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Mainstream, Vol XLV No 47

A Velvet Divorce in China

Wednesday 14 November 2007, by M K Bhadrakumar


Beijing thoughtfully chose a sub-provincial city on the banks of the Songhua River in the far northeast corner of China as the setting for the third “stand alone” trilateral meeting with Russia and India at the Foreign Ministers’ level, which China last month hosted for the first time.

Harbin, nicknamed “Moscow of the Orient”, is a city with which Russia and its culture has been long and intimately associated. A foreigner travelling on the Trans-Siberian Railway in the late 1980s would blink in disbelief when on the sixth day of his departure from Moscow, he would arrive in Harbin and be told he was in China. The St Basil’s Church in the town centre, a replica of the ensemble on Moscow’s Red Square; Harbin’s Russian cuisine; even the local dialect laden with Russian words—all these would remind the traveller of the White Russian emigré community that flocked to the city, fleeing from the fury of the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917.

Beijing made a subtle point about the unprecedented closeness that today characterises Sino-Russian relations. On the sidelines of the trilateral meet, Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi took time out with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov to inaugurate a new memorial to the Soviet soldiers who fell in northeastern China in World War II in 1945, fighting “militarist Japan’s attack on China ... as the occupiers were being driven out from Chinese territory”.

Lest the political symbolism be lost on anyone, Lavrov said at the ceremony: “There are figures in some countries who are trying to rewrite history.” The dig at Japan was obvious—a country that is increasingly bonding with India on issues of Asian security. There is also a flip side to it. The fact is, in the curious tango—involving the bear, the dragon and the elephant—New Delhi finds itself distinctly apart of late from Moscow and Beijing on issues of Asian and global security and stability.

The Russia-China-India trilateral format might have been in the first instance Moscow’s idea, but the Kremlin no more ascribes for itself the role as a catalyst fostering Sino-Indian understanding. What emerges is that Russia has been far more successful in coming to terms with China’s rise than India has been. The Harbin meet brought out that the trilateral format finds itself more than ever a coolly pragmatic arrangement, though the Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman made a valid point that “the platform for dialogue in this format in itself [becomes] an important factor of political processes in the contemporary world”.

Iran Sanctions Divisive

The trilateral strategic dialogue was put to the litmus test, in fact, within 48 hours of the Harbin meet. And it promptly failed the test. Hardly had the three Foreign Ministers got back to their respective capitals than the George W. Bush Administration announced a regime of unpre-cedented sanctions against Iran, branding Iranian security bodies as sponsors of international terrorism and virtually making Iran an enemy country under US law.

It was precisely the sort of “unilateralist” move in the conduct of international affairs that the trilateral Russia-China-India format apparently strives to condemn. The Harbin meet’s joint comm-unique had just emphasised that “globalisation has brought about closer interrelation and interdependence among all nations, and that multilateralism and collective action should be promoted in addressing urgent issues and meeting new challenges and threats”.

More important, the three Foreign Ministers had just underlined that “the United Nations is the most representative and authoritative international organisation” to deal with problems and challen-ges facing the world community. It ought to be crystal-clear that the Bush Administration once again sidestepped the UN.

Unsurprisingly, Russia and China were quick off the mark in criticising the US move. But India kept mum. There is a delightful irony here. The Chinese and Russian Foreign Ministers at Harbin had just reiterated that they attach “importance to the status of India in international affairs and understand and support India’s aspirations to play a greater role in the United Nations”. Either the two Foreign Ministers didn’t quite understand their Indian counterpart’s “aspirations” properly, or New Delhi has developed cold feet in raising its voice against the Bush Administration. The latter seems to be the case.

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh recently described Bush as the “friendliest” US President that India ever came across. Delhi is understandably nervous that the negotiations over India’s nuclear deal with the US are at a delicate stage. Delhi wouldn’t want to annoy the powerful Israeli lobby in the US, which is clamouring for regime change in Iran. On the balance-sheet, therefore, Delhi shrewdly estimates that relations with Tehran are inconsequential for the present in comparison with what the nuclear deal has to offer.

Both Beijing and Moscow pointed out that Bush’s latest move against the regime in Tehran would only complicate the resolution of the Iran nuclear issue. While Beijing expressed its disapproval of the US move, Moscow vociferously condemned it. The Russian Foreign Ministry statement pointed a finger at US unilateralism and warned: “We either work together and make joint decisions, or else this interaction [within the framework of the ‘Five plus One’—permanent UN Security Council members plus Germany] will be devoid of any sense.”

