RIC – A triangle that is still important
Amid the tensions on the Line of Actual Control, the recent virtual meeting of the RIC (Russia, India and China) was held. As the statements had divergent views of the participating members, it calls for assessing the dynamics of RIC grouping as a whole.
- When the RIC dialogue commenced in the early 2000s, the three countries were positioning themselves for a transition from a unipolar to a multipolar world order. It was not an anti-U.S. construct; all three countries considered their relationship with the United States an essential prop to their global ambitions.
- The RIC shared some non-West (as distinct from anti-West) perspectives on the global order, such as an emphasis on sovereignty and territorial integrity, impatience with homilies on social policies and opposition to regime change from abroad. Their support for democratisation of the global economic and financial architecture moved to the agenda of BRIC (with the addition of Brazil).
Stumbling progress of RIC
- As India’s relations with the U.S. surged, encompassing trade and investment, a landmark civil nuclear deal and a burgeoning defence relationship that met India’s objective of diversifying military acquisitions away from a near-total dependence on Russia.
- There was a strategic sub-text: as China was rapidly emerging as a challenger to its global pre-eminence, the U.S. saw value in partnering with a democratic India in Asia. Former U.S. Secretary of State and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice writes about this in her memoirs.
- Transformations in the external environment impacted on these political equations. Among other irritants, China went back on the 2005 agreement, launched the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, worked to undermine India’s influence in its neighbourhood and expanded its military and economic presence in the Indian Ocean.
- The texture of the relationship with Russia also changed, as India-U.S. collaboration widened — in defence and the Indo-Pacific. As U.S.-Russia relations imploded in 2014 (after the annexation/accession of Crimea), Russia’s pushback against the U.S. included cultivating the Taliban in Afghanistan and enlisting Pakistan’s support for it. The western campaign to isolate Russia drove it into a much closer embrace of China — particularly in defence cooperation — than their history of strategic rivalry should have permitted. Thus, the RIC claim of overlapping or similar approaches to key international issues, sounds hollow today.
RIC – Is it relevant today?
- India is in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which is driven by Russia and China and includes four Central Asian countries. Central Asia is strategically located, bordering our turbulent neighbourhood. A sliver of land separates Tajikistan from Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. Pakistan’s membership of SCO and the potential admission of Iran and Afghanistan (as member states) heighten the significance of the SCO for India.
- Growing Chinese influence is testing the informal Russia-China understanding that Russia handles the politico-security issues in the region and China extends economic support. It is important for India to shape the Russia-China dynamics in this region, to the extent possible. The Central Asian countries have signalled they would welcome such a dilution of the Russia-China duopoly.
- The bilateral arms of the India-Russia-China triangle will also remain important. The defence and energy pillars of India’s partnership with Russia remain strong. Access to Russia’s abundant natural resources can enhance our materials security. With China too, we have to work bilaterally and multilaterally on a range of issues, even while firmly protecting our interests on the border, in technology and the economy.
Indo-Pacific – The major issue
- For India, it is a geographic space of economic and security importance, in which a cooperative order should prevent the dominance of any external power.
- China sees our Indo-Pacific initiatives as part of a U.S.-led policy of containing China. Russia’s Foreign Ministry sees the Indo-Pacific as an American ploy to draw India and Japan into a military alliance against China and Russia.
- While the current India-China stand-off may have intensified calls for India to fast-track partnership with the U.S, it is an exceptional objective and not a silver bullet.
- National security cannot be fully outsourced. India’s quest for autonomy of action is based on its geographical realities, historical legacies and global ambitions — not a residual Cold War mindset.
- As far as the Indo-Pacific issue is concerned, India’s focus on economic links with the Russian Far East and activation of a Chennai-Vladivostok maritime corridor may help persuade Russia that its interests in the Pacific are compatible with our interest in diluting Chinese dominance in the Indo-Pacific; this also accords with President Putin’s concept of a Greater Eurasia.
- Post-COVID19 may change the dynamics altogether and there should be a careful assessment of the situation before writing off the RIC.