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Three of a kind: India, China and Russia
By Sultan Shahin

NEW DELHI - As the foreign ministers of India, China and Russia meet this week in New York as part of a trilateral process that began two years ago, diplomatic observers and analysts are busy appraising the strategic implications of their growing affinity. Some see it as leading to the establishment of a "strategic triangle" to save the world, particularly Asia, from the uncertainties of a unipolar world that resulted from the collapse of Soviet Union. Others dismiss it as routine and inconsequential, pointing to the primary foreign-policy goal of all three to get in the good books of the sole superpower and to resolve their bilateral problems.

All observers, however, agree on one point. The foreign-policy compulsions that brought the three together in the first place two years ago have only grown stronger since the US-led coalition invaded and then occupied Iraq. The United States went to war claiming that its security was in grave and immediate peril from Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and his terrorist links. But no WMD have been found in Iraq, and no link between Saddam's regime and international terrorism has been discovered. This has nearly silenced those in India and Russia, and perhaps behind closed doors in China, who continued to claim despite overwhelming evidence that the US had no imperialist ambitions and was only trying to rid the world of terrorism and WMD.

Officials in all three capitals, New Delhi, Beijing and Moscow, keep stressing that their growing strategic closeness is not directed against any third country, meaning the United States. Indeed, all three are separately engaged in improving their bilateral relations with that country; economic compulsions and demands of globalization force them to do so. But the historical and contemporaneous context in which this axis is being forged slowly and cautiously makes it difficult to hide the fact that, like the rest of the world, they, too, are scared of US unilateralism and the so-called doctrine of preemption.

The United States with its daisy cutters and tactical nuclear weapons and a long history of using them on false pretexts is their newest neighbor in whichever direction they look. This does nothing to calm their fears in the post-Cold War world. But neither are they quite comfortable with one another, with unresolved or irresolvable bilateral problems dogging their relations, nor happy with the idea of their strategic alliance being eventually forced to take anti-US positions.

After all, even in the war against Iraq, all three took a position, though individually and without any prior consultation, that went against the US stand. Even earlier they had declared together that they would strive to promote a "multipolar world". This obviously doesn't suit the United States, the lord and master of the present unipolar system, in which it even threatened last year to make the United Nations obsolete. Indeed, if the UN is back in US reckoning, it is only because the Iraqi people are fighting the occupation and the US requires both troops and financial assistance to hold on to its occupation of Iraq.

While a different picture was beginning to emerge in the last decade of the 20th century, none of the three countries was particularly close to the United States for several decades prior to that. Russia, of course, was the leader of the Soviet Union and waged a Cold War against the US for almost half a century. Russian President Vladimir Putin and before him presidents Boris Yeltsin and Mikhail Gorbachev were all soldiers of the Cold War. China had managed to grow out of the Soviet embrace and developed a detente of sorts with the US much earlier. But India had continued to take a non-aligned position, which in effect turned out to be pro-Soviet on most issues, almost until the end of the Cold War. Yet India never really had a relationship of hostility with the United States, except briefly when the nuclear-powered US Sixth Fleet moved into the Bay of Bengal as a show of support for Pakistan during the 1971 India-Pakistan war that led to the creation of Bangladesh.

It is not surprising, therefore, that among the three nuclear powers gradually and rather inexorably being thrown together by the tide of history, India is the most ill at ease. Though determined to make the 21st an Asian century and committed to work for a multipolar world, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and his Hindu fundamentalist colleagues have for long considered the West a civilizational ally against Islam. Not surprisingly, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government declared India and the United States, the world's biggest and the most powerful democracies, as "natural allies". US President George W Bush could not have forgotten "the irrational exuberance" - the expression used by The Times of India - of New Delhi's response to his declaration on May 1, 2001, that the United States needs "new concepts of deterrence" and to create these it needs to "move beyond the constraints of the 30-year-old ABM [Anti-Ballistic Missile] treaty" and work toward deploying a ballistic-missile-defense system.

