comment before the meetings in Moscow had taken place.

The U.S. has cautioned India against buying the S-400 system, saying the purchase would have a serious impact on Washington-New Delhi defense ties.

Russia’s current contracts with India amount to $14.5 billion, while with China it is about $2 billion right now, said Konstantin Makienko, deputy chief of the Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, a Moscow consultant to the defense industry, who noted it was unlikely Russia would expedite delivery of the S-400s as it did with Turkey last year.

In that case, President Vladimir Putin made a political decision to send his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan systems that were already in production for Russian defense ministry, Makienko said. “Russian military won’t be happy if this will become the routine. In case with India there is not yet clear reason for expediting the delivery at the cost of the Russian army.”

Maintaining Ties

Russia hasn’t received an official request to speed up the supplies yet, an official with knowledge of the situation said, asking for anonymity as the information is not public. Even if India asks for it, it will be technically difficult for Russia to produce and ship the S-400 earlier than in 2021, the person said.

For now, it’s becoming increasingly tricky for Russia to maintain good ties with both New Delhi and Beijing, said Alexander Gabuev, a China expert at the Carnegie Moscow Center.

“It’s a very important test overall of Russia’s ability to balance its relationships amid growing dependency on China, which is becoming increasingly assertive and pushing its partners to choose sides,” Gabuev said. Still, India represents a key market and an opportunity for Moscow to diversify its relationships in Asia away from a reliance on China, he added.

The sale of the S-400 and advanced fighter jets to India won’t spoil relations with China, said Igor Korotchenko, head of the Centre for Analysis of World Arms Trade in Moscow. “The Indian arms market is a top priority for us,” he said. “There’s no problem here for our ties with China”