Why Did China and India Support a UN Resolution Acknowledging ‘Russian Aggression Against Ukraine’?

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Why Did China and India Support a UN Resolution Acknowledging ‘Russian Aggression Against Ukraine’?

China and India have consistently abstained from taking a strong stand on the Ukraine invasion. What explains their latest U.N. vote?

Why Did China and India Support a UN Resolution Acknowledging ‘Russian Aggression Against Ukraine’?

From left: Russian President Vladimir Putin, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and Chinese President Xi Jinping attend a trilateral meeting on the sidelines of the G-20 Summit in Osaka, Japan, June 28, 2019.

Credit: Indian Ministry of External Affairs

China and India have maintained a neutral stance since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, particularly in order to avoid direct condemnation of Moscow. Beijing and New Delhi have close diplomatic ties with Russia and decided to maintain those relationships while adhering to their strategic interests in the region. As a result, both China and India have consistently advocated for conflict resolution in a peaceful manner via dialogue and negotiation.

However, a recent development suggests a possible shift in the stance of these states regarding the Ukrainian crisis. On April 26, both China and India cast their votes in favor of a U.N. resolution titled “Cooperation between the United Nations and the Council of Europe,” which categorically acknowledged Russian aggression against Ukraine. The resolution recognized “unprecedented challenges now facing  Europe following the aggression by the Russian Federation against Ukraine, and against Georgia prior to that.”

Russia and its staunchest supporters, including Belarus and North Korea, voted against the resolution. Most of the countries that have been striving for a neutral stance – including the Central Asian countries of Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan – abstained or did note vote. But China and India voiced their support for the resolution, as did a few other countries that have typically abstained (Mongolia and Kazakhstan, for instance).

This development alone may not objectively indicate a change in China’s and India’s position toward Russia. But it is notable, given both states’ preference to abstain from previous U.N. resolutions criticizing Russia for the invasion of Ukraine.

China and Russia have maintained a strong relationship in recent years, even after the Ukraine crisis began in 2014. The two states have formed a strategic partnership, deepening their military and economic ties. The collaborative strategic growth of China and Russia is part of both countries’ plan to challenge the global dominance of the United States. Both China and Russia have faced extensive allegations and criticism from the West for their alleged human rights violations and complete disregard for democratic values and liberal democracy. The relationship between China and Russia is often described as a marriage of convenience, but it has become exponentially important for both countries as they seek to counterbalance U.S. hegemony while pursuing their strategic interests regionally and globally.

As a result, China preferred to stay out of the Ukraine conflict. That said, Chinese economic interests vested in the region are significant. China is the largest importer of iron ore and Ukraine is one of the major producers. Chinese ambitions for its Belt and Road Initiative, connecting China to Europe and beyond via a network of infrastructure, relies on Ukraine for a key transit point. Additionally, Chinese companies have large investments in Ukraine’s agriculture and technology sectors.

Meanwhile, owing to the extensive global economic sanctions and pressure from the global community, a number of Chinese corporations halted their operations in Russia after the eruption of conflict, including important organizations such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the Bank of China. This approach allows China to maintain its strategic relations with Russia and Western states in a balanced manner while maintaining a neutral stance in the conflict by avoiding direct involvement.

While China remains generally neutral in the Russia-Ukraine war, it has recently increased public calls for a peaceful resolution to the crisis and reiterated Beijing’s support for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine. Chinese President Xi Jinping held his first direct contact with Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on April 26 – coincidentally, the same day as the U.N. vote on “Cooperation between the United Nations and the Council of Europe.” As a follow-up measure to that call, Xi’s special representative is currently holding exploratory meetings with European counterparts on a potential peace deal.

China’s decision to support the recent U.N. resolution on cooperation with the Council of Europe – despite the clear criticism of Russia – shows China is making more serious efforts to maintain a true neutral position, rather than the so-called pro-Russia neutrality it has been accused of.

