Russia and India in “the loose geometry of world politics”

India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Russia's President Dmitry Medvedev, China's President Hu Jintao, Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff and South Africa's President Jacob Zuma. Source: AP

India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Russia's President Dmitry Medvedev, China's President Hu Jintao, Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff and South Africa's President Jacob Zuma. Source: AP

A BRICS summit is due to be held in Delhi in late March. BRICS consists of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. In my opinion, it promises to be an illuminating summit in terms of both coordinating positions, after their unity being shaken somewhat by the “Syrian crisis”, and of developing models for “horizontal” interaction between influential and independent-minded members of the world community. For India scholars in this country, the trajectory of relations between Moscow and Delhi is, of course, of particular significance.

India’s foreign policy has, for years now, been developing according to the canons of a “loose geometry of world politics” (a phenomenon outlined by French scholars and experts in the mid-2000s), implying the country’s active participation in bilateral and multilateral cooperation simultaneously. This fully applies to the RIC, IBSA and BASIC formats. At the same time, Delhi chooses what specific tactical actions to take on the basis of the actual balance of power within the Indian foreign policy establishment, i.e., as various groups gain pre-eminence in what is a fairly closed organisational entity.

RIC format (India-Russia-China)

Early attempts to create (initially as an “intellectual project”) a model for strategic alliance between the major Eurasian states can be traced to the efforts by left-leaning Indian intellectuals seeking, in the early 1980s, to find an ideological and cultural platform for mutual understanding between the USSR, India and China. The relations between the latter two countries, as we may recall, have been potentially explosive since the early 1960s. At the time, these efforts and the ideas they have produced met with no understanding or support at the political and state level, but later turned out to be good building blocks for forming a Russia-India-China “strategic triangle”.

Materialisation of the “triangle” idea, some signs of which appeared in the late 1990s, is associated with the then Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov. Although the “triangle” concept was not, at the time, officially accepted by the Indian government as the basis for long-term foreign policy planning, an influential section of the establishment and the strategic elites saw the RIC format as: 1) accelerated movement towards a polycentric world model and 2) the beginning of a common economic space that could promote reform and modernisation in our countries. This approach was in line with the positions of the three states, which were committed to the idea of integrated national security concept blending economic growth/development, unity and territorial integrity of states and political stability.

The idea of a “strategic triangle” got a new lease of life after 11 September 2001, when the radical political Islam factor emerged as an additional consolidating element in the interstate relations between Russia, India and China (North Caucasus, Kashmir, Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Area). The American geopolitical expansion to Afghanistan and Central Asia that followed close on the heels of 9/11 led to a further rapprochement between the three states, notably Russia and China, which became aware of how urgent it was to implement the concept of a multipolar/polycentric world.

As the support structures of the “unipolar world” weakened (initially in Iraq and later in Afghanistan), however, the contradictions between India and China came increasingly into the open. (A considerable, though indirect role, in their aggravating controversies was played by well-calculated actions by the second George W. Bush Administration, which launched a sustained effort to weaken China geopolitically).

The contradictions between India and China became the subject of discussion in India’s national press (i.e., the English-language leading newspapers like Times of India, Hindustan Times, Indian Express and Hindu), with “programmatic” articles often published by experts close to the country’s foreign policy establishment. Several main topics emerged that divided the Elephant and the Dragon. First of all, it was claimed that even the first Indian Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, had considered China to be a threat to India because Indian and Chinese cultures had for several centuries been locked in irreconcilable struggle for dominance in Central Asia, Tibet, Burma and the Southeast Asian countries. Second, centuries later, that struggle morphed into geopolitical rivalry over potential markets for energy and manufactured goods not only in Central Asia but also in Africa and even South Asia, which China allegedly wants to see as its “strategic backyard”. Third, India and China are more and more often described by foreign policy analysts in Delhi as “long-term rivals” in the struggle for effective control over delivery of energy supplies in the space between the Strait of Hormuz and the Malacca Strait. The Indian experts write more and more often about China’s plan to put their country in a geopolitical “vice” in the Indian Ocean, between the coast of Myanmar in the east and Pakistan in the west.

Some foreign policy experts conclude that China’s long-term strategic goal with regard to India is to prevent the latter from emerging as a “great Asian power”. Another conclusion drawn by an influential part of the Indian political elite is that Delhi’s main interest in the RIC format consists in containing China’s geopolitical expansion and minimising the unfavourable political consequences of China’s vigorous economic growth. Some Indian political analysts close to the government openly state that the main interest towards Russia comes down to maintaining the “eternal flame” of contradictions between Moscow and Beijing with maximum effect and benefits for Delhi in Central Asia, Southeast Asia, South Asia and in the Persian Gulf (where the USA is obviously losing its grip) and even in Africa and Latin America. Delhi will, therefore, in future work actively with Moscow at such regional institutions as the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), one of its fears being that the latter might turn into a “mechanical appendage” of the Chinese Foreign Ministry. There have recently been signs of a change in India’s stance on the development of Russian-Pakistani relations, which is generally welcomed, but only on condition that these relations do not include military-technical cooperation component. At the same time, Delhi is seeking concessions from China and Russia, having stepped up its diversified relations with America since the mid- 2000s, in particular in the military-technical and nuclear energy fields. By promoting relations with India in the RIC format, Russia is entitled to expect India to clarify its position in the following areas, which are of strategic importance for Moscow:

-considering Russia’s “jealous” attitude towards any activities by other countries in Central Asia, is India prepared to concentrate its efforts on implementing in these countries, jointly with Russia (or independently), economic projects that do not seek to strengthen India’s strategic position at the expense of our country?