Commenting on the issue during a visit to Portugal, Russian President Vladimir Putin was even sharper: “Why exacerbate the situation now, pushing it towards deadlock and threatening sanctions and military actions? I do not think that running round like a madman with a razor, brandishing it in all directions, is the best way to resolve problems of this kind.”

Trilateral Format Unravels

Disharmony over the Iran nuclear issue—or, rather, the varying priorities of relationship with the US—vividly brings out the limits of the Russia-China-India trilateral format. The Harbin Communique had a quaint little phrase capturing the essence of the moment. The trilateral cooperation, the Communique said, “seeks to broaden common ground amidst divergent interests”. (The chaste English makes one suspect it was an Indian formulation.)

But how this is achievable—being strategic partners while pursuing “divergent interests”— remains unclear. Yet, it lies at the root of the dilemma facing the three countries. This is an altogether new formulation that didn’t figure in the two “stand alone” meetings at the Foreign Minister’s level in the trilateral format—in June 2005 in Vladivostock and in February 2007 in New Delhi.

On closer examination, it becomes clear that in the period since the Vladivostock meet, the Russia-China-India trilateral format has undergone a qualitative change of steady erosion. Contrary to the usual tendency for such multilateral processes to gain traction with the passage of time, the opposite seems to be happening. At Harbin, the process visibly slumped.

The Vladivostock Communique said: “India, Russia and China share a common approach to key global developments in the 21st century and favour a democratisation of international relations aimed at building a just world order based on the observance of international law, equity, mutual respect, cooperation and progress toward multipolarity.”

However, by the time the three countries met in New Delhi in February, this had already undergone a dilution and had become a “conviction that democratisation of international relations is the key to building an increasingly multipolar world order based on principles of equality of nations—big or small—respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity of countries, international law and mutual respect”. (Emphasis added)

The Harbin Communique now takes an altogether new perspective when it says: “The development of China, Russia and India is a major contribution to peace and development of the region and the world and is beneficial to the process of global multipolarity. The three countries have chosen their respective development paths in accordance with their domestic situation and past experience ... With their continuous development and growing role in international affairs, China, Russia and India will further contribute to world peace, security, stability and prosperity.”

That is to say, the three countries have opted to make their respective independent choices in international life in terms of their unique circumstances, while it is hoped that their role in world affairs will increase. But what happens to their “common approach”, which they underscored in Vladivostock as their leitmotif?

Asian Security Perceptions

The Harbin meet brings out that on the vital issues of Asian security, Russia and China share common perceptions, while India finds itself standing at some distance from its two partners. The first issue concerns the deployment of the US’ missile defence systems in Asia. On the eve of the Harbin meet, in a media interview, Lavrov stressed Russia’s shared concerns with China over Japan’s cooperation with the US over the missile defence programme.

He said: “We are opposed to the construction of missile defence systems aimed at securing military superiority. Deploying this kind of system may spur an arms race on a regional and global scale. The foundations of strategic stability

are thus undermined, leading to a growth of unpredictability in this hugely important sphere of maintaining global equilibrium.”
Lavrov put a question mark about the “real aim” of Japan and the US and he went on to point out: “Many experts suggest that such a missile defence system, being an element of the American global missile shield, could as well be used against Russian and Chinese strategic arms.”

Later, at a joint press conference with his Russian and Indian counterparts, Yang similarly criticised the US plans for deployment of the missile defence system in Central Europe, saying this would not only not ease global security concerns, but would undermine the global strategic balance. In contrast, Indian Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee simply maintained that India had no plans for cooperation with the US missile defence system. He stonewalled. He wouldn’t be drawn into any criticism of the US plans.

The problem for Russia and China is that the Indian position remains ambivalent. To be sure, there is as of now no cooperation as such on the part of India with the US’ missile defence system, which is still under development. But the Indian Government continues to discuss with the US
the scope of such cooperation. In statements in the Indian Parliament, the government has acknowledged that such discussions are going on with the Pentagon. A visiting senior official from the US Department of Defence plainly stated in New Delhi recently that India should go for the US missile defence system as it would give India the capability to effectively counter the Chinese missile threat.

