The 17th meeting of the Foreign Ministers of Russia, India and China took place recently under the trilateral Russia-India-China (RIC) format. Presided by Russia, it was aimed at celebrating 75 years of victory over Nazism in the Second World War apart from strategizing a common response to the COVID-19 crisis.
This virtual event stands out for taking place amidst the shadow of the ongoing border standoff between New Delhi and Beijing. Unsurprisingly, India’s Foreign Minister Dr. S. Jaishankar clearly spelt out the nation’s position as the precursory sine qua non for RIC to gain any traction in the future. It included the need to respect international law, recognise the legitimate interests of partners, support multilateralism and promote common good. This largely sums up the core objectives of the RIC format which, arguably, is facing its moment of truth. Questions have been raised about its efficacy, given the growing fault-lines within the troika. However, the very fact that the meeting took place indicates a desire of its stakeholders to explore convergence of interests amidst a world in flux. Interestingly, the Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, in his press briefing highlighted the consensus on expanding RIC discussions by organising a Defence Ministers meeting later in the year.
Addressing the RIC Foreign Minister’s virtual meet, External Affairs Minister Dr S Jaishankar said, Indian blood was shed at the battlefields of the world, from Tobruk, El Alamein and Montecassino, to Singapore, Kohima and Borneo. We helped keep key supply lines open to both your countries, one through the Persian corridor and the other over the Himalayan hump. Indian personnel were conferred the Order of the Red Star. He added, the medical mission led by Dr.Kotnis was a legend in China. So, when India’s military contingent marches through Red Square, it would be an affirmation of the difference that we made.
Conceived in 2002, RIC was the brainchild of former Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov. Its salience lay in the overlapping Russian, Indian and Chinese objectives to create a multi-polar world order that would reflect the aspirations of these emerging economies.
Over the last two decades, RIC has provided its members a platform for strategic communication. This proved particularly useful during strategic crises, including the February 2019 Balakot air strikes and the 2017 Doklam standoff. The upgradation of the format to Heads of State meeting in 2018 was a recognition of its role in confidence building measures among the three countries.
However, in the last few years, substantial water has flown under the RIC bridge. Today, the dissonance in RIC members’ shared strategic outlook is reflected in myriad prisms of prevailing great power rivalries. This involves the objective of undermining the primacy by some members of RIC, of the US; which in turn considers some RIC members as revisionist powers.
India has qualitatively and quantitatively improved bilateral ties with Washington. Moreover, the growing friction in India-China ties has run parallel to the emerging Russia-China entente. This has seen Moscow, India’s traditional partner, frequently recalibrate its positions on issues impinging on India’s strategic interests.
Nevertheless, the scope and importance of this trilateral construct continues to lie in it being a platform for its members to explore shared strategic interests, clarify positions and understand differences. Additionally, as pre-eminent and emerging Eurasian powers, the role of Russia and China in facilitating India’s Eurasian outreach is crucial, especially given India’s interests are not limited to maritime but extend to many areas as well. Similarly, it lies in Russia and China’s interests to strengthen India’s strategic autonomy. Likewise, it is in the interests of both Russia and India to prevent the dominance of China.
Script: Rajorshi Roy, Research Analyst, Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies & Analyses