-to find out how sincere and substantive are the statements by some officials close to the country’s foreign policy establishment to the effect that India is “indifferent” to American projects of “Greater Central Asia” and “the new silk road”, which pose a direct threat to Russia’s interests in the region;

-what aims does India pursue in taking part in the “reconstruction” projects in Afghanistan and are these aims damaging to Moscow’s strategic interests?

IBSA (India-Brazil-South Africa) format

The IBSA format is usually thought to have been institutionalised on 6 June 2003 in the Brazilian capital Brasilia, when Indian Foreign Minister Yashwant Sinha, Brazilian Foreign Minister Celso Amorim and South African Foreign Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma sealed trilateral relations in the Brasilia Declaration. The IBSA format effectively legalised and raised to the level of state policy regular contacts/consultations between the heads of states and governments, representatives of state administrations of all levels, the academic communities, the intelligentsia and civil society organisations of the three countries. Some experts believed at the time that the IBSA format, consisting of important “second-tier” countries in world politics, would provide an institutional framework for building a system of international economic and political relations as an alternative to the Western system.

The declared aim of IBSA was to stimulate “South-South” dialogue and cooperation in such increasingly important areas as the fight against poverty, development (a combination of economic growth, maximum employment and even/politically safe distribution of the national income), global climate change, the dialogue of cultures (the world as “unity in diversity”), healthcare, education, the advanced power industry, scientific and technical progress, investments, etc.

It is safe to say that, in joining IBSA, India pursued several main goals:

   1. Building the second and apparently most important tier of the world system that – considering the collapse first of bipolarity and then unipolarity – is actively emerging through the addition of “new regional leaders” (Venezuela, Argentina, South Africa, Turkey, Iran, Indonesia, etc). At the same time, both India and Brazil function simultaneously in two different capacities: as world leaders (alongside the USA, Western Europe, Russia, China and Japan) and so-called “medium-sized states”.

   2. In the opinion of official Delhi, the logic of the development of the IBSA format and of other regional associations will eventually lead to reform of the main international political institution, the UN, which no longer reflects the real balance of power in the modern world. In that sense, India and Brazil are the driving forces behind the regrouping of world forces “from the bottom up”, i.e., on a genuinely democratic basis.

   3. Acting within the IBSA format, India (along with Brazil) not only accelerates formation of an economic space free of Western hegemony but also contributes to a “horizontal” integration of most developing countries on the basis of their real economic and political interests, a process that has become particularly apparent of late.

The BASIC (Brazil-South Africa-India-China) format

The BASIC format, consisting of Brazil, South Africa, India and China, was institutionalised under a joint agreement of 28 November 2009. The core of the agreement was commitment by four large and super-large countries to act in concert at the Copenhagen climate summit in order to uphold the position of the developing countries on the global warming. That “geopolitical alliance”, as it is called in the Western press, was initiated by China, its aim being to reduce greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere consistently and in a coordinated manner and to provide financial assistance to the Group of 77 poorest developing countries. By acting in this way, BASIC objectively seeks to induce the industrialised countries, led by the US, to increase funding of programmes aimed at preventing climate change in the developing countries. India’s interests within BASIC obviously stem from official Delhi’s desire to get the world community (i.e., the West) to sign a legally binding document within the framework of the UN Convention on Climate Change. Furthermore, India’s actions (just like at the early stage of the Non-Aligned Movement) seek to express and defend the interests of the entire community of developing states, including the most depressed ones. That accounts for the calls for the West to provide the bulk of humanity with “equitable conditions and development space” and to support societies in transition in creating their national infrastructures for financial, scientific-technological and institutional support for measures aimed at adapting to climate change. India and Brazil have already contributed to these activities by launching several satellites for global climate study.

In the light of the continuing struggle within India’s ruling circles for preservation of the “Nehru course” in foreign policy, Russian diplomacy can and must use all the formats of the “loose geometry” of international relations (including, of course, RIC, IBSA and BASIC) to strengthen Russia’s geopolitical positions. The role of the RIC, IBSA and BASIC formats will ultimately be determined by the purposive actions of Russian diplomacy in the following areas:  

   1. The UN General Assembly vote on the Syria resolution revealed, among other things, that Russia does not have sufficient influence on the bulk of humanity, the developing nations. Our country’s active informal participation in the BASIC and IBSA formats will enable Russia gradually to regain the positions it lost in the Third World during the years of “liberal reforms”.

   2. By consistently upholding its strategic interests in the RIC format, above all in the adjacent spaces of Central Asia, in Iran and also within the SCO regional organisation, Russia can, with India’s help, undermine such “projects” as “Greater Central Asia”, “the new silk road,” and others that threaten Russia’s long-term interests. As regards Iran’s role in the hierarchy of Indian geopolitical priorities, politically active and well informed Indians are aware of the pivotal position of the Islamic Republic in the system of North-South transportation corridors that offer India the shortest and safest way to Central Asia, Russia and Western Europe.

   3. The protracted systemic crisis of the world economy dictates a change in humanity’s foreign policy paradigm. The core of this undoubtedly consists in an alternative model for global governance, one of whose pioneers in seeking to introduce new principles in the world system is India. Russian diplomacy’s work to develop a new paradigm of international relations thus presupposes a direct focus on the experimenting activities of India and other BRICS countries in the IBSA and the BASIC formats.

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