Similarly quick and unprecedented in its haste was India's offer of unlimited support to the United States after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attack against the US. Even on Iraq, the Indian opposition virtually had to force the government to pass a resolution in parliament deploring the US-led invasion. Even now, speaking in the UN on Thursday, Vajpayee condemned terrorist attacks in Iraq, though speaking earlier Bush refrained from citing India as one of the victims of terrorism, obviously for fear of offending his friend and front-line ally in his "war against terrorism", Pakistani President General Pervez Musharraf.

In contrast, the other two parties to the emerging alliance, Russia and China, realized the dangers of a unipolar world led by the US much sooner. The Kosovo crisis became the trigger. Both powers wanted Yugoslavia's national sovereignty to be respected. If at all intervention became necessary, both countries felt if it should consist of UN forces from neutral or secondary and tertiary powers, with Russian forces in a leading role.

US-led North Atlantic Treaty Organization intervention in Yugoslavia without a UN sanction made both unhappy. Russians found themselves marginalized in a country they had considered part of their sphere of influence. The Chinese sincerely believed, despite vigorous US denial, that the bombing of their embassy in Belgrade was deliberate and showed complete disregard of the United States for consequences of its actions.

Very early on in the Bush presidency, therefore, US relations with both Russia and China deteriorated. It is this that led to the standoff over the EP-3 plane with China and the espionage tit-for-tat with Russia. The United States expelled hordes of Russian diplomats and the Chinese intercepted a US spy plane and did not release it quickly enough for Washington's liking. Russia and China had already decided that the US was out of control and required effort on their part to keep it from interfering in their respective spheres of influence - the Caucasus and Central Asia for Russia and, for China, Taiwan and the international waters around it.

At stake, therefore, is the very composition of the international system of checks and balances. India, too, is realizing that it is not enough to have seemingly good relations with the US and listen to Washington praising Indian democracy. Thus despite India's growing ties with Israel, which is considered the shortest route into the heart of the Bush administration, India is disappointed and getting angrier by the day. Bush's failure to mention terrorism in Kashmir in his UN speech this week may well prove the last nail in the coffin.

Indian grievances are mainly related to what Vajpayee condemned in his UN speech on Thursday as cross-border terrorism in Kashmir sponsored by Pakistan and the latter's effort at blackmail to bring India on the negotiating table. While US officials strained every nerve to keep India from attacking Pakistan when it moved its army on the border after a terrorist attack against the Indian parliament in December 2001, killing eight policemen, they didn't compel Pakistan to turn off the terror tap.

The India-Pakistan military standoff lasted an entire year; India pulled back its troops after assurances that Pakistan would not allow terrorists to infiltrate into Indian territory. For a time infiltration did come down considerably, but it has resumed. India believes that if the United States could force Pakistan to change its policy toward the Taliban, it can also force it to change its attitude toward militants operating in Kashmir and bring infiltration to a halt.

Nothing much is given out to the media after foreign ministers' annual trilateral meetings. But one Chinese scholar has identified India's positive factors in favor of trilateral cooperation. This gives an indication about the subjects that come up in these discussions.

One, the three powers are faced with a similar security environment and tasks and have similar or close positions on many international issues. All of them advocate a multipolar world and the establishment of a just and fair new international order. Indeed, this is the cornerstone of the emerging strategic alliance, though some scholars are wary of describing it as "strategic" and say that one should be more careful in using such expressions. It is noteworthy, however, that all three countries label their mutual bilateral relations as strategic.

Two, all three countries need to develop their economies and revitalize themselves. To their good fortune, their economies are complementary.

Three, Russia has a special position among the three - it is a traditional ally and partner of India and also has close ties with China. Its special role could help facilitate development of trilateral cooperation.

Four, this cooperation, though just started, has already gained strong momentum, largely because of the deteriorating world security environment since the US invasion and occupation of Iraq that has exposed the fault lines in the unipolar world system much sooner than would have otherwise happened.

Along with the foreign ministers' annual trilateral meeting, another practice that began about the same time in 2001 and has now become institutionalized is a consultative meeting of pro-government or semi-official scholars from the three countries, providing vital ideas and feedback to the governments leading to the setting up of agendas for future talks and providing direction to the respective governments. Academics involved in this practice are from the China Institute of International Studies, the RAS Institute of Far Eastern Studies, Moscow, and the Institute of Chinese Studies, New Delhi.

