The Russia-India-China Trilateral After Ukraine: Will Beijing Take the Lead?
Publication: China Brief Volume: 22 Issue: 16
At the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) foreign ministers’ meeting in late July, which included China, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan, People’s Republic of China (PRC) State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi exhorted member states to uphold the “Shanghai Spirit” (上海精神, Shanghai Jingshen) of mutual trust, mutual benefit, equality, mutual consultations, diverse civilizations, and the pursuit of common development (Gov.cn, July 29). He then presented a “five-point proposal” for building an SCO community “with a shared future” (CGTN, July 30). In doing so, Wang echoed President Xi Jinping’s call in his four-point proposal at the BRICS (Brazil-Russia-India-China-South Africa) summit in June —albeit via a rather elemental poetic allegory of fire, wind, and water –to embark on a “righteous course” toward a shared global future premised on inclusive, comprehensive and close win-win cooperation (Qiushi, June 24). BRICS already has a “Plus” mechanism and is mulling an expansion to include “like-minded” partners.
The PRC’s claim to be advancing a more inclusive model of international relations through SCO, BRICS and other multilateral groupings in which it plays a leading or central role accords with Beijing’s stringent criticism of the West in general, and the U.S. in particular, for unilaterally targeting or isolating states on normative ground (i.e. the “universal values” of liberal democracies). Under Xi, the PRC has promoted its own networks of multilateral and bilateral strategic partnerships as positive-sum correctives to U.S.-led formal alliances, which Beijing consistently asserts drive world politics toward zero-sum competition (China Brief, July 15). This narrative has become even more prominent of late with Beijing’s sharp reaction to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) identification of China as a “systemic challenge” for the first time at the Madrid summit this June, where Indo-Pacific states were invited as observers. As a result, the PRC’s fears of NATO spreading its tentacles in Asia (or a similarly modeled “Asian NATO”) have intensified. Beijing has responded with a series of tirades against NATO referring to the Western security bloc as a “gangster,” a “war machine,” and a “butcher” (Global Times, March 16). Concurrently, however, the language of Xi, Wang and other leaders invokes the Communist Party’s “Chinese characteristics” while ironically addressing diversity in forums that are decidedly multipolar. The key question is: how far will emerging and developing nations with a distaste for the West favor China as an international leader?
It is in this context that China’s recent relentless pursuit of India to join its ranks against what it calls the exclusive cliques, zero-sum games, and “new Cold War” thinking of the U.S. becomes all the more significant (CGTN, November 26, 2021). A rather unexpected consequence of the Ukraine war, wherein China and India maintained a strategic silence toward Russia when the war initially began, is that each state’s respectively cordial relations with Moscow has become a point of concord. What no one would have predicted was that this unwitting support would lead to the point of China enticing India to coalesce forces. What does this mean for the Russia, India, and China (RIC) trilateral? Will the cooperation flounder or proceed under the aegis of the China-led multilateral organizations like the SCO and BRICS?
Changing Global Contours: The RIC Conundrum
The RIC has long been touted as one of the most influential high-level (foreign minister level) trilaterals in Eurasia. It was dubbed “Primakov’s strategic triangle” in deference to the former Russian prime minister who envisioned the concept as an anti-US triad in the late 90s. However, by the time the grouping came into being in the early 2000s (China and India were initially hesitant because of the anti-West connotation), its buzzwords were cooperation, trade, economic expansion, and stability (China Daily, June 2, 2005; Pravda, December 2, 2002).
Over the years, RIC has been continuously showcased as a significant non-Western platform for dialogue and cooperation that was set to shape a new multipolar order (Valdai club, May 14, 2012; China Daily, June 29, 2019). However, the potential was never utilized, although the optics continued to generate attention, as the grouping was bogged down by a range of issues: differing political systems; increasing China-Russia convergence; limited India-Russia economic engagement; growing India-China hostility following Xi’s ascent to power in 2012, which culminated in two significant recent stand-offs along the disputed China-India land border and rising rivalry in the maritime domain; and perhaps the most significant reason, which is India’s embrace of the US-led Indo-Pacific construct that both Russia and China abhor. These factors have certainly combined to limit prospects for trilateral engagement and by extension the development of the RIC format.
