Erosion of the Basis of the Russia-India-China Dilogue
Amb Kanwal Sibal

It is widely accepted that the global power balance is shifting from the Euro-Atlantic area to Asia, with China and India the principal emerging powers. How does Russia, which straddles both Europe and Asia, position itself in the developing scenario? Russia’s principal strategic challenge has come from the US, inducing it to reinvigorate its ties with China, but the perceived decline in US power accompanied by the spectacular rise of China in recent years, coupled with the sluggish pace of its own resurgence, presents Russia with a complex challenge. Russia’s relations with India remain politically stable but lack economic sinews, whereas India’s relations with the US have developed both political and economic muscle. With President Obama’s visit to India in November and that of President Medevedev in December in mind, and taking into account the latest developments of our own relations with China, how should the Russia-India-China(RIC) dialogue be assessed?

This dialogue was initiated at a time when the world seemed to have become unipolar, with unilateralism, pre-emptive strikes, regime change, humanitarian intervention, violation of the principles of sovereignty, NATO expansion etc as its hallmarks. This trilateral arrangement amongst three major non-western powers with a more multilateral view of international relations was intended to promote a more desirable global equilibrium. Russia, India and China, as emerging economies, populous and geographically huge, seemed a credible combination to disprove that history had ended with the Soviet Union’s demise and the end of the Cold War. In theory these three countries forging a true partnership could start a new chapter in world history.

The promise of the RIC dialogue has, however, not been realized. The validity of most of the premises underlying it has been shaken. The unipolar phase of international relations has ended sooner than expected. The embroilment of the US in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has exposed the limits of its military power. If a debacle in Afghanistan occurs, the blow to US prestige would be immense, crippling its war on terror. The 2008 financial crisis that hit the US has enfeebled it economically and cut its appetite and capacity for unilateral actions abroad. Under President Obama the US is favouring multilateral solutions to global problems. He has defused the ABM dispute with Russia, recommenced disarmament talks with it, with agreement on a follow-up to Start 1 Treaty. Further NATO expansion has been put on hold as part of re-setting relations with Russia.

China’s own international conduct is now causing concern, weakening the positive basis of the RIC dialogue as a reaction to truculent power politics. China is asserting its territorial claims in the South China Sea more aggressively, causing concern to littoral states. It has unilaterally declared this area as constituting its “core interest”, implying it is non- negotiable, and resists multi-lateral discussions to resolve differences. The projection by China that its rise will be peaceful is being punctured by its own actions, as its recent confrontation with Japan over Senkaku Islands shows. Since the RIC dialogue began China’s economic rise has been spectacular, with its economy now overtaking Japan’s in size. Economic and financial Interdependence with the US has increased to a point virtually of fusion. China’s self-confidence has bounded and nationalist feelings are being fed at home.

China, which came into the RIC dialogue reluctantly, has less need for it in geo-strategic terms today to assert its global role, counter US hegemony, and advocate a more consensual, multi-lateral approach to international affairs. With the perception of declining US power and China encroaching into the space being vacated, and with enormous financial resources at China’s disposal to support the geographical expansion of its influence aimed at securing assured access to vital natural resources to fuel its inexorable rise, the basis of the RIC dialogue has changed both from the Chinese perspective and the Indian, and should induce a review of Russian thinking. This despite the Russia-China equation gathering strength in recent years with increased trade volumes, energy deals and greater openeness by Russia to allow China to harness its natural resources for the growth of the Chinese economy.

In one key respect, the weakest participant in the RIC dialogue is India. Although a rapidly growing economy with a huge market, with a capacity to provide skilled human resources to sustain growth in the fast ageing industrial countries, and generally acknowledged as a future pole in a multi-polar world, India, although in the G-20, is not a permanent member of the Security Council, which ipso facto limits its role in a RIC combination to develop joint strategies to influence the debate and decisions on issues of global peace and security. Another dissonant factor is China’s revived claims on Arunachal Pradesh, provocative questioning of India’s sovereignty over J&K , the expansion of its hold over POK as part of its energy security plans, and laying the foundations of its naval presence in the Indian Ocean area. This has seriously eroded India-China “trust” even as the bilateral trade has shot up and on issues of climate change and WTO matters the two countries work together. China also opposes India’s permanent membership of the Security Council, unlike Russia.

The India-Russia equation within the RIC remains solid, with the two countries having clear long term geo-political interests in common. India is probably the only big country that sees Russia’s resurgence as a vital factor in a maintaining a stable balance in international relations. US and Europe will remain powerful actors on the global stage for years to come and China is rapidly becoming the second most powerful national entity. The space created by Russia’s decline is also being filled up by China. Russia’s rise puts constraints both on NATO and China, and widens India’s strategic options, even as India continues to deepen its ties with the US. India and Russia have common interests in combating terrorism and extremist religious ideologies causing ravages in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region, with toxic fall-out on Central Asia and southern Russia. Russia’s recent initiative to form the Russia-Afghanistan-Pakistan-Tajikstan group to deal with this problem constitutes a wrinkle in the so far smooth India-Russia understanding on Af-Pak/Central Asian issues. Pakistan is bound to see in this exclusion of India by Russia, whatever be the Russian interpretation, as an endorsement of its efforts to deny India a role in Afghanistan. Along with China’s ambitions in Afghanistan, this weakens further the strategic underpinnings of the RIC dialogue. In any case, Russia’s insistence to broaden RIC to BRIC by including Brazil, about which India had reservations initially, showed that Russia had concluded that RIC’s potential was not being fulfilled and new life had to be infused into an arrangement of non-western powers by including Brazil.

The RIC dialogue was a grand idea that failed to live up to expectations because the conditions in which it was set up changed rapidly. The question is should the RIC dialogue now be aimed at moderating Chinese ambitions and behaviour as much as diluting the US and western grip over the way the international political and economic/financial system works?

The writer is a former Foreign Secretary
Published in Mail Today, Published Date : October 5, 2010

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