China-India relations

Russia-India-China meeting shows a multipolar world order is taking shape

C. Uday Bhaskar says this week’s meeting of Russian, Indian and Chinese foreign ministers was not marked by complete agreement, but still reveals the fulfilment of the grouping’s promise – an end to unipolar US dominance

PUBLISHED : Friday, 15 December, 2017, 10:48am
UPDATED : Friday, 15 December, 2017, 5:37pm

The 15th trilateral meeting of the foreign ministers of Russia, India and China concluded in New Delhi on Monday with many nuanced takeaways embedded in the joint statement of 46 paragraphs. Reiterating that the forum “is not directed against any other country”, the statement underlined the importance of the establishment of a “just and equitable international order based on international law and featuring mutual respect, fairness, [and] justice in international relations”.

The grouping has met formally since 2002 at the foreign-minister level and has its origin in the “Primakov triangle”. This author recalls Yevgeny Primakov, the Russian foreign minister who later became its prime minister, visiting Delhi in the mid-1990s and noting the imperative for the three nations to create such a forum.

The great unravelling of a US-led global order

The geopolitical compulsion was the end of the cold war and its changes to the orientations of Moscow, Beijing and Delhi. The global strategic flux was compounded in the early 1990s by domestic turbulence. Beijing was coping with post-Tiananmen fallout; Delhi had a grave fiscal crisis, forcing it to move gold to the UK to remain solvent; and Moscow was shell-shocked by the loss of its empire.

The Primakov extrapolation was that the United States would emerge as the sole superpower after the USSR’s disintegration and a multipolar world order would be more desirable than a unipolar one dominated by US certitude and post-cold war swagger.

The very subtle formulation that one recalls two decades later is the wry observation by Primakov that the success of Russia-India-China cooperation cohering into a credible grouping would depend on the sagacity of their political leadership and their ability to develop a consensual degree of strategic equipoise – both bilaterally and trilaterally.

China’s rise is assured in our new world order, but not as a hegemon

This was tested and displayed in Delhi, where the bilateral meetings and individual statements revealed a subtext rich in strategic import. The fact that the trilateral meeting took place even as Russia declared joint victory with Syria over Islamic State provided the appropriate context to commend Moscow for its counterterrorism initiative and to urge a “Syrian-led, Syrian-owned” solution. The isolation of the US in the UN Security Council over the Jerusalem announcement underscored the dilution of the traditional American leadership role in west Asia.

Almost all the regional hot spots were identified in the Delhi deliberations and both North Korea and Afghanistan figured in the listing. In his remarks, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov favoured including the Taliban in peace negotiations, along with “neighbours who feel the bad influence of what is going on in Afghanistan”.

Is a Primakov consensus slowly emerging?

Whether the Taliban will put their guns down and accept the Afghan constitution is not clear. Pakistan and Iran are neighbours of Afghanistan’s and their inclusion will be at variance with the Indian position.

Candour was on display and Lavrov referred to India’s steadfast opposition to China’s “Belt and Road Initiative” and suggested that a modus vivendi could be explored. But at the same time, he did not endorse Moscow joining the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, the flagship project of the belt and road, and added: “Russia has its own corridors and has large territory for such corridors and connectivity initiatives.”

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This candid tenor continued with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, whose visit to Delhi is significant, for it comes after the tense stand-off between India and China over the Doklam plateau in Bhutan. Wang stated that, from Beijing’s perspective, bilateral ties in 2017 were “not satisfactory” and the “cross-border trespassing of the Indian border guards was a serious test of bilateral relations”.

Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj noted that she and her Chinese counterpart had “frank and forward-looking exchange on a wide-range of issues” – a euphemism to indicate that both sides stuck to their own positions on the Doklam issue.

India’s Defence Minister visits the Nathu La border post in Sikkim in October 2017

The troops may have stepped back, but the China-India dispute in the Himalayas is far from over

The joint-statement retained the “Asia-Pacific” formulation and did not use the “Indo-Pacific” phrase that found generous reference in the more recent Trump-Tillerson statements. While there was no explicit reference to the “Quad” – the four-member grouping of the US, India, Japan and Australia – the statement of the Russia-India-China meeting supported “freedom of navigation and overflight rights based on the principles of international law”.

This is very similar to what the Quad has been advocating – so is a Primakov consensus slowly emerging?

Commodore C. Uday Bhaskar is director of the Society for Policy Studies, New Delhi. [email protected]