Sreeram Chaulia: Russia-China-India “Strategic Triangle”

02 China, 03 India, 06 Russia
Sreeram Chaulia
Sreeram Chaulia

A new power triangle

The relative decline of America’s military, economy and soft power has led to new possibilities for restructuring leadership. Russia, India and China have been grasping at these new horizons.

The Asian Age, 22 October 2013

Two back-to-back diplomatic summits this week between India and Russia, followed by India and China, are manifestations of an altered world order where major non-Western actors are pooling resources and strategies. Although Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s meetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping are exclusive of each other and bilateral, they play into a broader dynamic of intensifying linkages and coordination that has ushered in a world with multiple power centres.

While the Brics (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) formulation has captured attention over the last decade, a parallel “RIC” grouping comprising just Russia, India and China has existed since 1996. RIC was the first front that sparked questioning about the unipolar, US-dominated international system of the post-Cold War years. More explicitly anti-American coalitions like the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) arrived after RIC had sown the seeds of a multipolar world.

At the time of its founding, RIC sounded like bravado with no concrete basis to challenge an American-dictated world. But the relative decline of the US military (exemplified by its defeats in Iraq and Afghanistan), the US economy (since the financial crisis of 2008) and US soft power (its form of governance and conduct in world affairs have lost attraction) has thrown open new possibilities for restructuring leadership and steering international affairs. Russia, India and China — each in varying degrees— have been grasping at these new horizons.

Russia, whose economic interdependence with the US and exposure to Western commercial exchanges are the least among the trio of RIC, is the most consistent critic of Washington’s foreign policy. Mr Putin articulated the case for moving on from an American-led dispensation by writing in a much-cited New York Times article that “millions around the world see America not as a model of democracy but as relying solely on brute force.”

Russia’s forceful diplomacy to avert a direct American military attack on Syria has lent weight to the general sense that the US is no longer the sole arbiter of key international conflicts. Even as Russian economic growth has stumbled lately, the boldness with which Mr Putin has emerged as a power broker and problem solver has come at the expense of a US whose own economy is in shambles.

Compared to Russia, China is economically enmeshed with the US and hence quieter in its anti-American posturing. However, China makes up for its verbal reticence in frontally attacking the US through other means, viz. aid and energy diplomacy to challenge American influence in Africa and Latin America, and a steady campaign to overthrow the hegemony of the US dollar as the global reserve currency.

Last month, the Chinese Renminbi or Yuan entered the league of the world’s 10 most traded currencies, jumping from number 35 to number nine in the standings in less than one decade. At such a dizzying speed of ascent — provided China liberalises its capital account, issues Yuan-denominated sovereign debt, and universalises trading agreements that are Yuan-based — the Renminbi could rise to number one by 2020.

America’s high and worsening debt-to-GDP ratio and its serialised horror show of domestic political wrangling over budgets and spending have, in the words of US President Barack Obama, “encouraged our enemies and emboldened our competitors.” The most emboldened of all competitors is China, whose state-run Xinhua news agency recently issued a clarion call for a “de-Americanised world” whose cornerstone would be “introduction of a new international reserve currency that is to be created to replace the dominant US dollar.” Nonetheless, the entrenched economic symbiosis between China and the US means that Beijing cannot be as stridently anti-American as Moscow is.

India is the farthest within the RIC triangle from going on an offensive against the US’ position and performance in world affairs. Although multipolarity is an official pursuit of the Government of India, many of its elites nurse a somewhat time-warped notion that America is still the “sole superpower” and that we need its partnership to counterbalance the Chinese threat to our borders and to our rise in Asia.

Indian power consciousness has crawled slowly from a sub-continental to a larger continental Asian mindset, implying that it still does not envisage a global foothold and force projection. The chances of India colliding with the US outside Asia are presently low because New Delhi limits its strategic ambit and asset deployment to its own expanded neighbourhood and does not think in terms of worldwide sway, unlike Beijing and Moscow.

Yet, India is a participant in some ambitious new ideas that cement multipolarity and work against American preferences. For instance, Mr Putin’s dream of a “Eurasian Union” that would forge a common economic front of all the former Communist bloc states, is viewed by New Delhi as an opportunity for us to associate with for expanding our exports in Central Asia and beyond. Where concrete material gains are in the offing, India has not kowtowed to American will, which is absolutely negative towards the Eurasian Union concept.

In 2012, the then US secretary of state Hillary Clinton bluntly revealed that America is “figuring out effective ways to slow down or prevent” the Eurasian Union from materialising. Undeterred, the Kremlin disclosed on the eve of Prime Minister Singh’s visit to Russia this week that India will be engaging in talks to “develop privileged strategic links with the Eurasian Union.”

Similarly, India has invested in building the International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC) that can open a land trade route from South Asia to Europe via Iran, Russia and Central Asian space. This project is expected to intersect and connect with China’s “New Silk Road” blueprint, which, in turn, is a challenge to the US’ separate scheme of reviving the ancient Silk Road by keeping Iran out.

Despite remaining ambivalent about attenuating American power, India is enacting its own role in the RIC strategic triangle by joining economically beneficial multilateral initiatives which may hurt American interests. Dr Singh’s latest bilateral visits to Russia and China contain plenty of nitty-gritty deliverables on energy, trade and defence cooperation. One could get lost in the density of details contained in these specific agreements and lose sight of how the sum total of interactions in this triangle is reshaping the world.

The writer is dean at the Jindal School of International Affairs