At a recent interaction in Moscow with scholars and editors, there was an interesting discussion on finding ways to significantly increase the economic interaction between Russia and India and, more specifically, change the nature of the G2G-driven bilateral trade. Our suggestion was spontaneous and to some outlandish. We suggested that for a paradigm shift in our trade volumes (less than $ 10 bn dollars currently) the two countries would need to work for an Asian Trading Region shaped and steered by Russia, India and China. Until then we (Russia and India) would remain prisoners of perceptions and perceived geographical distance.
It was apparent that this idea did not resonate well with many experts in the room. However, it did spark an interesting round of debate and many have subsequently written in with their own ideas on a trading zone or region in Asia. We still argue that the only sensible architecture would need to be fundamentally driven by and emerge out of the RIC arrangement. Even though the RIC was conceptualized as a club of the Big 3 in Asia and had more political overtones than economic reality, the vocabulary of cooperation emanating from previous RIC forum allows enough leeway to work towards the formation of an Asian Economic Zone beginning with an Asian Trading Region largely driven by Russia, India and China.
The then Russian Prime Minister Evgeny Primakov first voiced the idea of a Russia-India-China (RIC) Trilateral Forum publicly in December 1998 during a trip to India.The motivation was generally believed to be a desire to create a countervailing influence to the US, which at the time had unprecedented dominance in the international system. The fact that Russia, India and China saw the US as their primary interlocutor at the bilateral level did not appear to be an impediment at the time. However, despite regular Track II interactions between the three countries, it took four years for the first official interaction between the three – a meeting between Foreign Ministers on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) in 2002. The first RIC standalone meeting of the foreign ministers took place only in June 2005. Thereafter, on the sidelines of the G8 meeting in St Petersburg in July 2006, President Valadimir Putin, President Hu Jintao and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had a tripartite meeting. From 2007 onwards, the foreign ministers are conducting regular annual meetings.
During this period, the motivations driving the three countries in the RIC underwent a change. If Primakov’s fear in 1998 was a hegemonic U.S., by 2005 Russia was more concerned about China and its possible duopoly with the U.S. - the G2 scenario. Therefore, Russia was keen to support multilateral initiatives, which involved China, but kept the US out. RIC fitted the bill perfectly. China also appeared to be keen on such a formation as it realized its increasing influence and envisioned RIC as a group dominated by China. India’s motivation perhaps was not to upset the Russians. It was also the age of clublateralism and therefore the RIC was an opportunity to get into an influential circle. Some hesitation, if any, was probably because these were the heady days of Indo-U.S. friendship.
Today the situation has changed again. The uni-polar moment of the U.S.A. is evidently over. A multi-polar or polycentric world is emerging. China has emerged as an alternate power centre and no longer requires props like the RIC. It is following an assertive foreign policy that relies more on promoting bilateral relations with the established and emerging powers. Similarly, Russia is now less nervous about the emergence of a G-2. It is enjoying the “reset” in its relations with the US and has become a little more wary about China’s spectacular rise in stature. Moscow, like New Delhi, also realises that its efforts to restructure and modernise its economy will succeed only if it able to convince the West to buy into this effort. While China-India trade is at historic highs (at over $ 60 billion), India is also focusing on developing its ties with the US and the 27-nation European Union. RIC appears stymied by the proliferation of groupings like the SCO, BRIC, and BASIC and does not as yet offer a unique ‘agenda’ to differentiate it. And most importantly, the three countries consider the US much more important than any other bilateral or multilateral relationship. Therefore, the “glue” that held the RIC together is drying up.
This inevitably affects prospects for RIC. The lack of interest and expectation from this format has led to little of any substance emerging from the interactions, despite identifying early on a vast arena for mutual cooperation such as terrorism, drug trafficking, climate change, agriculture, disaster management and relief, health and medicine, information technologies, pharmaceuticals, infrastructure and energy. Given this backdrop, is RIC now irrelevant? Is it time to bury this body? The answer has to be an unequivocal “NO”. So can regional trade and economics be that ‘glue’. Russia and India, through their own recent policy announcements, have recognized the arrival of the yuan as a global currency and it is likely that in the coming months India also decided to denominate some of its reserves in the currency of our Northern neighbour. Russia is already engaged in yuan based trade and maintains a stock of this currency. That over $ 130 billion of trade takes place between India and China, China and Russia and Russia in India also places weight of volume behind the grouping. Irrespective of political ambitions and differences there is no denying the growth of economic interactions and the only limit to the economic story is politics. Can RIC be the political response to an economic arrangement?
RIC appears to be the only format which can help to create a truly Asian Trading Region, an idea that must be pursued based on the remarkable shift of global trade to within the region. The contiguous land mass, the size of the three economies and the growing levels of consumption, each provide a basis to make this trading region viable and worth investing in. The energy and transport corridors may be the place to start. While China’s rapid advances in the energy landscape in Asia can appear intimidating, it can also be seen as an opportunity to respond to the Chinese dynamism and be a part of the project. Would India consider providing access to the Indian Ocean to China? And through China for Russia? Would this create a dependency that could serve India’s interests? Would it be beneficial to open land and pipeline routes to Central Asia and Russia through China? Would these not create mutual dependencies between the two countries that would offset some of the key imbalances that exist today? India helps de-risk China its current hydrocarbon and trade flows through the Indian Ocean, while China offers alternatives to routes that would require India to traverse Afghanistan and Pakistan. At the opportune time can Russia and China be a part of the IPI and TAPI? Can China extend pipelines from Central Asia and Russia to India? With increased volumes of trade, the pipelines become viable in spite of the distance. The participation of all the three countries in these pan-continent pipelines also reduces the political risk that these large trans-national project invariably face.
The biggest gainer would, however, be Russia. They would have a market for their resources outside of the EU and China. As the demand in West Asia is released in the next 10 years due to growing commercialization of green technologies and production of shale and frontier gas in US and East Europe, Russia would increasingly depend on the growing demand from China and India. Without a cooperative arrangement or transport infrastructure, large volumes of Russian resources may have only one buyer - China.
Russia and China have already established significant cooperation in the area of energy. It is time that India becomes part of this equation and the three countries start the process of developing an Asian Gas Grid. The first steps could be modest. Russia could ship some of its piped gas landing in China through the Chinese eastern board to India, a step both symbolic and political and a harbinger of Asian tri-lateral trade. Over the years it could result in the grid that a former Indian petroleum minister strongly advocated and a gas market in the region that could evolve its own price and commercial dynamics. The next stage could involve jointly owned SEZs in Russia’s Far East with each of the countries within the SEZ enjoying privileges of home country. This could also be the experiment to test the free movement of men, material and ideas across Asia.
Samir Saran and Nandan Unnikrishnan are Vice President's at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.
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