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Bonding with Beijing


Prime Minister Manmohan Singh told Russian president Vladimir Putin this week that Kudankulam will finally be commissioned in April. Yay! Putin's mask-like face barely broke into a smile. Why should it? Just in case people in India have missed, in December 2012, Rosatom began construction of the third Tianwan nuclear power plant in China. Third, Manmohan and Jayalalithaa together had a hard time getting Kudankulam 1 off the ground, despite Tamil Nadu being neck-deep in a power crisis.

China seems to make Putin happier. Last week, while India was trying hard to cut its nose to spite its face on Sri Lanka, Putin was playing host to freshly-minted Chinese president, Xi Jinping, in Moscow. It was significant that Russia was the first overseas destination for Xi, but most of India barely noticed.

Russia-China trade is hitting $90 billion, and is centred on energy. China is not only the largest energy consumer in the world, China has a strategic necessity of finding sources and routes that are insulated against an America-induced blockade either in the Strait of Malacca or the Strait of Hormuz. Russia immediately looks attractive. As does Gwadar in Pakistan or Kyaukphu in Myanmar.

The chief of Gazprom, Alexei Miller, was quoted as saying that China would fund a branch line of a Siberian pipeline, which would mean that Russia would deliver gas to China by 2018. As China works hard to pursue development while cutting down on pollution, switching from coal and oil to gas makes sense. Russia will help China get there. Even at a discount. China drives a hard bargain for Russian gas and oil just as it does for Iranian oil - on both counts China gets what it wants. Russia already charges China less for the power it provides than even to Russians themselves!

Russia will also use Chinese funds to sell oil to China, which will go up to 31 million tons in a couple of decades. Russia is building a new network of oil pipelines to the Far East. China is building a massive refinery in Tianjin, which will mainly refine Russian crude. China will build roads and power plants in Russia so that Russians can mine their own coal, generate electricity and transmit it to China.

Frankly, China is doing with Russia what it ritually does with African and Central Asian nations. Essentially, China has the upper hand in this relationship and Russia is fine with this. Russia and China coordinate closely in the UN Security Council, BRICS and SCO. On Syria and Iran, there is nary daylight between the two countries' positions. As one Chinese scholar informed us recently, "Globally, neither China nor Russia are happy with a unipolar world. " In the alternative scenario, China takes top position.
Now that China has copied and manufactured most of the weapons it used to buy from Russia, including the Su-27 fighter aircraft, China has itself climbed to becoming the top five weapons exporters in the world. That old Russian fighter, for instance, has been souped up to become the JF-17, which China has been selling to Pakistan. Pakistan buys the bulk of Chinese weapons exports.

Yes, there are fond Indian strategists who will tell you darkly that all is not well between the Russians and the Chinese. Of course they are not and may never be. All is not well between India and Russia either, but we continue to be good friends. Russia, they will say, is uncomfortable with Chinese growth - particularly in its "near abroad", that is, the Central Asian republics. China has greater trade with these countries and has built greater connectivity than Russia, and there could be a situation when Russia and China could compete for these markets.

In the Far East, Chinese seasonal immigration into Russia is changing the demographics of those regions. Perhaps, but those areas have been fringe to the Russian mind anyway, and after the resolution of the boundary dispute, there is really little to worry, although some strategists say a growing China could make territorial claims on Russia.

As Afghanistan transitions from Nato to domestic control, everybody has reason to fear - including China and Russia. Russia has come to the conclusion that Pakistan has to be engaged because Rawalpindi controls the Taliban. It makes sense to incentivise them into keeping the Taliban out of Russia's hair. The Chinese have not been able to work the Aynak mines because of the security situation and they are slowly coming round to the view that their unstinting support of the Pakistanis has to be hedged by a bilateral track with India. Nevertheless, if Indians believed that after the trilateral meeting between Russia, China and India last month there is some sort of a change of heart with the Chinese, they will be disappointed to know that China and Russia are holding a similar trilateral meeting next month - with Pakistan.

Is the growing Russia-China axis a threat to India? Probably not, but it puts interesting inflexions in the India-Russia relationship. Look at BRICS - China drives the agenda of this grouping, even though, as a western commentator has said, China actually oughtn't to belong to BRICS, with an economy $1. 5 trillion more than the combined economies of the others.

Some idealistic bureaucrat proposed the BRICS bank last year and India pushed it without actually thinking it through. Having had a year to chew on it, India is now trying hard to slow it down. We don't like a western-dominated world. With the BRICS bank we are helping create a China-dominated alternative. That's going to be good for us? What are we smoking?

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