Features | Diplomacy

After Galwan Valley Standoff, Does the Russia-India-China Trilateral Still Matter?

The latest border clash between China and India highlights that Russia’s dream for the trilateral grouping has always been doomed to failure.

By Aleksei Zakharov for
After Galwan Valley Standoff, Does the Russia-India-China Trilateral Still Matter?

The Russia-India-China trilateral meeting between (from left) Russian President Vladimir Putin, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and Chinese President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of G-20 Summit 2019 in Osaka, Japan, June 28, 2019.

Credit: Indian Ministry of External Affairs

The China-India standoff at the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in the Himalayas emerged as a serious test for Russia’s policy in Asia. Nurturing hopes for stability and prosperity in Eurasia, Russia’s diplomacy found itself in an intricate situation and forced to strike a balance.

Despite Moscow’s close proximity to Beijing, the Russia-China connection is still far from an alliance relationship, as both sides, even while deepening their military and political cooperation, often disagree when it comes to specifics. Still, it is hard to deny that overall Russia’s “pivot to Asia” has been overly dependent on its China policy. Unlike the glory days of Indo-Soviet friendship, today there is more room for doubt in New Delhi as to whether Russia can qualify as a shoulder to lean on.

Since India and China are both strategic partners, Moscow quite expectedly has been following a very cautious approach toward their border crisis. Until the beginning of June, Russian officials did not comment on the standoff at all, apparently trying to clarify the situation – since neither New Delhi nor Beijing had officially elaborated on the developments at the LAC.

On June 2, Russian Ambassador to India Nikolay Kudashev met Indian Foreign Secretary Harsh V. Shringla to discuss “key regional and international issues.” The meeting followed a statement from the Russian Embassy in India that both sides will be able “to find way out” of the crisis using “dedicated specific mechanisms and tools… including hotlines, special representatives dialogue, and even informal summits.” Moscow’s position was also articulated by Konstantin Kosachev, the chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Federal Assembly, who stated that “Russia should not interfere in these kinds of disputes… and would encourage dialogue and prevent the use of military force.”

After the June 15 clash between Indian and Chinese troops, Russia has been extraordinarily active at multiple diplomatic levels. Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, the Ministry of Foreign Affair’s spokesperson Maria Zakharova, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, as well as officials from the Russian Embassy in India each commented on the incident, expressing hope for de-escalation. On June 17 there was also a phone call discussion of the situation at the LAC between Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Igor Morgulov and Indian Ambassador to Russia D.B. Venkatesh Varma, but that conversation was held at the Indian side’s initiative. Notably, during the same period there were no interactions between Russian and Chinese officials, nor has there been any references to the standoff by Russia’s Embassy in China.

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Presumably, part of Russia’s diplomatic efforts could be behind-the-scenes. Some media mentioned Moscow’s “discreet moves” to defuse the India-China tensions, but Lavrov, during his press conference after the Russia-India-China videoconference, stated that he did not see “any reason for Russia or anyone else to impose its services to help India and China.” In fact, no particular Russian attempt to settle the crisis has come into public knowledge, though Moscow’s interest in ensuring peace between New Delhi and Beijing is quite obvious.

It is believed in Moscow that regional security and stability in Eurasia, to a wide extent, hinges on the interactions inside the New Delhi-Moscow-Beijing triangle. Accordingly, this trilateral is regarded as a key platform for many Russian foreign policy initiatives, from nuclear nonproliferation to international terrorism and drug trafficking. That is to say nothing of Moscow’s “Greater Eurasian Partnership” – a geopolitical concept unveiled by President Vladimir Putin four years ago. Such regional mechanisms as that Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), and Russia-India-China (RIC) are viewed as an integral part of this construct. In case of the serious rift in New Delhi-Beijing relations, Russia’s vision for “Greater Eurasia,” having received limited enthusiasm from the partners so far, is likely to crumble as well. Beyond that, the healthy functioning of BRICS is also largely dependent on its R-I-C component.

Recent analysis by Russian leading thinkers resonates with decision-makers. There is a consensus that Moscow should seek to preserve strategic autonomy in this increasingly bipolar world. In their report on ideas for the new Russian foreign policy, the team of respected scholars from the Higher School of Economics headed by Professor Sergey Karaganov suggested that in the current scenario Russia should become the leader of a new “non-aligned movement” and hence, it is imperative to cooperate with India in order for this movement to become united. Outlining a more regional perspective, the director of Carnegie Russia, Dmitry Trenin, argues that “Russia’s strategic goal is to upgrade its relations with India to the level of its relations with China” as this relationship will provide Moscow with a much-needed geopolitical equilibrium in Eurasia. These views testify to the growing apprehension in Moscow of the need to avoid sliding into a role as Beijing’s “junior partner” and to highlight India’s increasingly significant role in Russia’s geopolitical calculations.

