The Russia-India-China trilateral passed off last week without setting the Ganga on fire, at the end of which all three nations issued an anodyne joint communique that said predictable things about Afghanistan, the fight against the Covid pandemic and reforming global multilateral systems, like the UN Security Council.
Of course, none of the Permanent-Five nations – the US, Russia, China, the UK and France – are about to dilute their own veto powers by allowing other countries into the charmed circle of the UN Security Council. But let’s save a discussion on the merits of the UN for another day.
Nevertheless, the Russia-India-China (RIC) meeting was fascinating — and not just because the screensaver behind External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar’s computer screen was a visual of the Konarak sun temple. The context in which the RIC meeting took place is equally interesting. Let’s start with examining that.
Russia not a junior partner to China
First of all, the RIC interaction comes near the eve of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to India on 6 December; this is the first time that the Russian leader is travelling abroad to another country for a bilateral meeting in person since the pandemic began. (If some of you are wondering then how the Putin summit with US President Joe Biden in the summer in Geneva can be described, the answer is that that was a meeting in a third country, not a bilateral visit.)
It is more than likely that Putin will travel to Beijing for the Winter Olympics in February 2022 – while Biden mulls an official boycott — so his trip to Delhi is significant because he decided to come despite rising Covid cases back home. Apart from the RIC curtain-raiser last week, India and Russia will engage in a 2+2 foreign and defence ministers meeting’, a format first made popular some years ago between India and the US. Alongside, a joint commission meeting will look at upping the trade and economic part of the relationship.
It is interesting that Putin is choosing to take a trip to Delhi because it signals Russia’s abiding interest in the India relationship – notwithstanding the caviling between Jaishankar and Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov on whether the body of water surrounding India should be called the “Indo-Pacific” (as Jaishankar and the US call it) or the “Asia-Pacific” (as Lavrov and China call it).
For all those who say that Russia is becoming a junior partner to China, this is perhaps Putin’s way of saying that greys are far more interesting than either black or white. That the tie between Delhi and Moscow has survived the China-Soviet split as well as the current embrace between Moscow and Beijing and that Russia would like to continue to invest in a strong, powerful and independent-minded India.
Okaying the meeting with China
The second reason for the RIC dialogue’s importance is that Jaishankar was meeting his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi, albeit in a virtual setting, one year after their Moscow encounter when both leaders were said to have come to some sort of understanding on Ladakh. Some observers say that India agreed to buffer zones inside the LAC on India’s side, but there has been no formal announcement on this. In fact, reports of a “Chinese village” in Arunachal Pradesh have only added to the tension with China.
The interesting part is that Jaishankar still went ahead with the RIC meeting. Some would point to the hypocrisy of it, which is that India is talking to a Chinese leader when that Chinese troops are not allowing Indian soldiers to patrol parts of its own territory; others would say that India would have been persuaded to go ahead with hosting the interaction so that all the decks were cleared when Putin comes to town.
Question is, who would have taken the decision? Was it Prime Minister Narendra Modi and National Security Advisor Ajit Doval who decided that there was no shame in India being seen to be bending before the Chinese in hosting the interaction, to dispense with false pride? Was India persuaded by the Russians to do so? Did India decide to go ahead because it wanted to see what the Russians and the Chinese would say publicly?
All in all, it was the right thing to do, not least because it’s a good idea that middling powers like India don’t show their hand too soon.
India’s balancing act
Third, the soporific nature of the RIC meeting also gives India an opportunity to ask what kind of power it wants to be. That’s a question that has haunted it since Independence in 1947 (and probably before) and there’s no better time than to ask it again.
In the good-old days, “non-alignment” was the buzzword that helped New Delhi tide over the weaknesses of its domestic economic strength even as it learnt to negotiate the tortuous and intricate pathways between the two superpowers.
Today, in the post-Cold War world in which China is rising and the US is trying to balance ties between Beijing and Moscow – another virtual summit between Biden and Putin is likely soon – India must also learn to expand its own influence in a variety of directions. A sign of maturity is also learning not to choose, but ably playing all sides.
For example, Delhi’s vote at the UN against a Ukraine-sponsored resolution on human rights violations in Crimea less than a fortnight ago. Some would say that India is protecting its own flanks in Kashmir, but in truth, it is far more than that. As far back as 2014, when Russia took back Crimea – to much sound and fury in the Western world — India had pointed out that Crimea is part of Russia’s sphere of influence.
New Delhi’s growing proximity to the US today is a cause for celebration, but it can also be used as leverage with Moscow – and vice-versa. The China factor is key to that proximity, but what will be interesting is whether New Delhi is able and willing to play the game so as to deepen the fissures between Moscow and Beijing.
Moreover, there is Russia’s readiness to deliver the sophisticated S-400 Triumf missile to India, a clear signal that it wants to deepen the tie. Returning the Kremlin’s affection is easy; both Modi as well as the Russian-speaking Jaishankar (Russian was his language specialisation as a young diplomat) can do that without batting an eyelid.
What will, indeed, invest the Russia-India-China triangle with a frisson of excitement is how India leverages its proximity with Russia to push the envelope both with China as well as the US. Fact remains, whether it’s the “Indo-Pacific” or the “Asia-Pacific”, it is the Indian Ocean. Let all the world come to terms with that.
Jyoti Malhotra is a senior consulting editor at ThePrint. She tweets @jomalhotra. Views are personal.
(Edited by Neera Majumdar)