Foreign Ministers of Russia, India and China (RIC) on Nov 15 held their 10th trilateral at the Chinese city Wuhan to discuss a host of regional and international issues like counter-terrorism, trade and disaster relief. Though the talks did not lead to any significant decisions, apart from prescribing generalized statements on various global issues, the meeting was important in the sense that next month, Russian president Dmitry Medvedev sand Chinese prime Minister Wen Jiabao will be visiting India.
It is important to note here that since 2000, important Russian leaders have been advocating for what is called a strategic triangle ( “trilateral cooperation”, to use the words of former Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov, the first leader to propose the idea during his visit to New Delhi in 1998) involving Russia, India and China. Interestingly, the concept of “the Russia-China-India triangle” is usually spoken about whenever a top Russian leader meets his Indian and Chinese counterparts either together or separately with a short interval.
Former Indian foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal, who also was Indian ambassador in Moscow, makes a lot of sense when he argues that the RIC dialogue may not have as much promise as originally anticipated because “the validity of most of the premises underlying it has been shaken.”
Thus, on September 29, the Chinese foreign ministry issued a statement soon after the Russian President Medvedev’s visit to China (September 26-28), that “issues relating the Russia-India-China (RIC) grouping figured in the talks between Chinese President Hu Jintao and his Russian counterpart President Dmitry Medvedev” and that “the two sides (Russia and China) will continue to strengthen dialogue among China, Russia and India and will make joint efforts to create sound Asia-Pacific and international environments.”
The pattern was set when Putin was the Russian President. Invariably, he held summit meetings with Indian and Chinese heads of government with short intervals. For instance, the idea of Russia-India-China initiative was talked about on the eve of eve of Putin’s visit to India in October 2000, a visit which followed Russia-China summit (between Putin and Chinese President Jiang Zemin) in July that year at Moscow. In 2002 again the idea was talked about during Putin’s visit to Delhi, which took place immediately after his trip to Beijing; in fact Putin had combined his China and India visits together and landed in Delhi straight from Beijing.
Be that as it may, as far as the trilateral dialogue is concerned, Putin has played an important role in promoting it and it was at his behest that the first trilateral summit involving the three countries took place in St. Petersburg in July 2006. It was argued that Beijing and New Delhi accepted Russia’s proposal to hold trilateral summit because “it was beneficial to boosting the cooperation among the three countries as well as maintaining multipolarity in the world.
Talking about the efficacy of the RIC process, the most obvious point that emerges from the preceding paragraphs is that its real promoter happens to be Russia, which, in turn, seemed to be guided by three developments. First, Russia’s inability to impede the eastward expansion of NATO and its frustration over NATO’s unilateral military action in Kosovo forced Moscow to seek closer strategic understanding with China and India. Russia also found commonality with India and China in the perceived U.S. bid for global hegemony, which was in direct conflict with their preference for a “multipolar world.”
The second reason from Russian point of view is that the three countries have problems with Islamic militants. India fights border problems everyday against radical Islamic fighters infiltrating from Pakistan into Kashmir. Moscow is concerned about the growth of Islamic fundamentalism in the five Central Asian Republics of the former Soviet Union (which Russia still sees as its sphere of influence). China’s problem with Islamic guerrillas focuses on the Muslim Uighar separatists in Xinjiang, an area of China rich in mineral resources.
The second reason from Russian point of view is that the three countries have problems with Islamic militants.
The third common interest is the arms trade. China and India account for nearly 70 percent of Russia’s arms exports. But the problem is that at times both India and China demand same weapon systems with same features. India has always enjoyed a special status as an importer of Russian arms. Russia sends weapons of more value and substance, weapons which are not only latest but also those which are not even commissioned into the Russian armed forces. Obviously, India will not like China to get the same features and facilities from the Russians. It is all the more so when there is every chance of some of such weapons finding their way to Pakistan. In that sense, by suggesting the concept of a Russia-China-India triangle, Moscow wants to appease somewhat the Indian sensitivities, with the hope that the idea will remove mutual suspicions between Delhi and Beijing.
But will the RIC process succeed? It is extremely doubtful that it will, and, that, in turn, is the reason why one does not see great virtues in India showing enthusiasm about the “triangle”. From Indian point of view, for any triangular relationship, China has to vacate the countervailing strategic space in favour of Pakistan in South Asia by pulling back from first facilitating and then using Pakistan’s nuclear and missile build-up as leverage against India. In other words, since China is part of the strategic nexus with Pakistan aimed at India, how can India be part of a coalition in which two of its potential antagonists are inter-twined?
Secondly, given the anti-American overtone of the “triangle” concept, India may find it difficult to be associated with it, particularly when over the last few years Indo-U.S. relations have witnessed unprecedented improvements, the Pakistan-factor notwithstanding. In fact, even China will not like any ganging up against the U.S. for similar reasons. All told, the Chinese economy is crucially dependent on the American market. Whatever the ideologically oriented pro-China experts may say, the fact remains that China is excessively dependent on the international market both for resources and revenue-generation. Just imagine what will happen if the Americans, particularly American-Chinese, stop investing in China and the US refuses to open its markets for the Chinese goods.
The Russians are not comfortable with the growing Chinese activities in Central Asia, which Moscow always considers to be falling under its sphere of vital interests.
In fact, former Indian foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal, who also was Indian ambassador in Moscow, makes a lot of sense when he argues that the RIC dialogue may not have as much promise as originally anticipated because “the validity of most of the premises underlying it has been shaken.” Now that the United States’ sole superpower status has waned as a result of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the 2008 financial crisis, there is not as much need for Russia, India and China to come together to balance the global power structure.
Even otherwise, though Moscow advocates for a durable and long-term framework of shared interests with India and China, unlike Indo-Russian relationship, the Sino-Russian link is controversial among influential Russian policymaking elites. Russia shares a long border with China and a long history of often bitter and complex relations. Besieged with a growing problem of demographic decline, Russia fears that Siberia and its far east would soon be over-run by migrant Chinese labour. This fear is genuine as anybody familiar with Chinese history will admit that Chinese territorial claims all over Asia often followed its emigrants.
Likewise, the Russians are not comfortable with the growing Chinese activities in Central Asia, which Moscow always considers to be falling under its sphere of vital interests. Besides, it is also felt in Russian strategic circles that China, with ex-Soviet Union scientists and engineers working in its defence facilities, is producing weapons by reverse-engineering the Russian products and exporting them in international market, particularly in Pakistan and North Korea.
Viewed thus, the RIC process, though a grand idea, has its obvious limitations.