Calls for a westward shift in India’s foreign policy appear misplaced as engagement with Russia and China still does matter.
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Recently India decided to attend a virtual meeting of the Foreign Ministers of Russia, India, and China (RIC).
India’s External Affairs Minister pointedly emphasized that for a durable world order, major powers should respect international law and recognize the legitimate interest of partners.
Amid the tensions on the Line of Actual Control with China, the dominant calls were for a more decisive westward shift in India’s foreign policy. However, a RIC meeting seemed incongruous in this setting.
About Russia-India-China (RIC) grouping
It is a strategic grouping that first took shape in the late 1990s under the leadership of Yevgeny Primakov, a Russian politician as “a counterbalance to the Western alliance.”
It was founded on the basis of ending its subservient foreign policy guided by the USA and renewing old ties with India and fostering the newly discovered friendship with China.
The RIC countries occupy over 19% of the global landmass and contribute to over 33% of global GDP.
Objectives: They emphasised on the need to promote multilateralism, reform institutions of global governance like the UN and the WTO and highlighted the need to work together to steer global economic governance.
Initial years of RIC dialogue
Transition from a unipolar to a multipolar world order
It was not an anti-U.S. construct and all three countries considered their relationship with the United States an essential prop to their global ambitions.
The grouping shared some non-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 the democratization of the global economic and financial architecture moved later to the agenda of BRIC (with the addition of Brazil).
The initial years of the RIC dialogue coincided with an upswing in India’s relations with Russia and China.
The advent of President Vladimir Putin reinforced the political, defense, and energy pillars of the India-Russia strategic partnership.
With China, the 2003 decision to bring a political approach to the boundary dispute and to develop other cooperation, encouraged a multi-sectoral surge in relations.
An agreement in 2005, identifying political parameters applicable in an eventual border settlement, implicitly recognized India’s interests in Arunachal Pradesh.
Subtext to India-US ties
Simultaneously, India’s relations with the U.S. also surged, encompassing trade and investment.
There was also a landmark civil nuclear deal and a burgeoning defense relationship that met India’s objective of diversifying military acquisitions away from a near-total dependence on Russia.
Change in relationship with China
China went back on the 2005 agreement, launching the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.
It also worked to undermine India’s influence in its neighborhood and expanded its military and economic presence in the Indian Ocean.
Change in relationship with Russia
The texture of the relationship with Russia also changed, as India-U.S. collaboration widened in defense 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 later on enlisting Pakistan’s support for it.
The western campaign to isolate Russia drove it into a much closer embrace of China particularly in defense cooperation — than their history of strategic rivalry should have permitted.
Therefore, the RIC claim of overlapping or similar approaches to key international issues, sounds hollow today.
Relevance of RIC today
With respect to Central Asian region
Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) driven by Russia and China: India is in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and it also includes four Central Asian countries.
Central Asia is strategically located, bordering India’s turbulent neighborhood.
Pakistan’s membership of SCO and the potential admission of Iran and Afghanistan (as member states) in the future heighten the significance of the SCO for India.
Thus it is important for India to shape the Russia-China dynamics in this region, to the extent possible.
The ongoing India-Iran-Russia project for a sea/road/rail link from western India through Iran to Afghanistan and Central Asia, is an important initiative for achieving an effective Indian presence in Central Asia, alongside Russia and China.
Defense and energy partnership
The bilateral arms of the India-Russia-China triangle will also remain important.
The defense and energy pillars of India’s partnership with Russia remain strong.
Access to Russia’s surplus natural resources can enhance our material security.
Main issue of Indo-Pacific
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 Beijing.
Russia also sees the Indo-Pacific as an American ploy to draw India and Japan into a military alliance against China and Russia.
However, 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.
Careful assessment of India’s foreign policy
India needs to realize that 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.
Cooperation during the pandemic
RIC dynamics are sensitive to the configuration of the U.S.-Russia-China triangle. This configuration changed in 2008 (the global economic crisis) and again in 2014 (Crimea’s accession to Russia).
COVID-19 pandemic could also trigger another change, which could be modulated by the outcome of the U.S.