During his recent visit to India, British prime minister Boris Johnson stated that Russia and India’s historical ties are well-known and unlikely to change. Nonetheless, Johnson also offered to augment the United Kingdom’s defense cooperation with New Delhi. Such a move would not only help wean India off of its dependence on Russian defense equipment but, by extension, prod New Delhi to consider complying with Western sanctions against Russia. This proposition is not different from the one proposed by the European Union (EU) to China in early April. During the twenty-third EU-China summit, European leaders called on China to support efforts to bring about an end to violence in Ukraine. The topic of sanctions was brought up rather directly with China, and the EU stressed that sanctions were intended to stop Russia’s aggression despite the economic damage that they were doing to European economies. Beijing was asked to support the effort.
Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February, the West has been persuading India and China to abandon their “neutrality” in the conflict and back sanctions against Russia—a feat that has remained elusive. While Western states’ policies and relations with India and China are not singular, nor is the “West” a monolith, the two instances hint at the general acknowledgment in the Western world that gaining support from the rising powers is vital to make sanctions on Russia bite. To cajole India and China, Western leaders have adopted a different approach—they are brusque with Beijing, and empathetic with New Delhi. The goal, however, is the same—garner support for sanctions against Russia.
New Delhi and Beijing’s continued engagement with Moscow is not merely a habitual practice, given their historic ties and beneficial relations with Russia, but is intertwined with the Indian and Chinese disregard for unilateral sanctions, namely sanctions imposed by a state independently. To address Indian and Chinese skepticism about sanctions, it is important to comprehend the reasons for New Delhi and Beijing’s discomfort with sanctions. By looking into the two rising powers’ own histories of dealing with unilateral sanctions, as well as their views, as articulated at national and international forums, their aversion to unilateral sanctions can be deciphered.
Enduring Sanctions on Self
Over the years, both India and China have been sanctioned by Western states and institutions, even though the reasons for imposing sanctions have remained different. For India, many of the sanctions came about after its first nuclear test in 1974. Through the years, many Western states and export control groups imposed sanctions on New Delhi, limiting the transfer of dual-use technology to the developing state. China, on the other hand, was sanctioned or threatened by sanctions immediately after its formation in 1949 due to ideological disagreements. Later in the 1980s, 1990s. and through the 2000s, human rights violations and nuclear trade with non-nuclear-weapon states invited Western sanctions on Chinese entities.
Every time sanctions were placed on the two states, their leaders remained defiant, often declaring that sanctions would not change their policies. Speaking in the context of sanctions imposed after the Tiananmen Square incident in 1989, Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping shared his state’s perspective. In 1990, Deng maintained, “Ever since last year some countries have imposed sanctions on China. I think, first, they have no right to do so; second, experience has proved that China has the ability to withstand these sanctions … we’re good at withstanding sanctions.” Nearly a decade later in 1998, responding to a question on the consequences of conducting a nuclear test, Indian prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee held, “ the talk of sanctions does not stand the scrutiny of logic or fairness. Besides, it sounds hypocritical … I believe our decision to conduct the [nuclear] tests is in supreme national interest—then we have to face the consequence and overcome the challenge … Sanctions cannot and will not hurt us. India will not be cowed down by any such threats and punitive step.” Other Chinese and Indian leaders followed suit and denounced sanctions and their threat through the years.
Though all major sanctions were eventually lifted, enduring sanctions have made New Delhi and Beijing reluctant to acquiesce to unilateral sanctions. Moreover, their experience has also engendered a state discourse, wherein sanctions are generally understood as instruments of coercion, and the sanctioned party as a victim. Largely, Indian and Chinese experiences as sanctioned countries have impacted their policies on unilateral sanctions and shaped their understanding of the measures.
Discourse against Unilateral Sanctions
India and China have not only deliberated on unilateral sanctions individually but also together at multilateral forums. New Delhi and Beijing, along with Moscow, have gradually established a discourse against unilateral sanctions at forums like BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) and annual RIC (Russia, India, and China) trilateral ministerial meetings. Especially in 2013 onwards, as unilateral sanctions started being used copiously by Western states on the BRICS states themselves—primarily on states like Russia and secondarily on Indian and Chinese entities—the group felt the need to develop and explain their stance on sanctions. Yearly BRICS declarations have repeatedly held, “We condemn unilateral military interventions, economic sanctions...” In the last decade, sanctions on close allies or trading partners of BRICS states like Iran and North Korea have also led to censure. The BRICS group has largely agreed they are “not bound by unilateral sanctions,” stressing that such measures do not have a conducive effect and could cause supply shortages.
Furthermore, New Delhi and Beijing have argued that unilateral sanctions are against international law. BRICS’ joint statements have emphasized that the UN Security Council (UNSC) has, “the sole authority … for imposing sanctions.” BRICS states have individually argued that they are “not obliged to follow any domestic laws and rules of any particular countries.” Lately, the topic assumed prominence for India and China, as Chinese entities were sanctioned under the United States’ Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, while India feared meeting the same fate for its import of defense equipment from Russia. At RIC trilateral meetings, the same discussion has been advanced. Through joint statements, the representatives of the three countries have underlined that such measures reduce the “effectiveness and legitimacy” of the UNSC sanction regime and are detrimental to international trade.
This discourse against unilateral sanctions has persisted and developed in the last decade. It seems highly likely that discussions on sanctions and their impact on BRICS states would remain at the top of the agenda in the imminent BRICS summits and RIC meetings.
Sanctions, an Impediment to Development
As the West garners support for sanctions against Russia, it must reflect. India and China are still coping with the pandemic, and their energy and economic needs have mounted in the last two years. In this situation, the two will not agree to limit engagement with an old ally.
Historically, sanctions, have served a range of purposes, from supporting international norms and restraining the development of nuclear weapons by non-nuclear states to pushing states to the negotiating table. Sanctions against Russia are being understood as a means of stopping violence in Ukraine and aiding in bringing about a resolution to the conflict.
These goals are not disagreeable to New Delhi and Beijing, nor is the utility of sanctions lost on them, who have themselves on occasions used sanctions. However, it is also important to understand their perspective and make adaptable offers that are sentient and accommodative of the two rising powers’ interests. As the West weighs various policy options to make unilateral sanctions less averse to India and China, it should bear in mind their present concerns and histories of dealing with Western unilateralism.
Dr. Rishika Chauhan is a MacArthur-funded Post-Doctoral Researcher at the King’s College London's Centre for Science and Security Studies (CSSS). She is currently working on a book manuscript on the views of India and China on sanctions.