Triangular diplomacy at work again with China, India and Russia playing one off against the other
Cary Huang says triangular diplomacy seems to have made a comeback as the three, unlikely allies in a West-dominated global order, try to gain a strategic advantage over each other. A true alliance may be out of reach for now
“Triangular diplomacy”, a term coined by former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger in reference to the confrontation and cooperation between the US, the Soviet Union and China during the cold war, seems to be back again, but in a new form and with new strategic significance.
The strategy explained the informal alliance between Washington and Beijing; US president Richard Nixon and Kissinger managed, 45 years ago, to pit Beijing and Moscow against each other by forging a closer partnership with China.
But relations between China and Russia have steadily improved since the collapse of the Soviet Union, which also resulted in the death of the US-China alliance.
Since US President Donald Trump took office, however, heavyweights like Kissinger, who is now Trump’s foreign policy guru, and geostrategist Zbigniew Brzezinski, have spoken of the necessity to drive a wedge between China and Russia, as a potentially formidable Eurasia alliance is in the making, dubbed RIC, for Russia-India-China.
Advocated by former Russian prime minister Yevgeny Primakov, the RIC is led by an annual forum of foreign ministers, held 14 times since 2002. There are also several trilateral forums, including an experts’ meeting on disaster management, a business forum, and a dialogue involving scholars. However, these meetings have so far failed to be upgraded to summit level, like the G7 or BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa).
The fragile alliance suffered a further setback last month when China rejected a Russian request to hold a trilateral meeting of defence ministers. The proposed meeting would have been held last Tuesday in the Russian capital, a day before the Moscow Conference on International Security, which was attended by Chinese Defence Minister Chang Wanquan (常萬全) and his Indian counterpart Arun Jaitley.
Although they were allies during the two world wars and now find themselves as potential partners in dealing with a world order established by the West, the Eurasian giants share little history, culture, religion, ideology or politics. Instead, they have all along been geostrategic competitors in the region.
Russia, a vast country with 11 times zones touching Asia, the Middle East and Europe, and a powerful military second only to the US’, wants a status rivalling that of the US despite its recent decline. China, the world’s most populous nation and the second-largest economy, wants to revive its historical status as a great power. India, with national conditions similar to China’s but lagging behind in development to its regional peer, wants to compete with its giant neighbour on everything.
Historically, Indo-Russian relations have been far stronger than Sino-Russian and Sino-India relations. Today, while relations between China and Russia are improving, Russia and India have drifted apart, and ties between China and India have also weakened. Meanwhile, China is suspicious of Indo-Russia relations, India is anxious about close Russia-China relations, and China and Russia are also concerned about the recent uptick in Indo-US relations.
Each is trying to exploit the rivalry between the other two to win advantages. That is why even the official Global Times editorialised last month that such a strategic triangle would be “unrealistic” .
To be sure, triangular diplomacy is afoot in Eurasia, comparable to the geostrategic games played between Washington, Moscow and Beijing during the cold war.
Cary Huang is a senior writer at the Post