The first consultative meeting of scholars from these institutions was held in September 2001 in Moscow, the second in November 2002, and the third is scheduled for November this year in New Delhi. The published accounts of these meetings have repeatedly emphasized the anxiety of all three governments that the regular trilateral meetings are not seen as an attempt to forge an anti-US alliance.

The press release issued after the first meeting made the following three points:
  • Trilateral cooperation among India, China and Russia had a rich and positive potential based on common or similar positions on a broad range of international issues such as democratization of international relations, formation of a multipolar world, opposing hegemony, construction of a fair and rational new international order, and countering international terrorism, extremism, separatism, organized crime and illegal circulation of drugs.
  • All three countries are firm supporters of panchsheel - the five principles of peaceful co-existence. The strengthening of trilateral cooperation does not imply any diminution of national autonomy or of the national identity. On the contrary, constructive interaction must become a guarantee for the full development of the most valuable qualities and genius of all three peoples.
  • Trilateral cooperation does not imply the formation of alliances, blocs, etc.

    The most significant aspect of the scholars' discussions in the past two years has been the concern expressed over the dangers of unilateralism and the strategy of preemption. They have emphasized active cooperation to promote multipolarity and democratize international relations. As all three suffer from terrorism, they have unanimously called for international cooperation to combat that scourge.

    But some felt that the US-led coalition needed to adopt a more cautious approach. In some cases, the US objectives could not be shared and, in other situations, there were strong reservations to the means used by it. In their view, the United States appeared to be motivated by three goals - to eliminate Islamic extremism, to enhance its status as the sole superpower, and to increase control over the energy resources of the Middle East and Central Asia.

    Globalization was seen as having both positive and negative elements. Among the suggestions to contain the negative factors were:
  • Joint steps to build defenses against the movement of speculative capital.
  • Sharing their experiences in dealing with multinationals.
  • Establishment of a trilateral study group on the World Trade Organization.

    The alliance has the potential of emerging as a powerful grouping of nearly half the world's population and playing a significant role in world affairs. But one important step would be that all three countries make sincere efforts to sort out their bilateral territorial disputes. Some progress has been made recently in this direction, particularly in Sino-Indian relations. Since Vajpayee's recent visit to China, a joint boundary commission has started discussing the issue seriously. China and India fought a bitter border battle in 1962.

    In Sino-Russian relations, too, progress continues to be made. Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao and his Russian counterpart Mikhail Kasyanov, for instance, agreed in Beijing on Thursday in the eighth such "regular meeting" to deepen and diversity their strategic ties. Significantly, Russia invited China to participate in the development of Siberia and also Russia's far east, regions where the presence of a large number of Chinese immigrants has caused some disquiet since a recent census.

    There are a great many suspicions regarding long-term Chinese intentions, however, both in India and Russia. China must move to convince its partners in this alliance that it wants to solve its border disputes once for all. Merely signing "eternal friendship" treaties that may lead to war in a mere 20 years, as happened in Sino-Russian relations, will not do. Those two countries fought a short but bitter border battle in 1969 when Chinese troops occupied a Russian island on the Amur River and the Russians fired Grad multi-barrel missiles to wipe out the intruders.

    In 1997, Russia and China signed a border-demarcation accord that settled most of their border disputes, except over three islands on the borderline rivers. As exhaustive negotiations over the disputed islands continue, according to one report, the Chinese have been spotted trying to link their territory with the islands by dropping rocks into the river and sinking sand-filled barges in order to have more grounds for claiming the islands.

    Two years ago, Russia and China concluded another political treaty, this time only for 20 years, but one that declares the two countries "friends forever, enemies never". The treaty stated for the first time that the two sides had no territorial claims to each other's land. It is to be hoped that this treaty will not meet the fate of the eternal friendship treaty, as it is meant to last only 20 years.

    Those who want to fight foreign imperialism successfully must try to keep their own imperialist instincts in check. For, many a time in history, imperialists have benefited from exploiting just this instinct. Since the age of Confucius, the world has looked toward China for wisdom. One cannot help wonder whether some slice of Confucian wisdom is still intact in the Middle Kingdom.

    (Copyright 2003 Asia Times Online Co, Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact for information on our sales and syndication policies.)
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