The fact that the RIC videoconference was held a week after the Galwan Valley incident is a mere coincidence. The meeting was initially scheduled for March 22, but delayed due to COVID-19 outbreak; just a few days before the clash at the LAC the videoconference was prepared for June 22. It was important for Moscow to organize the trilateral against the backdrop of the upcoming summits of BRICS and SCO, which Russia is to host in St. Petersburg this autumn. That the Indian and Chinese foreign ministries agreed to proceed with the meeting indicates that Russia is in a good position as a comfortable partner to both countries.

Yet, some persistent questions concerning RIC’s viability remain. What is there to this format beyond symbolism? Is it just a talk shop? What are the outcomes of the trilateral meetings?

Like many other multilateral forums, RIC provides the top diplomats of each country with an additional opportunity to express their respective foreign policy visions and discuss some common threats and issues. After all, the task of a diplomat is to talk and find points of convergence, even with tricky partners. The regularity of meetings, even at times of disputes, is often perceived to underline the enduring relevance of a grouping. Moreover, following the Russian initiative, since 2018 the trilateral format has been twice held at the leader’s level, in both cases on the margins of G-20 summits.

In spite of the ongoing tension between India and China, the results of the latest ministerial videoconference hint at the possibility of a trilateral leaders’ meeting and a separate consultation between the three countries’ defense ministers later this year. Also, Russia, India, and China are going to “increase interaction with ASEAN-based structures…” including on COVID-19 issues. In short, the meeting paved the way for the dialogue’s expansion and more interactions at different levels.

With that said, it is also true that RIC meetings, albeit consistently rich in optics, quite often fall flat. Even at times of fruitful Sino-Indian relations, the format had yielded little practical results. Now that the strategic mistrust in India-China relations has been rising, the future deliverables of the trilateral mechanism are more doubtful. Adding new layers of interactions, such as a meeting between RIC defense ministers, is unlikely to considerably change the dynamics inside the triangle.

Actually, the trio’s regular engagements, including at other multilateral fora, have scarcely helped build trust between India and China. While India’s discontent with the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative is still in place, Beijing has been pushing ahead with the project. China has been irking India by raising the Kashmir issue at the UN Security Council – and since August 2019 P-5 consultations on the matter have taken place twice, by the way under the passive eye of Russia. If New Delhi and Beijing diverge on regional issues, how can they come up with a common vision of a global order? Moreover, even as Russia supports India’s emergence as a global power, China openly road-blocks India’s rise – for instance, its membership in the UNSC and Nuclear Suppliers Group. Hence, it is not useful to read too much into trilateral interactions.

From its very inception, the “strategic triangle” envisaged by Russia’s then-Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov was doomed to failure. Even many experts in Russia doubted if the triangle could exist given uncertainty over India-China ties. Plus, initially both Beijing and New Delhi rejected the idea of RIC, as they were unwilling to be involved in an anti-Western bloc. However, in the late 1990s there were at least two clear reasons for pooling the troika’s interests together: first, gradual rectification of their respective bilateral relations and second, the quest for multipolarity. Today, there are obviously less prerequisites for a sense of unity in the grouping, since China’s rise as “a pole” has been translating into its hegemonic policies all over the region, which undermine India’s positions and in the course of time will be a threat to Russia’s interests as well.

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Regardless of the RIC’s overall low efficiency level, the virtual ministerial meeting along with Indian Defense Minister Rajnath Singh’s three-day visit to Moscow play into hand of developing Russia-India ties. New Delhi’s decision to go ahead with the trilateral videoconference should be viewed not as much through the prism of RIC’s significance – either in regional affairs or for New Delhi’s foreign policy priorities – but more as an attempt to preserve a good relationship with Moscow. Singh’s presence at the military parade on the Red Square, despite the tense situation at the LAC and concerns about the pandemic, indicated an enduring connection between the two countries and will be much appreciated in Russia. In its turn, Moscow has no other option but to support India and, to the extent possible, comply with its request to speed up delivery of required military equipment.

It appears that Russia’s dalliance with China has run too far, but Moscow’s reliance on Beijing is likely to stand unaffected for a long time, probably as long as Russia is facing financial and political pressure from the West. At the same time, admittedly, it is high time that Moscow recalibrated its relations with India, which is a key to achieving a genuine geopolitical equilibrium in the region. Clearly, Russia will need both partners to promote its global and regional agenda. Hence, it will continue to strike a delicate balance and RIC still will have value, even if merely symbolic, for Russian foreign policy.

Aleksei Zakharov is a research fellow at the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences. He writes on Indian foreign policy, Russia-India relations and international affairs in the Indo-Pacific.