Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 179

Defense analysts in the United States are reported to be watching with increasing interest signs of cooperation among Russia, China and India. Although the three countries are perceived to be still a long way from coalescing into any sort of anti-NATO axis, they do appear to have been brought closer together in recent months by their common concerns over this spring’s NATO bombing campaign in Yugoslavia. That and other areas of mutual interest–including a fear of militant Islam and opposition both to theater missile-defense systems and Western calls for “humanitarian interventions” abroad–have helped to boost further already significant levels of arms dealings between Moscow and the two Asian giants. Experts say that these arms sales are already beginning to change the military equation in Asia. They point in particular to China’s purchase of Russian SSN-22 antiship missiles, an acquisition which could complicate life for the U.S. Seventh Fleet in the event of a future confrontation with China (International Herald Tribune, September 28; UPI, August 24).

Moscow appears to be the driving force behind the effort to increase cooperation among the three countries, but Russian plans have encountered several serious obstacles. Then Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov first broached the idea of a “strategic triangle” involving Russia, China and India during a visit to New Delhi last December. But he was rebuffed, and subsequent Russian efforts to raise the issue have also met with little enthusiasm in either New Delhi or Beijing. Ongoing tensions between traditional rivals China and India are the primary reason. Indeed, India’s decision last year to conduct nuclear weapons tests appears to have been the result less of tensions with Pakistan–New Delhi’s stated rationale–than of its concerns over Chinese military might and intentions. Beijing, simultaneously, remains a provider of military hardware to Pakistan.

Moscow, meanwhile, has also run into some problems in trying to transform declarations of friendship with China and India into practical cooperation efforts. Moscow and Beijing, for example, have long since declared themselves to be “strategic partners,” but bilateral trade between the two countries remains anemic and sniping continues over the presence of Chinese nationals in Russia’s Far East. More to the point, perhaps, Beijing has refused Russian proposals to take joint military action aimed at countering Japanese-U.S. plans for a theater missile defense system in Asia. That rebuff was delivered despite the fact that both countries have sharply condemned the Japanese-U.S. plans.

China’s reluctance appears to be the result of its desire both to remain an independent international player, and to ensure that its extensive trade and economic relationships with the West are not endangered. Whether Beijing’s opposition to more concrete forms of strategic cooperation with Russia is weakening could be revealed during an upcoming summit meeting between the Russian and Chinese presidents. That meeting has not yet been scheduled, though reports earlier this year (Itar-Tass, July 6) had suggested it could occur this October. That now seems unlikely. Russian President Boris Yeltsin and Chinese President Jiang Zemin did meet in Bishkek in late August. They used the occasion to reaffirm their strategic partnership and to underscore their belief in the importance of limiting U.S. influence abroad (see the Monitor, August 26).

Bilateral relations between Russia and India, meanwhile, appear to be in an odd sort of holding pattern. Military-technical cooperation between the two countries has continued apace, but a long-delayed visit by Yeltsin to India has still not been scheduled. Russian officials have indicated recently that the summit will take place before the end of the year (Itar-Tass, September 16), but the failure to name a date suggests that problems remain. The visit is an important one insofar as it is to be the occasion for the two countries to formalize their friendly relations by signing a “declaration of Strategic Partnership.” The document was to have been signed nearly a year ago, but, under strange circumstances, the Russian president postponed a planned visit to New Delhi. He sent then Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov to India in his stead. Primakov signed a major military-technical cooperation accord with New Delhi, but the strategic partnership agreement has languished since then.