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China and India weren’t critical of Putin’s war. Did that change?

Neither country was inclined to defend a global order that denies their status aspirations, but the war’s impact may be forcing a rethink

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, on Sept. 16. (Alexandr Demyanchuk/AP)

Earlier this month, Vladimir Putin met one-on-one with Xi Jinping and Narendra Modi as the three world leaders attended a summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. For the first time, Putin publicly admitted that China had “questions and concerns” about the continuing war in Ukraine. Likewise, Modi reminded Putin that the present era is “not one of war.”

These developments are noteworthy. Until now, China has openly supported Russia, while India has avoided public criticism of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. During the summit, Modi reaffirmed the historic importance of India-Russia relations. And China’s Foreign Affairs Ministry issued a statement calling the China-Russia relationship “stable as mountains.” Both countries continue to buy Russian exports in large quantities. They even joined military exercises in Russia this month.

Why have China and India been so reluctant to rein Moscow in? While their dependence on Russia for defense and energy resources are significant factors, my research suggests that status also plays a role in their policies. India and China share Russia’s resentment about their second-tier status in a U.S.-led international order. That makes both countries likely to continue to be tolerant about Moscow’s ambitions.

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Not defending the international order is risky

It may seem that security and economic factors are driving Beijing and New Delhi’s policies. But Moscow’s war in Ukraine has disrupted the economies of both China and India. The conflict has affected food and energy supplies worldwide, raising the price of oil and other commodities for India and China. Bankrolling a warring country with mounting economic problems is risky — Russia’s collapse, for instance, would also hurt partner countries.

Russia’s invasion also jeopardizes the international order, by disrupting the settled rules and norms that govern relations between countries. Moscow’s actions have challenged foundational international principles such as sovereignty, territorial integrity and self-determination. Russia has also announced its intention to withdraw from the World Trade Organization and World Health Organization, institutions that are core to the international order. In that light, it’s surprising that China and India would support Putin’s efforts to undermine the very order that has enabled their rise.

Rising powers won’t support an exclusionary order

History shows, however, that rising powers like China and India do not simply value economic and security goals. They also value being recognized as eminent countries with an elevated status in international politics. In my recent book, I show that this status comes from being recognized as equals of the great powers that manage the international order.

When core institutions of the international order recognize a rising country’s equality — typically by including these new aspirants in global leadership positions — they’re likely to uphold the order, even at great cost to themselves. When the order instead excludes these countries, they will demand greater representation in the governance of global issues and will be less willing to cooperate. If these demands are denied or indefinitely deferred, they may get frustrated and challenge the order.

The United States itself was once in this position, in the 19th century. Initially, it cooperated with a mostly inclusive international order. As a club of European great powers took over after 1815, the U.S. sought — unsuccessfully — to transform international law as a way of joining the club. Feeling unfairly excluded, the U.S. eventually challenged the order. In 1856, when Britain and France introduced new rules abolishing the use of private vessels in maritime warfare, the U.S. vehemently opposed the effort and refused to cooperate. At the time, private vessels provided the only source of equality the U.S. had with the naval powers of Europe.

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China and India see the current order as exclusionary

China and India today are looking for opportunities for leadership in a global order dominated by the U.S. and its allies. New Delhi, for example, seeks a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council. India’s foreign minister declared in 2020 that India deserved “due recognition” for its contributions to global order, and called for “reformed multilateralism.”

Beijing, already a permanent Security Council member, seeks greater representation in international financial institutions such as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the Asian Development Bank, whose top leadership positions have been exclusively occupied by American, European and Japanese nationals, respectively. Indeed, scholars have found that since 1971, the year China joined the United Nations, senior management positions within the U.N. system have been held largely by nationals of the U.S., France, U.K., Japan and Canada, with China, India and Russia trailing far behind.

Frustrated that these institutions have been slow to change in this regard, China launched the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank in 2014. When the U.S. pressured other countries to boycott the institution, China’s vice minister of commerce compared the international order to a basketball game in which “the U.S. wants to set the duration of the game, the size of the court, the height of the basket and everything else to suit itself.”

China, India and Russia prefer a ‘multipolar’ order

So long as the international order continues to exclude China and India from the great power club, these nations have little incentive to defend rules and institutions that they did not create and over which they feel little ownership. Since the end of the Cold War, China and India have joined Russia in consistently declaring their preference for a “multipolar world order,” which would give them a greater say in global affairs.

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At the same time, there are limits to how far China and India will go. The recent Shanghai Cooperation summit shows that Russia may be pushing its friends too far, and they are beginning to push back. The need to protect their own longer-term interests and to successfully transform — but not wreck — the international order may now be leading both countries to restrain Moscow.

History shows that rising powers do not wait indefinitely for their place in the sun. Without some accommodation of their status aspirations, China and India are likely to remain skeptical of Western efforts to defend the international order against Russian excesses.

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Rohan Mukherjee is an assistant professor of international relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science. He is the author of “Ascending Order: Rising Powers and the Politics of Status in International Institutions” (Cambridge University Press, 2022).