US President Barack Obama’s trip to India last month was seen by many as a defining moment in the shifting sands of Asia’s international relations. But although the high-profile visit this week by Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao will offer a further glimpse of where India stands, the real implications of what’s going on are perhaps best understood by contrasting Obama’s trip with another, more low-key meeting that took place in November.
The most recent trilateral meeting of the Russian, Indian and Chinese (RIC) foreign ministersin China’s Wuhan wasn’t just significant because of the sheer combined size of the countries they represented—40 percent of the global population and about 20 percent of its landmass. It was also important because it underscored where India’s future interests likely lay.
The first RIC ministerial meeting was held in New York in 2002, while the first standalone foreign ministers meet was held three years later, in the Russian city of Vladivostok.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Inthe initial meetings to prepare for this year’s get-together, Russia and China suggested that the summit should discuss the possibility of some form of security architecture for the region based on the ‘non-bloc’ principle. Wary of annoying the Americans, though, India decided not to go along with such an adventurous undertaking. As a result, the joint communiqué issued at the end of the meeting merely expressed vague support for a ‘multi-polar, democratic world order based on international law and collective decision-making.’
But there was also an uncomfortable irony for India. While China and Russia had been keen to emphasize a multi-polar order and greater security co-operation, they also refused to take the opportunity at the RIC meeting to offer clear-cut backing for India’s bid for a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council. Instead, India was left holding a joint communiqué that called for ‘reform to make the UN more representative and democratic.’
The failure to back India then was in stark contrast with Obama’s India visit, where he surprised many by announcing his unequivocal support for India as a permanent member of the Security Council in his address to the joint session of the Indian Parliament.
The two events are an interesting sign of the changing times—once reliable supporter Russia apparently wary to press China in support of India’s goal, while the United States, with which India has often had prickly ties, openly flaunted its support.