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Russia-India-China Strategic Triangle: Signalling a Power Shift?

Dr. Swaran Singh is Professor and Chair, Centre for International Politics, Organization and Disarmament, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi
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  • April 19, 2012

    The 11th round of the Russia-India-China (RIC) Foreign Minister’s meet was held in Moscow on 13 April. Prima facie, this impressive continuity in the Ministers’ annual parleys has gathered sufficient mass and momentum which makes this forum appear pregnant with the potential for global and systemic implications for the 21st century world order. Closer home, these cordial trilateral meetings have also generated positive vibes amongst the three foreign ministers, which gets reflected in their often rather soft responses in bilateral relations that have otherwise witnessed their own share of turbulences and irritants.

    At the most visible level, the Moscow meeting of the RIC Foreign Ministers took place on the eve of two important international initiatives, and it seemed to have influenced their outcomes. The first was the UN Security Council (UNSC) meeting in response to the satellite launch by Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), and the second was the Istanbul initiative on the continued crisis over the Iranian nuclear issue; the latter involved representatives from Iran, Germany and the Permanent Five members (P5) of the UNSC. Both these issues were discussed in detail by the RIC Foreign Ministers and their joint communiqué outlined their proposed strategies that seemed so directed towards these two aforementioned follow-up meetings.

    The rocket launch by DPRK appeared to overshadow the RIC foreign Ministers’ press briefing and the follow-up banner headlines in next morning’s newspapers. The three Foreign Ministers’ expressed their ‘regret’ over this decision of the DPRK but, at the same time, cautioned against sanctions as the primary methodology to deal with this crisis. Instead, they called for ‘restraint’, especially on the part of DPRK’s neighbouring countries. The goal, they said, should not be to launch sanctions that will punish innocent people, but to get the new regime in Pyongyang to participate in Six Party Talks. This implied that the RIC Foreign Ministers’ were suggesting that Pyongyang be co-opted and socialized. They actually went a step further and “recognized” DPRK’s right to pursue space explorations and advised it to avoid escalation. The Ministers exhorted Pyongyang to explore possibilities on how it would expand its cooperation with the United Nations to overcome its limitations in pursuing research and development initiatives.

    These views stood clearly at large variance to those expressed by US President Obama, who stressed on isolating Pyongyang as way to deal with, according to him, DPRK’s defiance of the so-called international community. In one voice, the US and its allies condemned DPRK’s rocket test as “provocative” and “threatening” to regional security. This was followed by the UN Secretary General describing the launch as “deplorable” and one that “defies the firm and unanimous stance of the international community.” The RIC Foreign Ministers’ joint communiqué, on the other hand, provided a strong reminder of two veto wielding members of UNSC—Russia and China—holding strong positions against sanctions, let alone slapping trade embargoes or military action, which have become popular in media commentaries since the regime change in Libya.

    Similarly on the Iran issue, RIC have repeatedly endorsed Iran’s sovereign right to peaceful nuclear energy and have argued for resolving this issue through political and diplomatic dialogue, including between Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). On the eve of last week’s Istanbul meeting amongst representatives of Iran, Germany and the P5 of the UNSC, the RIC Foreign Ministers’ in Moscow once again echoed their position. The RIC joint communiqué also reiterated their concerns on Afghanistan, where increasing focus on the exit of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) has made China, India and Russia focus both as countries with major post-ISAF-exit responsibilities as also major victims of terrorism. The joint communiqué devotes several paragraphs that underline their commitment to seeking stability in Afghanistan and reaffirmed their readiness to contribute to it within the UN framework or via other regional initiatives, including the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), whose members and observers have direct stakes in Afghan peace.

    Similarly, the RIC Ministers’ joint communiqué also underlined the necessity of acting against the perpetrators of terrorism as well as against their sponsors and supporters. This was clearly an allusion to Pakistan and the instance of India asking for action against the masterminds of 26/11 Mumbai terrorist attack. Beijing has also claimed that terrorists of East Turkistan Moment find allegiance there. Some of these issues were also discussed in bilateral meetings, which provided useful links in wake of the recent, rather assertive posturing of China on the issue of oil explorations in the South China Sea, off the Vietnam Coast. Both Russian and Indian oil companies are involved in prospecting in the area in spite of repeated Chinese objections. It is also important to note that this was perhaps the last RIC meeting by Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi who is due to retire before the end of this year.

    Finally, the momentum of the RIC Foreign Ministers’ Moscow meet was strengthened as it was held barely a fortnight after the BRICS Summit in New Delhi (besides India, China and Russia, the Summit included Brazil and South Africa). At the BRICS Summit, the three countries had taken similar, strong collective positions on the issues of the Iranian nuclear standoff and the Syrian crisis. These back-to-back fora, reflecting a collective stand by RIC and its visible restraining influence on how the US and its allies approach these issues, allude to the slow, subtle shift of the balance of global power towards regional powers. It must be noted here that this shift may not sustain over time or may face certain hiccups if the agenda of the grouping were to be expanded. The growing bonhomie amongst RIC is clearly visible in various other fora, from the United Nations to the G-20, SCO, Asia-Europe Meetings, Climate Change COPs, East Asian Summits, and so on. Conversely, this increasing assertiveness of alternative RIC strategies is becoming sufficiently noticeable and is inviting scrutiny by media commentaries that question such muscle flexing.

    For long-term observers of the RIC strategic triangle, though, these overheated political commentaries and hype only briefly obscure the larger tectonic shifts in world politics. Other than their alternative visions on political issues, the RIC Foreign Ministers’ meet is gradually expanding cooperation between the three countries in several sectors, including disaster relief, agriculture and public health. There are regular exchanges amongst their academic, industrial and business communities. They have already set up subsidiaries like RIC Trilateral Experts Meeting on Disaster Management, Trilateral Business Forum, and Trilateral Academic Scholars Dialogue, and held other trilateral projects and conferences in these specialised fields. It is this expanding component of trilateral initiatives that remain the backbone of their growing mutual comfort and expanding weight relative to their global perspectives and aspirations.