India’s situation is similar to China’s, yet distinctive in many ways. India and Russia share a multifaceted and historical relationship encompassing decades of political, defense, and economic cooperation. India’s reliance on Russia as a key defense supplier in terms of arms and technology remains significant. Additionally, Russia has supported India’s stance on Kashmir since the eruption of the crisis and proved itself as a key ally of India in International forums such as the United Nations. Russia and India’s economic ties expanded over time from the defense sector to other sectors such as energy, infrastructure, and pharmaceuticals. Overall, India’s relations with Russia can be marked by the presence of mutual trust and common interests at the regional and global level.

India’s stance on the Russia-Ukraine war is majorly influenced by a number of security concerns. Foremost is India’s longstanding foreign policy stance of non-interference in the domestic and internal affairs of other states. This policy focuses on the Westphalian principle of sovereignty and territorial integrity of a state, shaping India’s approach to the Ukraine conflict. India is particularly wary of any actions or definitive statements regarding Ukraine, as India itself is a state with its own territorial issues, such as the Kashmir dispute. Any actions taken by the international community now might set a precedent for external interference in such conflicts and disputes. Therefore, India has taken a neutral stance on the Ukraine crisis and called for peaceful negotiations and dialogue for attaining a diplomatic resolution of the conflict.

Conversely, India, while maintaining a neutral stance, showed its concerns regarding the escalation of tensions and the ripple effect of the crisis on global stability. When India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi met with Russian President Vladimir Putin last September, he made headlines by telling Putin that “today’s era is not the era for war,” which was widely read as a rebuke. India has also shown strong convergence with the United States amid New Delhi’s concerns about China, which led Modi to attend the G-7 summit in Hiroshima, Japan. The summit was marked by strong criticism of Russia, highlighted by Zelenskyy’s attendance.

Western allies have shown mild disapproval toward China’s and India’s repeated abstain votes in U.N. resolutions that directly or indirectly condemn Russian actions in Ukraine. Thus the recent surprise development of both countries voting in favor of a United Nation resolution that portrays Russia as an aggressor against Ukraine has raised speculation. This move highlights a significant development in foreign policies of India and China. China and India have kept strong military and economic bonds with Russia, but voting in favor of the United Nation resolution indicates a subtle approach in order to balance strategic interests. This shift highlights the complicated dynamics of international relations and the complexity of aligning national interests with global political dynamics. It is yet to be assessed whether this vote would signify a wider foreign policy shift or is just a one-time occurrence.

What is clear is that China and India are facing significant challenges in balancing their strategic interests regarding the Russia-Ukraine war. As discussed, both countries have strong military, economic, and energy relations with Russia, and a significant reliance on Russian resources. Consequently, it appears to be a very complex task to strike a balance between support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty while maintaining harmonious relations with Russia.

Moreover, China and India both prioritize non-interference and non-intervention as one of the most prominent foreign policy principles, disregarding unilateral intervention in a state’s internal matters, which clashes with the Western expectations of strong bold condemnation of Russia.

Lastly, China and India, being an integral part of the global order, are posed with a great challenge of skillfully managing their relationships with both Western powers and Russia without aligning with any particular side. In order to successfully navigate these challenges, there is a necessity of delicate balancing acts, which are influenced not only by perceived national interests but also global dynamics and the ever-shifting nature of the Russia-Ukraine war.

Being connected with both sides of the Ukrainian conflict, China and India possess a great deal of incentives to want the conflict to be somehow managed. As major powers, both states can leverage their diplomatic influence and their cordial relationships with Russia and Ukraine to formulate a dialogue that promotes peaceful resolution of the conflict. In that light, China’s and India’s move from abstention to support on the April 26 U.N. resolution may signal an acknowledgment of the intensity of the conflict and a new willingness to push forward diplomatic initiatives for mediation and resolution of the Ukrainian conflict.

Conclusively, China’s and India’s vote in favor of a U.N. resolution with a single reference to Russian aggression in Ukraine cannot be completely credited as a strategic move against Russia and a significant foreign policy shift. While the development is important, it would be premature to say that this vote depicted a complete change in their foreign policies toward Russia; it may well be just a tactical move. Russia still holds a position as a key ally of China and India, and there isn’t a visible deterioration of relations between these states. That said, China and India, being major powers, could promote conflict resolution in the case of Ukraine and their involvement can categorically contribute toward de-escalation if not complete resolution.