- Dec 14 2017
India hosted the foreign ministers of Russia and China this week in Bengaluru. It would have been another run of the mill meeting of the Russia-India-China (RIC) trilateral but for the fact that it came exactly a month after the much-discussed India-Japan-Australia-US ‘Quad’ meeting on the sidelines of the East Asia summit. Also, the Chinese Foreign Minister’s visit to India was the first high-level Chinese visit to India post-Doklam. In essence, the RIC trilateral was New Delhi’s balancing act in its attempt to restore ‘multi-alignment’ in its foreign policy.
Initially planned for earlier this year in April, the RIC meeting had to be postponed as the Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi could not come. Though Beijing denied it, it was seen as registering a protest against India allowing Dalai Lama to visit Arunachal Pradesh. And then came Doklam, one of the most serious crises in Sino-India ties in recent times. Though both New Delhi and Beijing have decided to move beyond the acrimony generated by the crisis, China’s intransigence continues. Wang said in a speech last week, “We have handled the issue of cross-border incursions by the Indian border troops into China’s Donglang (Doklam) area through diplomatic measures.” Though he suggested that “China and India have far greater shared strategic interests than differences, and far greater needs for cooperation than partial friction,” he maintained that “through diplomatic means, the Indian side withdrew its equipment and personnel which reflected the value and importance of China-India relations and demonstrated sincerity and responsibility of maintaining regional peace and stability.”
It was against this backdrop that the RIC trilateral was held. In line with its attempts to keep the spotlight on Pakistan-sponsored terrorism, India made a case for strengthening cooperation among the three countries in effectively countering terrorism and naming Pakistan-based terror groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed in the RIC communique, citing a similar move by the BRICS grouping. The broader discussions, according to Sushma Swaraj, focussed “on terrorism, the political scenario in the Middle East and North Africa, challenges in putting the world economy back on the growth track, transnational organised crime, illicit drug trafficking, food security, and climate change.” This basically meant that the trilateral was about everything and so nothing. But that is par for the course as far the RIC goes. Its substantive achievements ever since its inception have been negligible.
It’s the India-Russia and India-China bilateral that are more consequential. Russia and China’s growing closeness is now a reality that India has to factor in its own foreign policy calculations. Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov made it clear that he believes that India can benefit by joining China’s Belt and Road Initiative. “I know India has problems — we discussed it today — with the concept of One Belt, One Road, but the specific problem in this regard should not make everything else conditional to resolving political issues,” suggested Lavrov in Delhi. Targeting India’s participation in the ‘quad’ he also underlined that a sustainable security architecture cannot be achieved in the Asia-Pacific region with “closed bloc arrangements.” After the inauguration of the strategic Chabahar port last week, India and Russia are keen on making substantive progress in the development of the 7,200-km International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC) that links India, Iran, Afghanistan, and Central Asia with Europe.
India and China’s engagement also led to the two sides exchanging views. Swaraj pointed out: “Foreign minister Wang Yi and I agreed that we should further strengthen our mutual trust to develop better understanding between the two sides. And it will be better to meet again and without agenda, which will help us to expand our mutual understanding.” Acknowledging that there had been a “difficult phase” in bilateral ties, Swaraj underlined that India’s sensitivities and concerns should be respected if the bilateral relationship is to sustain a positive trajectory.
The Russia-China-India trilateral engagement started off as an attempt to balance the US unipolarity. But now it is wilting under the pressure of Chinese resurgence. Initially, India had expected that the combined might of Delhi and Moscow would balance Beijing. Instead, it is now having to contend with Moscow and Beijing joining forces. For China and Russia, balancing against the US is their top strategic priority. For New Delhi, managing a rising China is now an urgent concern. As a consequence, the trilateral has limited utility for India apart from providing a platform to demonstrate that it wants to continue to engage Russia and China.
Rapidly evolving geopolitical realities are generating new global equations. The RIC trilateral of the 1990s is losing its relevance as China and Russia are re-evaluating their foreign policy options. And India too is coming to terms with China’s rise and Russia’s growing closeness to China. As another RIC trilateral has come and gone, the message is quite clear: the world is changing far too rapidly and Indian diplomacy will have to evolve equally fast to preserve its equities.
This commentary originally appeared in DNA.