Second, from the Chinese and Russian point of view, an equally serious issue is Japan’s growing militarisation within the framework of the US-Japan military alliance. On the eve of his arrival in Harbin, Lavrov took particular exception to the joint decision by Washington and Tokyo to broaden the scope of their military alliance to cover regional and global security.

He said that for security cooperation to be viable, it should work in collaboration with “other regional structures and leading regional players” and it should be “synchronised with collective efforts to maintain security in the region”. Lavrov warned that Japan’s militarisation may “entail adverse consequences for regional stability” and would evoke an appropriate Russian response.

Third, Lavrov also spoke out on the rationale of the new “military-political triangle” in the Asia-Pacific region involving the US, Japan and Australia. Lavrov left out any direct reference to India, though the import of what he stated couldn’t be lost on New Delhi. India has been participating in a “strategic dialogue” with these three countries in the Asia-Pacific. India recently held a large-scale naval exercise with them in the Bay of Bengal—India’s first-ever military exercise in a multilateral format, involving US aircraft carriers and submarines.

Lavrov criticised that such a “closed format” in the Asia-Pacific (Indian strategic analysts whimsically label it as a “quadripartite alliance” or an “Asian NATO”) cannot be conducive to regional stability. He said: “A closed format for military and political alliances raises questions among neighbouring countries not party to them as to what these alliances are actually being created for and against whom.”

Russian-Indian Disharmony

Lavrov virtually echoed the Chinese diplomatic démarche a few months ago aimed at Washington, Tokyo, Canberra and New Delhi about the raison d’etre of their strategic dialogue. He went on to rubbish the new alliance format in the Asia-Pacific as “a counterproductive approach which will not be able to increase trust in the region, and most likely will bring about results that are opposite to the expectations of the participants in such schemes”.

Lavrov further echoed Beijing’s thinking when he roundly criticised Japan for its concept of an “arc of freedom and prosperity” in Asia-Pacific (an idea that former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe robustly expounded while addressing the Indian Parliament in August). Lavrov advised Tokyo to properly assimilate what happened in Iraq, and “take a rest from ideology and concentrate instead on understandable, real-life interests”. He warned that Japan’s pursuit of relations with the countries of the so-called arc should not “encroach upon the interests of others” in the region.

It is extremely significant that Lavrov hit out on these lines even as the US, Japan, Australia and India were reportedly getting together for a fourth round of their newfound strategic dialogue. According to the Japanese, there is even a move to raise the format to the ministerial level.

Never before, perhaps, in the saga of India-Russia relations has such a serious contradiction appeared in their respective perceptions over Asian security. Moscow has virtually implied that it squarely places itself on the side of Beijing in any US-sponsored “containment” strategy toward China. From the tenor of Lavrov’s exhaustive comments, it is clear that New Delhi has a lot of homework to do by way of carefully reassessing the pros and cons of getting deeper into its format involving the US, Japan and Australia.

What must be understood is that at the root of the potential India-Russia discord lies the two countries’ respective perceptions of China’s rise. Like India, Russia realises that China’s influence in Asia-Pacific has grown in impressive terms over the recent period. Russia has taken note of an optimistic and confident China, which in the past year or two in particular has begun displaying a new strategy and a new understanding of Asian security in terms of trade and economic cooperation based on China’s capacity to contribute to Asia’s overall prosperity. Clearly, the economic situation in Asia would no longer look good without China.

But the Russian and Indian assessments of the import of this diverge insofar as Russia doesn’t see that China’s stronger regional influence in any way weakens Russian influence. On the contrary, Moscow estimates that China’s bigger role in Asia increases Russia’s influence there. This will become more so, from the Russian point of view, as regional cooperation within the framework of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation gains momentum and the multi-layered military-technical cooperation programmes between Russia and China get more closely linked. As a Russian commentator wrote recently, “China’s success [in Asia] has not left anyone empty-handed.”

This, of course, is not the sole factor behind the weakening of the Russia-China-India trilateral format as apparent at the Harbin meet. Two other factors must be counted. First, the gradual shift in Indian foreign policy, especially during the past two to three years under the present government in Delhi, towards placing primacy on its strategic partnership with the US, has begun to be noticed in Moscow. Not that it came entirely as a surprise.

