Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 2 Issue: 79

Although the world media emphasized the proclamation of a Sino-Indian strategic partnership during Prime Minister Wen Jiabao’s recent visit to New Delhi, it overlooked another equally important development. Wen Jiabao announced that three “influential countries” — China, India, and Russia — “share identical or similar views and concerns on international issues and I think coordination and cooperation among them serves the interest of peace and stability in the world at large.” He also said this relationship would democratize international relations. Thus for the first time, China officially blessed the idea of a strategic triangle among these states, first advanced by former Russian prime minister Yevgeny Primakov.

Previously both China and India had shunned this idea even though their relationship has steadily improved since 1998. Nevertheless Russia has been pushing it for years, and the alliance was prompted by both Islamic fundamentalism in Central Asia and U.S. unilateralism. Wen Jiabao’s announcement thus marks a potential victory for Russian diplomacy, which lost no time in praising the outcome of his visit, the hints of this potential triangle, and the subsequent Indo-Pakistani negotiations that called for an irreversible peace process in Kashmir.

Russian President Vladimir Putin had been particularly insistent upon this triangle in his December 2004 visit to India. But China had resisted until now, and it is unlikely that India will be a party to overt anti-American actions in Central or South Asia, even though it will clearly collaborate more with China on trade and other issues and may even liaise with the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) now that China has offered it such an opportunity. After all, India is about to win an unprecedented U.S. weapons deal, and Washington has announced its intention to promote India as a major strategic player. But why did China suddenly decide to support Primakov’s continuing dream?

Putin made his vocal appeals for this triangle at the height of the Ukrainian turmoil of late 2004, reflecting his belief at the time that Washington was behind the Orange Revolution and that U.S. support for democratization in the CIS was particularly unwelcome. Since then, both Moscow and Beijing have had to suffer the even-more-unforeseen shock of the Tulip Revolution in Kyrgyzstan, a development that also revealed the weakness of the SCO as well as Moscow and Beijing’s limited ability to interference in a state they had intensely patronized. More recently the Taiwan issue has heated up, as had Sino-Japanese relations even before the recent anti-Japanese rioting in China. Perhaps China saw the need to make a substantive move in Asia.

Despite the fact that Russia has frequently ignored China’s expectations — joining Washington in post 9/11 international policy, not protesting termination of the ABM treaty, and reneging on plans for a pipeline to Daqing — Beijing has shown Moscow an otherwise astonishing forbearance. But while Moscow obviously does not want to choose between its two biggest defense partners in Asia, the chances are slim that Moscow will be able to induce either New Delhi or Beijing to coordinate policy with Russia. If anything, as Russian analysts like Sergei Karaganov and earlier Dmitry Trenin have observed, a genuine entente or alliance with China would formalize a subordinate position in Asia for Russia. Thus Russia would have to coordinate policy with China. Moscow is unlikely to welcome that outcome, notwithstanding its enthusiasm over Wen Jiabao’s statements. It also is unlikely that Beijing will defer to Russia when all of its vital economic interests and its main security problem, Taiwan, mandate engagement with America. If anything, China will seek to leverage this triangle for its own purposes as it recently did with respect to planned maneuvers with Russia (see EDM, March 22).

These unprecedented joint maneuvers were supposed to be anti-terrorist operations in Xinjiang, as Russia wanted. Though China pressed for coastal landing operations in Zhejiang province against Taiwan, Russia resisted. Ultimately the two sides agreed to hold major exercises involving naval, air, and ground forces as well as landing operations in Liaotung Peninsula, further up the coast and not so directly provocative to America or Taiwan. But these exercises, scheduled for the fall, could be interpreted not only as planning for a Taiwan operation under the guise of an anti-terrorist operation, but also as one mandated by the 2001 Shanghai Treaty, a true collective security document requiring all signatories to aid each other if one is attacked by terrorists or separatists (a designation Beijing uses for Taiwan). These exercises could also point to potential operations in and around Korea if that peninsula explodes, by no means an inconceivable possibility. Should any of these contingencies occur, it is worth asking what Beijing will expect of Moscow and what it will be prepared to do in response? While Moscow has enthusiastically and persistently pushed for this triangle, if anything resembling it even remotely comes into being, Russia might soon live to regret its attempt to ride the Chinese tiger.

(Kommersant, March 17; Indo-Asian News Service, April 12; Outlook, April 19; India Today, April 25; Daily Yomiuri, April 19; Xinhua News Agency, April 2, 12; Itar-Tass, April 7, 8; RIA-Novosti, April 11; Kremlin International News Broadcast, April 11; The Hindu, April 13;, April 13)