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RUSSIA- CHINA-INDIA TRIANGLE STRATEGICALLY INADVISABLE: An Analysis

Paper No. 408                                        06/02/2002

by Dr. Subhash Kapila

This paper was the result of a press report which said that the External Affairs spokesperson confirmed that the visiting Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov had mooted a proposal of a triangular relationship of Russia, China and India and that India has "agreed" to the proposal for frequent meetings between Delhi, Moscow and Beijing to coordinate a common position among the three on important international issues.  While Indian interaction with Russia has been consistent at many levels, there is no evidence yet on the ground of any changed relationship with China.  The test of China's sincerity would depend upon, how soon they stop proliferation nexus with Pakistan and how soon they are willing to finalise the so called line of tranquility. And to what end should India agree for a triangular relationship?  It is our view that India should not think of any such triangular relationship at this stage which evidently is directed against USA.   Director

Background: Recent visits of Russian and Chinese leaders to India have once again sparked speculative analysis on the potential and likelihood of the formation of a Russia-China-India triangle.  The formation of such a triangle was earlier advocated by President Yeltsin in 1993 and Prime Minister Primakov in 1996.  Many Russian and Indian academics followed suit in advocating it.

Application of geometric patterns to international relations in terms of axes, triangles and quadrilaterals can be said to be an outdated concept.  It may have been more relevant in the periods preceding and during the Cold War.  Even the leading powers today take care to term any groupings that they devise as ‘coalitions’ and that too for a specified purpose e.g. ‘Gulf War Coalition’ or the present ‘Coalition against Terrorism’.

Russia-China-India Triangle- An Earlier Analysis: This concept stands analysed earlier by this author in 2000 in a paper on India-Russia strategic Cooperation (www.saag.org/papers2/paper144.html) It was argued then that a realistic appraisal of the following factors would indicate that it is politically and more so strategically inadvisable for India to join such a triangle:

* Russia and China perceive USA as a threat and hence this advocacy. India does not perceive USA as a threat

* USA does not pose a threat to India.  On the contrary the USA has pulled the curtain on its special relationship with Pakistan.

* Any power-bloc composed of Russia and China would be seen by Asia Pacific countries as a potential threat.  India cannot therefore be part of an axis/triangle that generates fears in countries which have always been friendly with India.

* China is part of the strategic nexus with Pakistan aimed at India.  How can India be part of a coalition in which two of its potential antagonists are inter-twined?

* China does not treat India as an equal.  How can India be therefore a partner of such a bloc.

* For a Russia-China-India triangle to emerge, China would have to concede India’s pre-eminent status in South Asia.  This would also mean giving up China’s strategic nexus with Pakistan.  China will not do so.

The above analysis was then summed up as "Hence a Russia-China-India triangle is an unworkable proposition besides being strategically inadvisable for India.

Situational Changes Since 2000: Before analysis of the current viability of this concept is resorted to, a look at the situational changes since 2000 are in order:

* September11, 2001 changed the global situation and global equations considerably.  There are no two opinions on a global effort to tackle international terrorism and its particular manifestation in the form of Islamic Jehad.

* The United States military intervention in Afghanistan and displacement of the Taliban has been supported by Russia and implied support given by China.

* Pakistan under coercive diplomatic pressure gave in to United States demands.  It has been ordered to fall in line with American strategic requirements.

* In the above context, Pakistan could not use China as a countervailing factor or as a leverage.

* Russia gave nod to use of Central Asian Republics military facilities to be used by USA for Afghanistan military operations.

* USA-India relations have matured both in the political and strategic fields despite misgivings of American labelling Pakistan as a front-line state and unrestrained praise for its military ruler.

* China had a serious confrontation with USA over the Hainan spy plane incident but ultimately China gave in.

From the above analysis two things emerge clearly: (1) In the foreseable future no serious state of confrontation is visible between the United States and Russia or between United States and China; and (2) USA-India relations despite the Pakistani and Kashmir distractions are on an even keel and moving forward.

The China Factor in a Russia-China-India Triangle: Irrespective of the regional and global security environment, and in the extreme case of the strategic situation, meriting India’s entry into such a triangular relationship, the China factor would bedevil India’s participation.  To facilitate even such an unlikely participation in a triangular relationship, the imperatives are:

* China has to vacate the countervailing strategic space in favour of Pakistan in South Asia.

* China has to concede India’s pre-eminence in South Asia.

* China has to pull back from using South Asia and especially Pakistan’s nuclear and missile build-up both as a leverage against the United States as well as the attempt to reduce India's strategic space.

* China by very visible steps has to assuage India’s misgivings and sensitivities in the context of 1962 and subsequent events.  For China it may be one more border skirmish.  For India it was more than that.

The above is a tall order for China and China may not be all inclined to go through this process.

Alternatives to Triangular Relationships: Triangular relationships arise from convergent interests to meet a common threat.  While Russia and China may perceive United States as a threat, India does not.  So a triangular relationship is out of question.

However, alternatives for greater cooperation exist for Russia-China-India through the forums of the Shanghai Cooperation Council and the ASEAN Regional Forum.  In both China could facilitate India’s greater participation.

Conclusion: India’s strategic relationships and cooperation with United States, Russia and China should be devised and formulated in the form of concentric circles.  India would have intersects which overlaps with one or the other of these three major powers. Keeping in mind India’s potential and aspirations for a major power status, United States, Russia and China too have to concede certain overlaps to India where its national interests are involved.  China in particular has to do this.

India’s national aspirations do not permit triangular relationships.  India requires more cooperative relationships.  India should not as an aspiring major power seem to be seen entering into reactive modes at the cost of long range strategic formulations.  A discussion of the Russia-China-India triangle is not only speculative, but also reactive in content.

(Dr. Subhash Kapila is an International Relations and Strategic Affairs analyst.  He can be reached on e-mail for discussion at esdecom@vsnl.com)

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