Why India May Find It Hard To Navigate Emerging Russia-China-Iran Axis?

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The world today appears to be on the verge of a cascade of conflicts. Over two years since it started, the Russia-Ukraine war does not seem to be heading towards an imminent settlement. Likewise, despite calls for a ceasefire, the Israel-Hamas conflict appears unlikely to abate anytime soon. And now, events over the past month involving Israel and Iran have demonstrated the potential for a wider regional conflict.

While the wars in Eurasia and the Middle East may seem disjointed and seeped in their own historical and political contexts, they are also interconnected in a broader sense of the emerging great power competition for the future of the world order. What we are witnessing today is an era of great power competition in an increasingly multipolar world. The US and China are the chief protagonists in this new order, although each is constrained by its domestic politics and capacities. This creates a certain power vacuum, but also space for autonomy of action, balancing and bandwagoning, and even adventurism by middle powers.

More Prominent Alignments

In this environment, while there are no distinct blocs that have emerged, there are certain alignments that are becoming more prominent. For instance, NATO seems to have found a fresh purpose following Russia’s assault on Ukraine, but there are deep concerns related to American policy continuity. Likewise, there is the emergence of a Russia-Iran-China axis based on common interests and grievances with the West. But there are limits to the nature of support that each lends to the other.

After years of mutual antagonism, Israel and Iran now appear to be on the brink of a new conflict. The proximate cause for this can be traced back to Israel’s frustration with what it argues is Iranian support for Hamas, and other groups such as the Hezbollah, the Houthis, the Syrian government and groups in Iraq. Over the course of the past month, the two countries have engaged in a cycle of attack and counter-attack. Neither seems to desire a major escalation. But the ladder of escalation often follows its own logic, which can put the best-laid plans to waste.

Two Planks Of Power

Two strategic outcomes can be observed amid these recent events. First, the persistence of the war in Gaza and the emerging spillovers have exposed the limitations of American and Chinese power, particularly since the situation does not necessarily serve either’s strategic interests.

Second, there is a clear alignment, albeit with increasing friction, between the US and Israel. The US has been at the forefront, supporting Israel in its war against Hamas, and led its defence amid the recent Iranian strikes. It is interesting to note that this effort was supported by regional actors like Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Jordan. In addition, options to coerce Iran economically are being discussed in both the European Union (EU) and the US. On the other hand, China and Russia have been critical of Israeli actions since October 2023. Amid the Iran-Israel tensions, Beijing has backed Iran and sought to preserve its tenuous effort at reconciliation between Saudi Arabia and Tehran. Russia, meanwhile, has become Iran’s largest military backer since 2022 and threw its diplomatic weight behind Iran’s “retaliatory measures” on April 14 against Israel.

Russia More Dependent Than Ever On China

On the other side of the world, the war in Ukraine is well into its third year. The conflict has fundamentally reshaped European geopolitics and geoeconomics. The war has re-energised transatlantic unity for the moment. However, the direction of American domestic politics has a significant bearing on this momentum. Beijing has sought to straddle the line in Europe by trying to appear neutral while backing the Russian call for a new regional security architecture. It has supported Russia’s defence industrial complex with the supply of dual-use items, but has been cautious to avoid direct weapons support. Russia, meanwhile, has economically become more dependent than ever on China. It views China as indispensable in shaping a new global order.

The recent visit by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to China underscored the strategic nature of the relationship. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi was blunt in stating that their ties were “irreplaceable in maintaining global strategic stability and promoting cooperation among emerging powers”. Both men condemned the US for creating “closed military-political alliances [like NATO] with a limited set of members”, and expressed willingness to create alternative institutions where China and Russia can shape norms in a way that suits their interests.

Iran’s Quid Pro Quo Approach

Iran, too, has played a quid pro quo role in supporting Russia in its war against Ukraine, both diplomatically and militarily. In fact, as per a recent US Congress report, Iran not only maintains a steady supply of drones, air-to-ground munitions, and artillery ammunition to Russia, but it is also building a drone production factory inside Russian territory.

Moreover, Russia, China and Iran are increasingly deepening cooperation in the Indo-Pacific. In March, they held the fourth edition of their annual trilateral naval exercises in the northern Indian Ocean.

Tricky Landscape For India

The cascade of conflicts obviously has a negative impact on India’s external environment. A more volatile world makes pursuing development security all the more challenging. Within this context, the emergence of a strong partnership between China, Russia and Iran, founded on an anti-Western sentiment, has serious implications for India.

For starters, efforts by the three countries to shape norms across the Global South and the Indo-Pacific, or at institutions such as the BRICS and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, could chip away at India’s strategic space. This is particularly the case given India’s democratic values, deepening ties with the US and Europe, and its strategic competition with China. Moreover, their closer military cooperation in the Indo-Pacific portends the emergence of a Cold War-style camp confrontation. This is detrimental to India’s approach of multi-alignment and maintaining strategic autonomy.

(Manoj Kewalramani is the Chairperson of the Indo-Pacific Studies Programme at the Takshashila Institution. Anushka Saxena is a Research Analyst with Takshashila’s Indo-Pacific Studies Programme.)

Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the authors

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