By Saniya Kulkarni
Although the UN General Assembly resolution condemning Russia’s aggression in Ukraine was passed with 141 votes in favor, the 35 abstentions, primarily from states in the Global South, but especially those by powers like China, India, and South Africa, caught the eyes of the world. Worries have been voiced over China and Russia spearheading the emergence of a new world order, creating an anti-Western sphere of influence that threatens the liberal international system that NATO and its allies have historically been so fiercely protective of. This fear was exacerbated by the abstention of India, another emerging non-Western power that has been a fairly steadfast ally of the USA, especially since the latter lifted the sanctions it had imposed on New Delhi in 1998 to the end of deterring its nuclear ambitions.
India’s position is particularly interesting, considering it is now an outlier in the Quad and has drawn heavy criticism from the USA for abstaining. The reactions to this abstention have been mixed, with some commentators suggesting that India’s long-standing diplomatic stance of neutrality should come as anything but a surprise to the Western powers that expected it to join them in unanimous international condemnation. On the other hand, the fact that China and India have both abstained have been interpreted to reflect similar understandings of neutrality.
However, the explanations that Beijing and New Delhi have provided for their decisions are very different, and the idea that the two diametrically opposed rivals would align to form an alternative sphere of influence in the international system is nothing more than a figment of what we may term Western paranoia. These fears may not be unfounded, however, considering it is not unheard of for Sino-Indian cooperation to offer opposition to prevailing Western norms, especially when it comes to debates on issues involving the global commons such as climate action, space governance, nuclear non-proliferation, and so on. At the same time, to hypothesize that these occasional cases of cooperation are indicative of a possible deeper coalition with Russia would be a misreading of the interests and intentions of what are three fundamentally distinct powers.
While it is true that neither China nor India’s decisions to abstain from the UNGA vote were influenced by the other, it might be imprudent to dismiss the possible implications of such incidental alignments, especially in light of economic sanctions that are pushing Russia out of the USD-dominated global financial system, and towards creating what has been dubbed an “anti-dollar axis”. Following the sanctions placed on Russia in 2014 as a result of its annexation of Crimea, Moscow has not been entirely unprepared for this scenario and already has a system in place for financial transactions outside SWIFT. There is a rising possibility of SPFS (Sisteme Peredachi Finansovykh Soobshchenii) becoming integrated with its Chinese equivalent, the CIPS (Cross-Border Interbank Payment System), and reports that India could also potentially join this partnership are reason enough for there to be a stir on how this emerging axis could legitimately shake the foundations of the Western-led neoliberal economic order.
The idea of such threats is not new, however, and has arguably inhabited Western global political consciousness in an almost neo-Oriental fashion since the Cold War. Besides, the material foundation of such an alliance is shaky at best. It stems from what the ‘West’ is not, and at its very core, exists simply as an opposition. There is very little common ground China, Russia, and India share, other than a degree of interdependence guiding their motives.
India’s refusal to participate in US-led sanctions has more to do with the fact that Russia is its biggest arms supplier, and significantly little to do with the idea of creating an anti-West world order. Being surrounded by hostile neighbors – one of which would be spearheading this alliance – makes India’s reliance on a steady supply of defense equipment crucial. Besides, India stands to lose much from abandoning the alliances that help it keep China’s regional dominance in check, such as the Quad. In the case of China, support for Russian aggression is out of the question considering the costs involved, while condemnation may carry the connotation that its policies align with that of the ‘interventionist West’. As it stands, the ‘anti-dollar axis’ seems to be more a construction of Western paranoia than an actual global alliance.
Saniya Kulkarni is the project coordinator for Space Policy at LSE IDEAS.