The trilateral summit meeting of Russia, India and China on the sidelines of the G20 at Buenos Aires on December 1 becomes a landmark event in Asian security and global politics. The so-called RIC format has taken a big leap forward with the leaderships of the three countries agreeing “to hold further such trilateral meetings on multilateral occasions” – to quote from an Indian External Affairs Ministry statement.
What is of particular interest is that Russian President Vladimir Putin took the initiative and both Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese Presdient Xi Jinping instinctively warmed up to the idea. The three leaders were intensely conscious of the backdrop in which the meeting took place.
They referred to the imperatives of cooperation and coordination between their countries in meeting the challenges to security and development. Promotion of the multilateral system, the democratization of the international order and world peace and stability was repeatedly stressed.
Significantly, Prime Minister Modi’s remarks were most emphatic and specific. Modi noted that the meeting provided “an opportunity to freely and openly discuss some key matters that cause concern on the global level.” He added,
“Your Excellencies, without a doubt, the world today is going through a period of serious change, instability and growing geopolitical tensions. There is serious pressure being exerted on the global leadership. Multilateral relations and the world order based on common rules are being increasingly rejected by various unilateral, transnational and local groups, and different nations around the world. We can see this happening as sanctions are imposed outside the UN mandate and protectionist policies are gaining strength.”
“The Doha Development Agenda within the WTO has failed. Since the Paris Agreement, we have not seen the expected level of financial commitment on behalf of the developed countries in favour of the developing states. Therefore, when it comes to climate, justice is currently at risk. We are still very far from achieving the goals of sustainable development.”
Modi’s thinly veiled criticism of the US policies will be noted. All three leaders underscored that Russia, India and China have an important leadership role in the present international milieu and acknowledged the need to strengthen the RIC trilateral cooperation mechanism.
The RIC summit at Buenos Aires can be seen as the logical evolution of the shifts taking place in the geopolitics of the Asia-Pacific region in the recent period. Despite robust American efforts, the countries of the region refrain from identifying with the Trump administration’s strident moves against China. Simply put, they don’t want to get entangled with the erratic, unpredictable US policies.
On the other hand, the US’ capacity to dominate China militarily is progressively diminishing and the latter is expanding its influence into southeast Asia and western Pacific, which used to be exclusive American “sphere of influence”. The Trump administration’s America First project has put off Asian countries such as India, which seek a relationship with the US based on mutual respect and mutual benefit.
From the Indian perspective, notably, Modi has shown enthusiasm for Putin’s initiative on the trilateral summit of the RIC. Modi’s calculus needs explaining. Modi has not only revived the verve of the India-Russia relations, which suffered atrophy in the past decade, but sees the partnership as an anchor sheet of India’s strategic autonomy. In retrospect, Modi’s informal summit with Putin at Sochi has been a defining moment in finessing India’s regional and global strategies in the highly volatile international environment.
Modi’s forceful decision in October to press ahead with the S-400 missile deal with Russia in the face of immense US pressure underscores his grit to pursue independent foreign policies. Indeed, the RIC summit took place in the immediate context of the last-minute cancellation of President Trump’s meeting with Putin.
Secondly, Modi is building on the consensus he reached with President Xi at their Wuhan informal summit in April. India and China have intensified their bilateral contacts with a view to enhance their strategic communication. Modi held summit meetings with Xi thrice during the period since April alone. (Modi’s last “bilateral” with Trump was in November 2017.)
India’s calibrated distancing from the US’ containment policies against China were articulated with great clarity at Modi in a major speech at the Shangri La Dialogue in Singapore on June 1 where he sought an inclusive approach to the Asia-Pacific security.
The “Wuhan spirit” has produced positive results. The India-China border tensions have subsided and the focus is on confidence building, pending resolution of the border dispute. The Chinese ambassador to India recently said that the bilateral relations are witnessing one of their best periods in history.
Conceivably, Putin seized the moment to connect the dots by initiating the proposal on the RIC format at summit level. This was an idea that was originally mooted in 1998 by the great Russian strategic thinker and then Foreign Minister Evgeniy Primakov but it was ahead of its time. Two decades later, it is apparent that the RIC need not necessarily impose constraints on China and/or India’s independent and non-bloc policies.
Meanwhile, through these two decades, the so-called “Primakov Triangle” also engendered an eastern vector in the Russian foreign policy with Moscow prioritizing the strengthening of its relations with Asian countries. Importantly, the strongpoint of the Primakov doctrine – its focus on multilateral cooperation and multilateral institutions – proved to be far-sighted and has acquired relevance.
Given the above, Russia sees the RIC dialogue mechanism as an indispensable element of multilateral net diplomacy that can provide gravitas to the processes leading toward establishment of a fair world order. How the RIC format at the summit level will evolve as a strategic triangle remains to be seen.
There is a degree of asymmetry within the RIC insofar as Russia enjoys close military and political relationships with both China and India, which is not the case between China and India. Again, India and China have a strong interest in economic partnership with the West. Nor is India or China seeking an “anti-western” alliance. But RIC format is flexible enough to allow room for discussion on the broad range of international problems.
Politically, China and India’s attitude vis-à-vis RIC remains pragmatic as they pursue and intensify cooperative relations with both the West and Russia. But in the post-Wuhan phase, India and China would probably visualize the potential to use the RIC discussion club to create traction for the Sino-Indian normalization. Russia can play a unique role here in fostering strategic trust.
To what extent Modi and Putin have candidly discussed this facet of the RIC process during their “intense” talks in Sochi in May remains untold but they are working on a matrix. Conceivably, Russia and China also would have a common interest in encouraging India’s strategic autonomy.
As time passes, the RIC summit format is destined to shape up as a major template of regional and international security and global development. A high degree of personal rapport already exists between and amongst Putin, Modi and Xi. One striking thing about the RIC summit is the strategic congruence in the Russian, Indian and Chinese statements.