Even the Chinese state media narrative around the RIC has only indulged in standard platitudes of strengthening cooperation and jointly facing issues, calling the 2018 and 2019 leaders’ summit meetings “informal”; CGTN’s “2018 in Review” does not even include the 2018 RIC summit, which was held after a gap of 12 years (CGTN, 2018). An interview in the Global Times with Liu Zongyi, a senior fellow of Shanghai Institutes for International Studies, indicates the likely cause of such indifference is India’s strategic partnership with the U.S. and bonhomie with the “Indo-Pacific allies,” as well as residual tensions from the 2017 Doklam faceoff (Global Times, June 26, 2019).
Nevertheless, following the 2020 Galwan border clash and crisis, there was a consistent thread in the Chinese media suggesting that the trilateral had improved India’s “status” in the global arena through association with the “giants” China and Russia, casually appeasing India while also threatening to terminate the trilateral (Global Times, August 27, 2020). In 2020, the three foreign ministers met virtually in June, when the conflict was at its peak, and then gathered in Moscow in September at the behest of Russia, which refused to take side in the fracas and did to an extent, act as a “multilateral balancer” for the two sparring sides (South China Morning Post, January 9). Although these discussions helped calm tensions, the meetings ended without any concrete action plan (Ministry of External Affairs [MEA], September 10, 2020; FMPRC, June 23, 2020; ISPI, March 26). Interestingly, although the Russian side declined to playing any further role as an intermediary, former Global Times Editor-in Chief Hu Xijin, in justifying Russia’s continuing weapon sales to India as not a betrayal of China, claimed that “Russia is actually serving as a mediator in this China-India border conflict” (Business Standard, June 23, 2020; Global Times, September 15, 2020).
For China, the RIC is a means to advance its Eurasian strategy with Russia as a partner, especially as both authoritarian powers are aligned on criticisms of the Quad as an elitist grouping and oppose the “free and open Indo-Pacific” construct (The Strategist, July 1, 2021; The Hindu, November 26, 2021). While this emerges as an area of convergence for Russia-China, it equally becomes a major medium of contact for the Russia-India partnership (The Interpreter, March 3, 2021).
China has sought to build its importance in the RIC over that of India. This will serve two purposes in the present climate: firstly, it would allow China to wield greater power over India vis-à-vis discussions on the Line of Actual Control (LAC). Importantly, by strengthening the Russia-China connection, it may seek to check or limit Moscow’s arms exports to Delhi, thereby limiting India’s defense capabilities, particularly around the LAC. Secondly, it would allow China to market its own Central Asia strategy over that of India’s by using the RIC as a stepping stone to exert greater influence in other forums such as the SCO, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), and BRICS. For this purpose, China will present itself as the more reliable and important partner for Russia, as well as its lifeline against US sanctions (Xinhua, June 17; Business Standard, June 21).
Keeping such a goal in mind, China’s strategic balancing has been delicate. For instance, the AIIB suspended financial activities with Moscow and Belarus in March due to Western sanctions, citing spillover effects (e.g., economic and financial risks to businesses) on its members while extending solidarity with the victims of the Ukraine war without any castigation of Russia (AIIB, March 3). At the same time, strengthening speculations of Yuan (RMB) use in international settlements, Chinese experts have slammed the Western narrative on AIIB as a “smear” campaign, highlighting that the bank is a credible institution whose actions have followed a “market mechanism” that is not intended to “punish” Russia but reduce the risk impact (Global Times, March 4). In this context, China’s balancing strategy may be – at least to some extent – a limiting factor in China-Russia relations and impact their interactions within the RIC strategic triangle.
China’s New Game Plan
Even as the date of the next RIC leaders’ summit remains undecided, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has reiterated Moscow’s belief that the dialogue is essential to building trust between China and India (Tribune, January 15). Although mutual illiberal values have been a viable source for developing ties for years, the Sino-Russian pseudo-coalition is a recent phenomenon that has coalesced as both powers are increasingly enmeshed in intensifying strategic rivalries with the U.S. Such a “friendship of convenience” between strongmen-Putin and Xi has led to a delicate diplomacy on sensitive bilateral issues. For instance, Moscow has wholeheartedly supported China on Huawei’s 5G rollout, Hong Kong, and the COVID-19 pandemic; China while taking a seemingly neutral stand on Ukraine, has repeatedly asserted Russia’s “legitimate concerns,” rallied against NATO, rejected “unilateral sanctions,” and included Moscow in all its multilateral forums (China Daily, July 3, 2020; Moscow Times, June 6, 2019; CGTN, February 23).
