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24 June 2020updated 12 Oct 2023 10:55am

The EU, India and Russia do not want to pick sides in a US-China contest, but they may have to

The biggest question mark is over which way Russia might go.

By Jeremy Cliffe

What do the EU, India and Russia have in common? Very little, at first glance. But they do share one highly important thing. Brussels, New Delhi and Moscow would all like to tread a middle path between the US and China. And all are starting to realise that doing so may not be possible. As tensions between the two superpowers grow and their relationship becomes more zero-sum, the EU, India and Russia are confronted with the possibility of eventually having to pick a side.

Traditionally a US ally, the EU has also been a fairly pliant partner to China. The union’s 27 members have varying instincts and interests, so Beijing has mostly dealt with them bilaterally. It has nurtured close export relations with Germany, acquired major assets in weaker states such as Greece and Portugal, and boosted populist leaders such as Hungary’s Viktor Orbán. China’s growing influence and a weakening transatlantic relationship have prompted talk in recent years of a middle way: of European “strategic autonomy” and even “equidistance” between the two giants.

That is now changing. Europeans bridle at the abuse of the EU’s economic openness, used by China to suck up assets and intellectual property (IP) and otherwise advance its geopolitical interests. Its cyber-attacks, its crackdown in Hong Kong and its opaqueness over Covid-19 alarm them too. The shift is uneven among member states, but even in Berlin scepticism is growing. After a virtual EU-China summit on 22 June, the president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, called China a “systemic rival” and stressed disagreements over IP, investment and human rights. This edging away from China effectively moves Europeans closer to the US. They are doing more militarily and technologically, but genuine autonomy on either would take decades to achieve. And wariness of China reinforces their links to the US’s wider set of allies: providing Nato with a new focus, and promoting talk of a new D10 group of Western and Western-aligned democracies.

That this group includes India speaks to similar trends playing out in that country. It, too, has long hoped to find a middle way between the US and China. India’s prime minister Narendra Modi and China’s leader Xi Jinping met in Chennai last October and pledged to take their friendship to “new heights”. Yet various long-term forces act as a wedge: China’s “Belt and Road” investments in Myanmar, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and (particularly) Pakistan stir Indian fears of encroachment; these are exacerbated by the growing economic imbalance; and Beijing’s handling of the pandemic has soured popular perceptions in India. Tensions over the countries’ Himalayan border have grown and on 15 June a skirmish in the Galwan Valley killed more than 20 Indian soldiers and an unknown number of Chinese ones, in the first fatal clash at the border since 1975.

India is also quietly giving up dreams of equidistance and gravitating towards an emerging Indo-Pacific alliance also including the US, Japan and Australia. In her new book Fateful Triangle, Tanvi Madan explains how this takes relations “full circle” back to the 1950s, when the US cultivated India as a counterbalance to China in Asia. (She will be joining Emily Tamkin and me on our new podcast, World Review, this week.)

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With its autocratic and revisionist politics, its terrible relations with the West and paranoia about encirclement, it is Russia that has the most obvious affinity to Xi’s China. But here, too, things are not so simple. Russian-Chinese relations, like Indian-Chinese relations, are marked by a clear imbalance of power and wealth. Vladimir Putin is fiercely protective of his country’s independence and can see in his own near abroad – in Belarus, Serbia and across central Asia – how tightly Beijing grips dependent allies. Moreover, writes Pavel K Baev of the Brookings Institute, “the Covid-19 pandemic has aggravated hidden tensions and accentuated mutual mistrust” between Moscow and Beijing. Debates rage in Russian strategic circles about how to avoid overdependence on any one partner: how to find a middle way between China and the US, in other words. But even Moscow may eventually be forced to choose. That, at least, is the assessment of France’s Emmanuel Macron, who argues, contentiously, that the West should try to win back Russia before it is drawn irreversibly into China’s sphere of influence.

The EU, India and Russia may be very different, then, but there is a certain symmetry to how they see the coming US-China cold war. All are significant geopolitical powers: counting the EU’s (admittedly poorly coordinated) militaries together, they make up the world’s next three largest military spenders after the two giants. In all three there are forces for US affinity, China affinity and middle-way-ism, though they exist in different proportions in each. None really wants to choose. And eventually – amid a head-to-head US-China conflict over a proxy such as Taiwan, say; or outright cyber-warfare; or a runaway trade and technology war; or some form of ultimatum from one or both – they may well have to. The EU and India are leaning heavily towards the US. The biggest question mark is over which way Russia might go.

Among the many questions this throws up, a big one stands out. It is widely assumed that the geographic focus of US-China power competition will be in the Pacific, where the two countries’ spheres of influence meet. But could it be that it will actually play out to the west, in a large contested bow sweeping from south-east Europe through central Asia and out into the Indian Ocean? With so much turning on the “next three”, it surely could.

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This article appears in the 24 Jun 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Political football