Editorial Notes

[Editorial Notes] Does the Russia-India-China Trilateral Still Matter?

The RIC countries occupy over 19% of the global landmass and contribute to over 33% of global GDP.
By IASToppers
July 29, 2020

Contents:

  • Introduction
  • Initial years
  • Bilateral positions
  • Links in the grouping
  • Recent Developments
  • Way Forward
  • Conclusion

Does the Russia-India-China Trilateral Still Matter?

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Introduction:

RIC is a strategic grouping that first took shape in the late 1990s under the leadership of Yevgeny Primakov, a Russian politician as a counterbalance to the Western alliance. Russia aimed to end its foreign policy guided by the US and rebuild old partnerships with countries like India, nurturing relatively newer friendship with China. The RIC countries occupy over 19% of the global landmass and contribute to over 33% of global GDP.

The initial years:

  • In the early 2000s, when RIC dialogue started, the three countries were positioning themselves for a transition from a unipolar to a multipolar world order.
  • The alliance was not an anti-U.S. construct; but shared some non-West perspectives on the global order.
  • It included emphasis on sovereignty and territorial integrity, support for democratisation of the global economic and financial architecture.
  • The initial years of RIC dialogue coincided with an upswing in India’s relations with Russia and China.
  • The result was the 2003 decision with China to bring a political approach to the boundary dispute and to develop other cooperation.
  • An agreement in 2005, identifying political parameters applicable in an eventual border settlement, implicitly recognised India’s interests in Arunachal Pradesh.

Bilateral positions:

1. India-US:

  • In the past two decades, India’s relations with the U.S. surged, encompassing trade and investment.
  • There was a landmark civil nuclear deal (2007) and a burgeoning defence relationship that met India’s objective of diversifying military acquisitions away from a near-total dependence on Russia.
  • As China was rapidly emerging as a challenger to its global pre-eminence, the U.S. saw value in partnering with a democratic India in Asia.

2. India-Russia:

  • The advent of President Vladimir Putin (early 2000s) reinforced the political, defence and energy pillars of the India-Russia strategic partnership.
  • However, as India-U.S. collaboration widened — in defence and the Indo-Pacific, the texture of the relationship with Russia changed.
  • As U.S.-Russia relations collapsed in 2014 (after annexation/accession of Crimea), Russia’s pushback against the U.S. included cultivating the Taliban in Afghanistan and enlisting Pakistan’s support for it.
  • The western campaign to isolate Russia drove it into a much closer embrace of China — particularly in defence cooperation.

3. Sino-India:

  • The China launched the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (2015), worked to undermine India’s influence in its neighbourhood.
  • It has expanded its military and economic presence in the Indian Ocean.
  • China’s hostile attitude towards India in recent years is quite visible which can be seen by blocking India’s permanent seat at UNSC, its stand on Kashmir issue and Pakistan, expansionist policies and the recent border standoff.
  • This mistrust in the bilateral relations makes it difficult to see cohesive engagements through platforms such as RIC.

Links in the grouping:

1. The Indo-Pacific issue:

  • There is a divergent position of the countries on the Indo-Pacific issue.
  • For India, it is a geographic space of economic and security importance, in which a cooperative order should prevent the dominance of any external power.
  • China sees India’s Indo-Pacific initiatives as part of a U.S.-led policy of containing China.
  • Russia’s sees the Indo-Pacific as an American ploy to draw India and Japan into a military alliance against China and Russia.
  • India’s focus on economic links with the Russian Far East and activation of a Chennai-Vladivostok maritime corridor may help persuade Russia that its interests in the Pacific are compatible with our interest.
  • The interests of both India and Russia lie in diluting Chinese dominance in the Indo-Pacific; which accords with Putin’s concept of a Greater Eurasia.

2. Multilateral forums:

  • Having noted this, the Russia-India-China engagement still has significance.
  • India is in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which is driven by Russia and China and includes four Central Asian countries.
  • Pakistan’s membership of SCO and potential admission of Iran and Afghanistan (as member states) heighten the significance of the SCO for India.
  • Growing Chinese influence is testing the informal Russia-China understanding that Russia handles the politico-security issues in the region and China extends economic support.
  • It is important for India to shape the Russia-China dynamics in this region, to the extent possible.
  • The ongoing India-Iran-Russia project for a sea/road/rail link from western India through Iran to Afghanistan and Central Asia, is an important initiative for achieving an effective Indian presence in Central Asia, alongside Russia and China.

Recent Developments:

  • The Sino-India relations have reached a new low, after the 15 June Galwan valley conflict between the armies of the both sides.
  • However, on June 23, India decided to attend a virtual meeting of the Foreign Ministers of Russia, India and China (RIC).
  • India has made the decision to reach out to Russia not just out of choice, but also out of necessity, since it believes Russia has leverage and influence to shape and change China’s hard stance on border issue.
  • The rifts in RIC claim of overlapping or similar approaches to key international issues, are clearly visible in the present times.

Way Forward:

  • RIC is a significant multilateral grouping as it brings together the three largest Eurasian countries which are also incidentally geographically contiguous.
  • The defence and energy pillars of India’s partnership with Russia remain strong as access to Russia’s abundant natural resources can enhance our materials security.
  • With China too, while the recent developments should accelerate our efforts to bridge the bilateral asymmetries, disengagement is not an option.
  • Even though India, China and Russia may disagree on a number of security issues in Eurasia, there are areas where their interests converge including peace and stability in Afghanistan & Central Asia, volatile situation in West Asia etc.
  • India needs to work bilaterally and multilaterally on a range of issues, even while firmly protecting our interests on the border, in technology and the economy.

Conclusion:

The current India-China stand-off has intensified calls for India to fast-track partnership with the U.S.  However, National security cannot be fully outsourced. India’s quest for autonomy of action is based on its geographical realities, historical legacies and global ambitions — not a residual Cold War mindset.

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