Bangla Tuesday, April 07, 2020

Growing Russia-India-China tensions: Splits in the RIC strategic triangle?

(L-R) Russian President Vladimir Putin, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and  Chinese President Xi Jinping

India’s Minister of External Affairs Dr. S Jaishankar will be heading to Russia later in the month for a ministerial-level trilateral meeting among three Eurasian powers of the RIC group: Russia, India and China (RIC). The meeting, to be held in Sochi on March 22-24, is meant to take stock of major geopolitical developments affecting the Indo-Pacific region.

According to reports, the meeting will possibly discuss the recently-concluded Afghanistan peace deal, the return of the Quad (quadrilateral security dialogue involving Australia, India, Japan and the United States), the Indo-Pacific concept and the implications of the end of the INF (Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces) Treaty for the region. The last RIC leaders meeting took place on the sidelines of the G-20 Summit in Osaka in July 2019, just after another trilateral between three democracies Japan, America and India (JAI).

RIC came together as a strategic triangle in the late 1990s under the mentorship of Yevgeny Primakov as “a counterbalance to the Western alliance.” The Russian goal was the “end[ing] its foreign policy guided by the US,” and rebuilding old partnerships with countries like India nurturing relatively newer friendships such as with China.

While this may have fitted at least partially with India’s goals in those years, it is unclear if this fits with Indian objectives now as New Delhi increases its strategic engagements with the United States and American allies. Indeed, India’s growing strategic partnership with the United States, Japan, and Australia conflicts with the RIC’s goals and objectives of seeking to undermine Washington’s role in the Indo-Pacific. Washington’s support to India on a number of critical issues, demonstrated most recently when China attempted to raise the Kashmir issue at the UN Security Council, is important. In fact, it is the rise of China that is at the front and center of many of India’s strategic engagements.

India has traditionally avoided taking sides in international politics, especially between the great powers, preferring its traditional nonalignment. But China’s rather hostile attitude towards India in recent years is increasingly forcing Indian decisionmakers to confront what China’s growing power has come to mean for India. The 72-day long Doklam crisis, China’s repeated actions at the United Nations, and other forums appears to demonstrate that China is aggressive and unfriendly towards India. This makes it difficult to see how engagements through platforms such as RIC, the Brazil-Russia-India-China-South Africa (BRICS), or the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) are going to alter the basic conflictual nature of relations between India and China.

Even though Russia has remained an old friend for India, New Delhi seems to realize that Moscow is increasingly under stress to follow China’s dictates. In January this year, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov was openly opposing the Indo-Pacific concept, that too at the Raisina Dialogue, a major geopolitical conference organized by the Indian Ministry of External Affairs and the Observer Research Foundation (ORF), a prominent Indian think-tank (full disclosure: the author works at the ORF).

Responding to a question on the Russian perspective and role in the Indo-Pacific, he said it is nothing but an initiative “to contain China,” and is divisive in nature.  He went on to ask: “Why do you need to call Asia-Pacific as Indo-Pacific? The answer is evident… to exclude China. Terminology should be unifying, not divisive. Neither Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) nor the Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa (BRICS) grouping is exclusionary.”

Even on issues such as the Jammu and Kashmir, which China raised at the UN Security Council, Russia preferred taking a middle position, not supporting India’s stand entirely for fear of offending China. It seems that while relations with India are important but for Moscow, its ties with Beijing are far more important and takes precedence over every other relationship.

Russia’s position at the closed-door session of the UN Security Council was revealing.  After the meeting, the Russian representative at the UN said, “Russia continues to consistently promote normalization of India & Pakistan ties.  We hope that existing divergences around Kashmir will be settled bilaterally by political and diplomatic means only on the basis of Simla Agreement of 1972 and Lahore declaration of 1999, in accordance with UN Charter, relevant UN resolutions and bilateral agreements between India and Pakistan.” Highlighting the UN resolutions to resolve the bilateral disputes between India and Pakistan “marked a sharp variance from Russia’s traditional position on Kashmir.” The two tweets by the Russian Representative in New York were further retweeted by the Russian foreign ministry Twitter account, which served to confirm the Russian position on the Jammu and Kashmir issue.

Overall, India’s strategic goals appear to be increasingly incongruent with that of Russia and China. As another case in point, even as the three foreign ministers will be meeting to discuss the Afghan peace deal, Moscow did not invite India to the recent meeting it hosted on Afghanistan. For all the rhetoric on finding a regional solution to Afghanistan, India has been kept out of such deliberations at the behest possibly of China and Pakistan. While there is merit to India engaging both Russia and China, it cannot mask the fact that there are growing tensions within the RIC grouping.