Beijing and Moscow do not agree on all international issues. For instance, China does not consider Crimea a legitimate part of Russia, and Moscow maintains neutrality on Beijing’s South China Sea claims (Global Times, March 22, 2014; TASS, June 10, 2016). Hence, in the context of the RIC, China attempts to ensure that such divergences do not impede the otherwise growing Sino-Russian partnership. Owing to Russia’s consistent belief and portrayal that RIC remains viable as it maintains stability between India and China, Beijing has downplayed tensions with India as “low-key” issues, stressing that “common interests far outweigh differences” (China Daily, June 24).
Ultimately, even as China seeks to check the rise of India by asserting economic and military strength, it is taking care to ensure that its efforts to reshape regional and global security architecture are not impacted as a result (Stimson, May 4). For example, China and India have reached a “four point consensus” after 16 rounds of commander-level talks that have recently taken on a more amicable tone that coincides with China’s outreach to India at the SCO and BRICS meetings (People’s Daily, June 29). Thus, by gaining traction in the RIC, China hopes to not only strengthen its relationship with Russia on other platforms, but also to demonstrate to emerging and developing countries that it is a responsible power that, unlike the United States, cooperates effectively even with a traditionally antagonistic strategic competitor like India. Marginalizing or demonizing the US in global affairs and dwarfing the West as a whole is the ultimate ambition.
Will RIC Fade or Come Full Circle?
Until Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, it appeared as if Russia was more invested in the RIC than the other two partners. For India, the RIC has limited attraction as an avenue to increase its linkages to Central Asia, as a tool to manage China, and as a way to responsibly engage with states that are out of favor with much of the international community.
For China, too, the trilateral has limited appeal, particularly as India is unlikely to accept a subordinate role. However, stable relations between India and China—a requisite for the broader Chinese aims for BRICS and the SCO beyond the obvious reasons—serve all three partners.
The Ukraine crisis, however, has renewed interest in revitalizing RIC. A defiant China – which is in the midst of a trade war and growing military rivalry with the U.S.– in concert with a sanctions-ridden Russia is looking to expand their autocratic circle as a consequence of mutual isolation at the hands of the West. A strategic but non-committal India, as an emerging power and a bridge to the West, is essential to this calculus.
Whether this will mean a revival of the RIC remains in question. Earlier this year, Russian foreign ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova reportedly put the onus for organizing the next RIC leaders’ summit on China (Wion, February 28). The Chinese government and the media have been oddly silent on RIC even while stressing the “momentum of recovery” on cooperation with India (China Daily, July 15).
Nonetheless, based on the RIC’s track record of achievements alone, the future of the grouping (even when the original intent is back in play) may have lost its urgency and relevance. The complementarity that the trilateral provides for each of its partners is not unique and can be fulfilled, perhaps more effectively, via organizations like BRICS and the SCO. Beijing has certainly inferred this, and is seeking to build connections with West-wary (as a well as West-weary) states and strengthen the aforementioned platforms, rather than expend unnecessary resources on an outdated trilateral. However, the RIC is unlikely to be scrapped altogether, and will continue to hold regular foreign ministers’ briefings as before with perhaps a smattering of occasional leader-level summits.
Therefore, despite its imperfections and limitations, both India and China are likely to persist with the RIC. Both states have a mutual desire to promote a more multipolar world order and the RIC is a mechanism to coordinate their actions in this regard. While China is intent on preventing India from finding greater synergy with the U.S. (and the Western bloc in general), and India is keen to ensure that the Russia-China partnership does not escalate to greater heights, the RIC is a forum through which both can continue their interactions and look to achieve their goals. Importantly, for India, withdrawing from the RIC would not be a strategically sound move even in the absence of tangible results, for either Russia-India ties, nor its efforts to achieve power-parity with China. India’s participation in the current Vostok exercise is a part of this strategic calculus. Moreover, the RIC trilateral allows both states to leverage their shared friendship with Russia in a bid to manage their border differences. For Russia, the RIC provides an opportunity to engage with two of its closest partners at a time when relations with the West are at a nadir, ensuring that India does not fully embrace entry into the pro-US camp. Hence, the RIC is set to continue; however, whether it is able to reassert its importance remains to be seen.
Jagannath Panda is the Head of the Stockholm Centre for South Asian and Indo-Pacific Affairs at the Institute for Security and Development Policy (ISDP), Sweden. He is a Senior Fellow at The Hague Centre for Strategic Studies, The Netherlands.
Wooyeal Paik is Associate Professor of Political Science and International Studies at the Yonsei University, Seoul.