Moscow is, historically speaking, not unaware that the natural choice of the English-speaking political elite in Delhi has always been its sense of affinity with the West and it was the West that was not prepared to accommodate India in the Cold War period. Moscow could as well have anticipated that in the present era of globalisation, the West would inevitably take a good second look at India. Equally, Russia is no stranger to Asiatic mentality and would see what was so apparent, namely, that the growing migration of the upper caste Indians to North America would eventually compel the Indian elite to move close to the US.

But, Moscow was inclined until recently to trust India’s capacity to maintain an independent foreign policy, even if pragmatism required close proximity with the US in the post-Cold War era. It appears Moscow has lately begun wondering whether, alas, India is genuinely embarking on a path of becoming America’s ally.

Moscow is also aware that in comparison, Delhi has allowed Russian-Indian relations to lapse into a state of masterly inactivity in the recent past. Economic relations have remained stagnant. People-to-people relations have atrophied and political exchanges have lost their fizz. Military cooperation has run into problems. Moscow must have begun sensing that India’s nuclear deal with the US provides the perfect backdrop for the US to enter the Indian arms market in a major way and to establish inter-operability between the armed forces of the two countries. This will indeed mean the erosion of Russia’s traditional role as India’s arms supplier.

What is particularly disconcerting for Moscow is that the US-Indian strategic partnership and the steady gravitation of India to US geostrategy is taking place at a time when US-Russia relations continue to deteriorate. A genuinely non-aligned India, which in its national interests is forging close ties with the US—that is something that Russia would have no problems with. But Russia has a problem reconciling with the idea of an India that is under compulsion to harmonise its foreign policy with US global strategies, as increasingly seems to be the case.

Meltdown in Sino-Indian ties

Equally, the strains in India’s relations with China in the recent period have begun casting a shadow on the trilateral Russia-China-India format. The optimism apparent during the period from 2000 until 2005 about a possible breakthrough in Sino-Indian relations has ebbed away. China too perceives that the US is drawing “India in as a tool for its global strategic pattern”, though China still likes to say it believes that “India’s DNA doesn’t allow itself to become an ally subordinate to the US, like Japan or Britain”.

In sum, both Russia and China will carefully gauge how India’s nuclear deal with the US and its rapidly growing strategic partnership with the US could come to affect the strategic balance in Asia. On its part, India has become more than ever determined that its participation in the trilateral format involving Russia and China must in no way cause misgivings in the American mind to the effect that an Asian concert is gearing up to challenge US global strategies.

In Harbin, Yang signalled that China is prepared to wait for India, and is in no hurry. He gave a positive spin in his capacity as the host, though, when he said: “Trilateral cooperation has achieved important progress ... consensus on international issues is gradually increasing, pragmatic exchanges and cooperation in economic and other fields is gradually developing in recent years. The trilateral meeting has already become a key platform for all the three countries to enhance mutual political trust, expand exchanges and cooperation.”

Yang also said the trilateral cooperation was of “great potential and wide prospects” and therefore it was of “great necessity” to strengthen such cooperation. Lavrov remained by far the most optimistic. Expanding on Yang’s optimism, he said: “The platform of the troika is truly becoming
one more point of mutual attraction of our countries and one tool for developing our mutually advantageous cooperation.” He stressed the
three countries’ common positions on “such principled issues as bolstering the UN’s role and the multilateral approach in world affairs, the necessity of recognising the realities of multipolarity, democratising international rela-tions and tackling all current problems in the world by collective means”.

What stood out was Mukherjee’s reticence at the press conference, where he manifestly played down the import of the trilateral format by stating that the Harbin meeting merely facilitated an exchange of views on regional and international issues. He said the format “improves mutual understanding and trust” with regard to the common challenges of regional conflicts, terrorism, narco-trafficking, underdevelopment, poverty and climate change as well as about developing “sectors of common business interest” and about “cooperation in areas such as agriculture, disaster mitigation and public health”.

Mukherjee summed up the Harbin meet as a “very useful interaction”. He sidestepped thorny issues such as multipolarity or unilateralism. He made sure he didn’t get anywhere near using problematic expressions such as “double standards” either.

Former Russian Prime Minister and prominent Orientalist Yevgeny Primakov couldn’t have anticipa-ted such a disparate outcome when a decade ago he first mooted the idea of the Russia-China-India trilateral format during a visit to New Delhi.

(Courtesy: Asia Times)

M. K. Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for more than 29 years, with postings including India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-98) and to Turkey (1998-2001).

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