The RIC conundrum

The foreign ministers of the three powers met in New Delhi last week – Wang Yi of China (l), Salman Khurshid of India (c) and Sergei Lavrov of Russia. Source: Photoshot

The foreign ministers of the three powers met in New Delhi last week – Wang Yi of China (l), Salman Khurshid of India (c) and Sergei Lavrov of Russia. Source: Photoshot

The truth is that the Russia-India-China trilateral is still a grouping of secondary importance, primarily because all three countries are constantly evolving and adjusting their positions in relation to the rise and fall of the US.

Fifteen years after then Russian prime minister Yevgeny Primakov suggested that Russia, India and China come together to form a “strategic triangle” that could provide an alternative view of the world from the dominant narrative of the US, the three powers have still not evolved to become an integrated whole that is more than a sum of its parts.

Primakov’s fundamental premise, that the US’ lone superpower status needed to be challenged after the end of the Cold War which had ended with the disintegration of the Soviet Union, has since evolved in so many different ways.

China has clearly changed the most, rapidly transforming itself economically and militarily to become the second-most powerful country in the world, after the US. Russia retains its significant nuclear-missile presence and refuses to shy away from its use of the powerful veto in the UN Security Council. India, meanwhile, has not only become a de facto nuclear power, it has also powered its way to a socio-economic revival of sorts, although much more remains to be done.

So when the foreign ministers of the three powers met in New Delhi last week – Sergei Lavrov of Russia, Wang Yi of China and Salman Khurshid of India – for their third stand-alone meeting, that old question Lenin once famously asked, “What is to be done?,” must have stared all the leaders in the face.

The question that remains is, did these leaders acknowledge in the first place that, indeed, there remained a lot to be done between their nations across the Asia-European space? And if they did, then what areas of convergence did they reach?

The truth is that the Russia-India-China trilateral is still a grouping of secondary importance, primarily because all three countries are constantly evolving and adjusting their positions in relation to the rise and fall of the pole star, which remains the US, even if it is considerably weakened by its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

China is a classic example of a nation that has invested one trillion dollars in the US Treasury, but whose well-known scholar Hu Shisheng, director of the Institute of South and Southeast Asian and Oceania Studies at the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations, last week told the ‘China Daily’ newspaper that all three nations remain unsatisfied with the current world order dominated by the West and are seeking to reinforce the emerging countries' global voice.

Russia, whose international stature was considerably enhanced through president Vladimir Putin’s flexible diplomacy in Syria, remains an economically weak power that is heavily dependent on selling its natural resources to the West (such as oil and gas).

And India, whose undemarcated 4000 odd- km-long border with China continues to be at the centre of a basket of tensions that includes a heavily unequal volume of trade in favour of Beijing, seeks to diversify its strategic partnership with the US in the military, strategic and economic spheres.

This means that all three nations, Russia, India and China, are constantly assessing their own relationships with regard to the pre-eminent power, the US, which leaves their leaderships with little bandwidth to reinvent the trilateral grouping to suit their own circumstances.

This is a pity because all three Asian powers – and Russia is surely as much of an Asian power as it is a European one -- have the capacity to exercise considerable influence in a variety of ways and make a difference to the future of the continent.

After all, as China’s Wang Yi said at the conference in Delhi, Russia, China and India not only occupy 22 percent of the world’s territory, they also link three oceans and share 40 percent of the world’s population.

That’s a lot of advantages to start from, which means that if the three powers want they can certainly shape the world together. From all accounts, at the New Delhi meeting, the three foreign ministers discussed the future of Afghanistan, especially after the US draws down from the country in mid-2014, as well as the urgent need to combat terrorism and counter drug trade, which as Khurshid said, “is as great a menace as terrorism and is in fact to intrinsically linked in many ways as it finances terrorism.”

India is especially concerned about the problem of terrorism emanating from the Afghanistan-Pakistan region. In the wake of the October 28 terrorist attack on Tiananmen square in the heart of Beijing, which the Chinese have put down to separatists from Xinjiang, Beijing has become even more concerned about the training these Uighur separatists have received from the same sources as the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban.

Which is why, in Delhi, Wang Yi called for help from the international community to become much more involved with the reconstruction and rehabilitation of Afghanistan. (It seems as if the opposite is taking place, with most NATO countries having withdrawn troops or in the act of withdrawing them from that country.)

Particularly, Wang Yi said, there existed the need to ensure smooth elections in Afghanistan on April 5, 2014, support the political reconciliation process which must be Afghan-led and Afghan-owned and the UN must be supported to coordinate international assistance.

Meanwhile, Lavrov pointed out that “Russia, India and China will spare no effort to make Afghanistan a peaceful, independent and prosperous state. We have agreed to invigorate this work in the United Nations and within the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO)."

The Chinese foreign minister also sought to refocus the discussion on enhancing the exploitation of the region’s natural resources, through the building of the Silk Route Economic Corridor and the Asia-European Continental Bridge.

Although China and Russia have recently become much more economically integrated, with oil and gas pipelines from the Russian East feeding China’s huge appetite for energy resources as well as much greater collaboration on the defence and strategic front, there remains some unease in Moscow about China ramping up its presence in the region and elsewhere.

Certainly, India is seriously unhappy about the Chinese refusing to open their market to branded Indian goods, especially in the information technology and services as well as in the pharmaceuticals sectors. Chinese officials say that Indian companies must play by the same rules that apply to all other Western companies, but Indian companies have argued otherwise, pointing out that they have to undertake trials for the Chinese market that are costly and undercut profit.

As 2013 draws to an end, the truth is that Russia, China and India will continue to individually jockey for power and influence in the changing world order, even as a continuing trust deficit will prevent them from undertaking strategic cooperation.

To transform the RIC trilateral into more than a talkshop, it might be necessary for the grouping to be sustained on the ground with concrete initiatives as well as ramped up to a heads of state and government level. That would book-end the current foreign ministerial initiative and allow it to think out of the box on even more issues.

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