Analysts around the world (especially in the U.S. and India) are still buzzing about President Barack Obama’s trip to India as the chief guest at the Republic Day parade. The prevailing theory is that India is tilting toward the U.S. in its foreign policy, after decades of keeping Washington at arm’s length under the policy of non-alignment. But it’s important to keep in mind that a friendlier U.S.-India relationship will not automatically translate into a chill in New Delhi’s ties with other regional powers – including China.
As proof of this fact, a week after Obama’s much-feted visit to India, Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj met with her counterparts from China (Wang Yi) and Russia (Sergei Lavrov) in Beijing for the 13th Russia-India-China trilateral foreign ministers’ meeting. The joint statement issued after their meeting agreed that the three countries “need to further strengthen coordination on global issues and practical cooperation.”
The joint statement highlights several areas where Indian, Russian, and Chinese interests continue to converge in ways the U.S. would not approve of. First and foremost, all three countries are keen to see the international order reconfigured to provide rising powers with more voice. “Russia, India and China are determined to build a more just, fair and stable international political and economic order,” the statement said. As a dominant voice in the current system, the U.S. has so far resisted reforms to existing structures, including financial bodies such as the World Bank and IMF.
India also joined China and Russia in calling for “the development of an open, inclusive, indivisible and transparent security and cooperation architecture in the region” – an idea first raised by China during last year’s Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA). Many analysts read China’s proposal as a dig at the current U.S. alliance network, with a corresponding call for a new “Asia for Asians” security network.
The joint statement also touched on agreement among China, Russia, and India on a number of specific issues where the U.S. holds an opposing position – from how to approach crises in Syria and Ukraine to the Chinese-backed vision for “internet sovereignty.” Swaraj noted after the meeting, “As emerging developing countries, China, Russia, and India share similar positions on many global and regional issues.” The three countries also announced that they would set up a new consultative mechanism for Asia-Pacific issues, designed to coordinate their responses to such issues moving forward.
In return for supporting Chinese and Russian positions, India received China and Russia’s blessing for its bid to increase its participation in APEC, a long-time goal for New Delhi. Even more importantly, the joint statement included strong language against terrorism: “The Ministers reiterated that terrorism in all its forms and manifestations committed by whomever, wherever, and for whatever purposes, is a threat to international peace and security, a grave violation of human rights and a crime against humanity.” India has long sought international support in condemning anti-India terrorist activities stemming from Pakistan; China’s help in this regard could be a game-changer. Although India is unlikely to ever receive clear-cut support from China on this issue, Indian media proclaimed the anti-terrorism language, particularly the section voicing joint support for the Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism, as a win for India.
Of course, there are areas of difference between the partners, particularly between China and India. Unresolved border issues linger over that bilateral relationship and India’s new concern for freedom of navigation in the South China Sea is worrisome to Beijing as well. China’s steadfast support for Pakistan is also a major obstacle to smoother India-China ties. Given these concerns, India has been lukewarm about participating in some of China’s more ambitious projects, including the land and sea Silk Road initiatives (an attitude reflected in the language of the joint statement). But areas of difference should not overshadow the areas where India does and will continue to cooperate with Russia and China – even while seeking closer ties with the U.S.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi will visit China in May, where he will doubtless hope to capitalize on the potential that was squandered during Xi’s India visit. When Xi met with Modi in September, an incursion into disputed territory by Chinese troops overshadowed the leaders’ diplomatic efforts. However, Modi continues to voice confidence in the future of India-China ties; in a message delivered to Xi by Swaraj, Modi emphasized that India and China should work together to create an “Asian century.”