Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov visits China and India under shadow of war in Ukraine

Lavrov first met Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi on Wednesday ahead of a scheduled flight to India on Thursday, in only his second trip abroad since the Russian invasion began on Feb. 24.

On paper, Lavrov’s meeting with Wang was ostensibly about the troubles in Afghanistan. But an expert said it was ‘inconceivable’ that they weren’t discussing the situation in Ukraine, including the severe sanctions imposed by the international community on Russia and its ally Belarus.

“It is inconceivable that the parties would avoid Ukraine in their discussions, no matter what they say about the purpose of the visit,” Steve Tsang, director of the SOAS China Institute at the University of London, said ahead of the visit.

Both China and India have refused to condemn Russia’s brutal invasion outright and have both abstained from voting on United Nations resolutions demanding that Moscow immediately cease its attack on Ukraine.

By the end of Lavrov’s first day in China on Wednesday, Beijing had made its position clear.

“There is no ceiling for Sino-Russian cooperation, no ceiling for striving for peace, no ceiling for safeguarding security, and no ceiling for opposing hegemony,” he said. Wang Wenbin, spokesperson for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, according to the official Xinhua news agency.

Reaffirm China’s friendship

Ever since Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine, China has tried to take what it calls a neutral stance — choosing not to impose sanctions on Moscow, or even call it an invasion. Instead, China has increasingly blamed the United States and NATO for the conflict, with state media promoting Russian disinformation.

On Wednesday, Wang Wenbin reiterated China’s position that ‘dialogue and negotiation are the only right way to resolve the Ukrainian crisis’, and warned against ‘fuelling the fire’ – an oft-used phrase by Chinese officials criticizing Western sanctions.

Chinese President Xi Jinping and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin have publicly cultivated their partnership in recent years, even declaring in February that their relationship had “no limits”. They are booming trading partners, conduct joint military training exercises and have both spoken out against what they see as Western interference in internal affairs, often voting en bloc at the UN.

“There is a common goal between these two parties, particularly in terms of the kind of international order they would like to see,” said Manoj Kewalramani, a China studies researcher at the Takshashila Institution. in India.

But the invasion of Ukraine has tested that relationship, as China faces the growing threat of secondary sanctions if it provides aid to Russia – lending high stakes to Lavrov’s visit. which allows both parties to get clarity on “grey areas” in their relationship, Tsang said.

“The war is in a difficult phase for Russia, and I see that Moscow would like to know the extent of Chinese aid or support in the future,” Tsang said. “On the Chinese side, I can see Beijing wanting to know what endgame Moscow has in mind and what impact (Russia’s) plans might have on China.”

Tsang added that Xi likely wanted to continue his and the country’s relationship with Putin, but the Chinese president “will not pay a significant price to do so.” Russia, too, is “ultimately realistic that Beijing’s ‘unlimited friendship’ has clear limits in reality,” Tsang said.

On Wednesday, Wang Yi and Lavrov emerged from their meetings with a show of unity, appearing to reaffirm their countries’ friendship.

“China-Russia relations have withstood the new test of the changing international landscape,” Wang said after the meeting. “China is ready to work with Russia to lift China-Russia relations to a new level in the new era.”

He expressed support for Russia and Ukraine to “overcome difficulties and continue peace talks”, and praised Russia’s efforts to “prevent a large-scale humanitarian crisis”.

Russian bombs destroyed civilian structures including homes, schools, hospitals and temporary shelters throughout the war – with besieged towns including Mariupol cut off from heat, electricity and water .

India’s Defense Trade

Lavrov will arrive in India later Thursday for a two-day visit, according to India’s External Affairs Ministry.

His trip comes amid a flurry of diplomatic activity involving India. Earlier this month, the leaders of Japan and Australia held virtual summits with their Indian counterparts. Also this week, diplomats from Germany and the European Union are visiting Delhi. And Lavrov’s visit will coincide with British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss and US Deputy National Security Adviser for International Economics Daleep Singh.

“I think a lot of that is down to what’s happening in Europe and Ukraine right now,” Kewalramani said. “There are clearly ongoing discussions about India’s response.”

India has refused to condemn the Russian invasion, despite pressure from its Western partners to do so – and one of the main reasons is India’s reliance on Russian weapons for its own national security, Kewalramani added.

For years, India, the world’s largest democracy, has sought to counter China’s growing influence in the region – especially as tensions have heated up on their disputed border, peaking in 2020. after soldiers from both sides engaged in the bloodiest standoff in decades.

Russia's Attack on Ukraine Reveals Political Flaws in Asia
And Russia has played a critical role as India steps up its territorial defense. In 2018, India signed a $5 billion arms deal with Russia for an air defense missile system. Estimates go as high as 50% for the amount of Indian military equipment coming from Russia.

This relationship is “essential for India’s interests, especially India’s security interests”, Kewalramani said.

The many foreign diplomats currently visiting and talking to Indian officials may be trying to change India’s stance, he added – although many “understood” India’s security concerns.

For example, Truss, the British Foreign Secretary, called her visit a “diplomatic push” to counter the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

“I want to build an even closer relationship between our two nations,” Truss said in a statement from Britain’s Foreign Office on Wednesday. “This is even more important in the context of Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine and underscores the need for free democracies to work more closely together in areas such as defence, trade and cybersecurity.”

Faced with this, Lavrov “probably wants to get a sense of the mindset in India, where India stands politically,” Kewalramani said.

He added that while India is unlikely to voice public support for Russia’s invasion, conversations are ongoing in the country about its economic and strategic future.

“Is there an effort going on to try to see if you can find ways to change Indian politics? Of course, that’s clearly the case,” he said. “I think you will see India staying cautious while trying to see where it can safeguard its interests.”

CNN’s Manveena Suri, Simone McCarthy, Brad Lendon, Rhea Mogul and Julia Hollingsworth contributed reporting.


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