The meeting of the Russia-India-China [RIC] forum at the level of foreign ministers, which was held in Beijing on February 2, had an extraordinary setting. For sure, the power dynamic within the RIC is dramatically transforming what with the notable improvement in the climate of India-China relations in the past six-month period and with a big upswing in the Sino-Russian partnership, which in turn lends the forum much gravitas.
The relevance of the forum in regional and world politics has shot up like at no time before since the foreign ministers of the ‘trilateral’ held a modest meeting on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York in 2002. This also coincides with a formative period in the reshaping of the international system and in global governance in a polycentric world order.
The joint communiqué adopted at the meet in Beijing this week testifies to the convergence in the perspectives that the three countries share apropos of the international situation, especially over the conflicts in Ukraine, Afghanistan and Syria. Prima facie, it may seem the RIC has not said anything startlingly new by advocating the establishment of a stable, secure and fair system of international relations riveted on the central coordinating role of the United Nations «at the very center of global governance and multilateralism».
But, in reality several recent developments in world politics give piquancy to the RIC stance – such as the ‘regime change’ agenda that was pushed by the United States and its allies in Syria or the coup in Ukraine last year (which the US president Barack Obama tacitly acknowledged for the first time in an interview with the CNN last weekend).
The RIC communiqué affirms the need for the three countries «to further strengthen coordination on global issues and practical cooperation» in the interests of «maintaining international and regional peace and stability and promoting global economic growth ad prosperity». Suffice it to say, it is a rebuff to the US’ current stated policy of ‘isolating’ Russia internationally.
The communiqué once again underlined the imperative for «the democratization of international relations and multipolarity» and the commitment of the three countries to building «a more just, fair and stable international political and economic order». Quite obviously, all this adds up to the complete rejection of global hegemony by any single power in the international system and, equally, a repudiation of the ‘bloc mentality’ that the US espouses.
The single most significant outcome of the RIC meet this week is the decision taken by the three countries for «strengthening coordination and cooperation to maintain lasting peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region». Plainly put, Washington’s ‘pivot’ strategy in the Asia-Pacific is no longer the only regional game in the Asia-Pacific.
Russia, India and China have their own perceptions regarding regional security and stability in the Asia-Pacific. During the recent visit by Obama to India, the two countries issued a ‘Joint Strategic Vision’ statement regarding the Asia-Pacific. The pro-American lobby in India and the US media interpreted this as a signal of India lurching toward the US’ containment strategy against China and estimated that Obama’s visit itself was ‘transformative’ insofar as India was abandoning its non-aligned foreign-policies and the anchor sheet of the country’s ‘strategic autonomy’.
Therefore, the decision taken at the RIC meet to establish a trilateral Russia-India-China «consultation mechanism» on Asia-Pacific affairs, «with the first meeting to be held at an early date,» marks a major development in regional politics. In essence, this is a step toward harmonizing the stances of Russia (which is an Asia-Pacific power with its own specific concerns and interests), India (which is concerned over the territorial disputes in the South China Sea) and China (which is a party to the territorial disputes). The establishment of the consultation mechanism is not only a diplomatic victory for China in a spirit of ‘win-win’ cooperation, but is also a counter to the US’ ‘pivot’ strategy in Asia which exploits the tensions in the Asia-Pacific.
What emerges on a broader plane out of the Beijing meet this week is that the RIC forms one leg of a ‘tripod’ that is bringing Russia, India and China together on the world stage across the board on regional and global issues – the other two being the Shanghai Cooperation Organization [SCO] and the BRICS. While the SCO is primarily focused on regional security issues, the RIC and BRICS have common features insofar as they are oriented toward demanding a louder global ‘voice’ – plainly put, they demand more say on the global stage, rivaling US influence, for the emerging powers.
The Indian foreign minister Sushma Swaraj said, «We [RIC] have shared interests in governance reform of the international financial system». The Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi added, «We call for the improvement of global economic governance and to increase the voice and representation of developing countries».
The Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov went a step further: «We have confirmed that the perspectives of Russia, India and China on the international situation and ways to promote trilateral cooperation in existing circumstances are very close if not identical… We particularly emphasized the fact that a restructuring of the global governance model is underway, and the objective process of creating more democratic and fair polycentric political and economic systems of the world order continues».
Indeed, the RIC joint communiqué specifically calls for the implementation of the 2010 IMF Quota and Governance Reform by the end of this year. The RIC has thrown the gauntlet at the US Congress which is stalling on any meaningful reform of the international financial system that might erode the US’ (and the West’s) predominance.
How come the RIC is gaining such traction? The answer is easy to find. The RIC brought together three major powers with similar aspirations on the global stage but it could not realize its full potential so far because of the asymmetry in the bilateral ties between the three member states. The relations between Russia and China have been on a steady rise in the recent years and are, in fact, «looking up as never before,» as Lavrov said in his meeting with Wang in Beijing on the sidelines of the RIC.
Equally, the friendship between Russia and India is a «time-tested» one, and is suffused with great mutual understanding. On the other hand, the Sino-Indian relations had a lot of catching up to do. But this may be about to change and the RIC meet in Beijing may already be reflecting the stirrings in the air.
The heart of the matter is that Indian foreign policy trajectory is undergoing a major shift under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. From a nationalist perspective, Modi sees that India enjoys greater options and leverage to pursue its strategic interests in the current international system, which is characterized by the diffusion of global power economically away from the West to Asia.
As regards the India-China relations, without doubt Modi understands that economic interdependence is possible – and is necessary and desirable – with China despite the political complexities of the overall relationship. This may seem to stem from the primacy that Modi attaches to economic growth and development in his political agenda, but more fundamentally, he is also conscious of India’s rise in an ‘Asian Century’ and it is a recurring theme in his world view.
‘Pan-Asianism’, a notion of Asia bound by culture, appeals to Modi – juxtaposed to the depredations, cultural as much as economic and political, of the West. Of course, this does not mean at all that Modi is ‘anti-West’ or that in the multi-aligned foreign policy that he is forging, India’s relations with the US will be anything less than of topmost priority, but simply that India is gearing up to engage China strongly and comprehensively on economic and global issues. Indeed, it is conceivable that an early diplomatic solution to the border dispute could bring the Sino-Indian ties on par with the Sino-Russian relationship currently.
These nascent impulses in the India-China relationship – a globalist mindset from a platform of regional economic integration – will augur well for the processes devolving upon the RIC, SCO and BRICS. In immediate terms, much depends on Russian diplomacy to give added verve to these impulses. Fortuitously, it is Russia that will be hosting the BRICS and SCO summits this year in Ufa in July and is in the driving seat to give new directions to these processes. From an Indian perspective, sky is the limit for carrying forward regional economic integration that dovetails in its ambitious development agenda.
Hopefully, the Ufa summit will also witness India’s formal induction as an SCO member country, which would strengthen the RIC process further. Indeed, the BRICS and SCO summits will be taking place soon after Modi’s visit to China in May, which already seems to be shaping up as a historic watershed in the India-China relationship.