Is Trilateral Possible between India, China, and Russia?

Prof. Mohammed Badrul Alam
September 1, 2019


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International politics is all about dynamics and fluidity. Is it possible to envision a trilateral involving India, China, and Russia where both convergence and divergence can co-exist? 

Some of the critical issues regarding China from the perspective of India and Russia are: How best to deal with the growing powers of China? Will the Cold War policy of containment of China work as a mainstream communist ideology has failed in most of the post-globalized and post-Cold War phase world? Or, merely a bland policy of engagement with China will work as China has adopted a more muscular approach in its conduct of foreign policy including in the Indo-Pacific theatre? Perhaps, a policy of Congagement proposed by an American diplomat, Zalmay Khalilzad, might have resonance with a judicious mix of the traditional notion of containment and proactive level of engagement happening concurrently.

The second issue is to understand what China wants in the region and the world? China will prefer a mono/uni-polar Asia and a bi-polar World while India increasingly is trying to be an upper-tier and an emerging superpower. India is ready to flex its muscles with both, ‘look west’ and ‘look east’ policies as well as with its enunciation of smart power policy combining both hard and soft power capabilities. Can both countries co-exist with their respective power bases intact? Perhaps, Russia as a multiregional, status quo power and a country that supports a multi-polar world not entirely dominated by the US, might prefer to see both China and India maintain their own spheres of influence without any major turbulence that might upset the existing world order. With 21st Century being increasingly viewed as the Asian Century dominated by China, India, Japan and other powers such as the Asian tigers, South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Russia will try to fit in by having and continuing to have leverage and expansive diplomacy with both China and India. 

Apart from the reason stated above, commonalities exist between Russia, China, and India on issues such as support for enhanced and meaningful role for UN, denouncing NATO action in Kosovo, being sensitive about violations of national sovereignty (Taiwan, Kashmir, Chechnya) and about Islamic threats as each country has sizeable Muslim population. Additionally, Russia, China, and India have neighboring Muslim countries. All three support multilateral institutions such as BRICS, SCO (Russia, China are members, and India became a full member in 2016), APEC (Russia and China), SAARC (China as an observer), ASEAN (Plus One meeting with India, Plus Three with China). In order to successfully face the challenges of today’s environmental realities and socio-political dynamics, it is incumbent on both the nations to act on the principle of “United we stand and divided we fall”. This principle is not only confined to the geo-strategic realities of today’s world order, where the United States of America, has been the sole superpower of the world for a long time but also for the social, economic and regional realities in contemporary times. The enormous potential of India-China alliance needs to be tapped to ensure that both countries can speedily join the group of developed nations and also for the creation of a new world order to diffuse the sole superpower status of a single nation and guide the world towards a multi polar world. China, despite her growing status as a rising global power, needs to understand that in order to hasten economic development, her relationship with India must be cordial and accommodative. India, on the other hand, must make an earnest endeavor to leverage the advantage of her geographic and historical closeness with China by consolidating her position as a rising economic and regional power in Asia. The path to success lies in complementary rather than competitive nature of relations. Occasional irritants such as China’s opposition to India’s seeking of waiver for her application of NSG membership should not come in the path of a broader strategic goal. In order to derive a meaningful and viable relationship. The need to delve upon various areas of convergence between both the countries which can act as milestones towards the pursuit of excellence jointly. Areas of cooperation between both the countries can be energy security, influence on the world, and regional forums (United Nations Organization (UNO), East Asia Summit (EAC), trade and commerce. Both countries the nations need to put their past behind and forge cooperative and meaningful associations to progress energetically towards peace, stability, economic development, and long-lasting strategic alliance in the emerging world order.” 

Possible Short Term Forecasts Involving India, China, and Russia (in the next five to ten years): 

  • There is a good possibility of the emergence of Inter-dependent/inter-connected Eurasian/Asian Community that will involve India, Russia, and China with myriad enterprises including economic, security, trade, commerce, cultural and communication. In the globalized world, this could be a game-changer. 
  • Multilateralism in the areas of non-traditional security such as energy security, water security, maritime security, natural disaster management, drug trafficking, piracy, etc. with organizations such BRICS, SCO, ASEAN, SAARC being utilized to act as facilitators among India, China, and Russia, 
  • Balance of Hard Power Hard and Soft Power. 
    • Manifestations of India’s Hard Power is demonstrated by the fact that India is among the top ten armies in the world and currently ranked fourth. This rank is based on a combination of manpower, technology, firepower, training, resources, military hardware, nuclear weapons capability, nuclear deterrence, missile capability including ICBMs, nuclear submarines, etc. Additionally, the Indian army also includes Nuclear Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) to fight Chemical, Biological, and Nuclear warfare. India has robust defense cooperation with the USA, Israel, Russia, France, UK, Japan, etc. and conducts joint military exercises on land, air and sea, and anti-piracy operations in the high seas. 
    • Facets of India’s Soft Power includes Bollywood; Public Diplomacy; Music; Literature; Democratic Traditions; Open Society; Non-alignment; Cuisines; Cricket; Textiles; Media; Education Sector; Diaspora; Modern and ancient thinkers like Mahatma Gandhi, Rabindra Nath Tagore and Kautilya; Cultural diversity showcased by our unique ‘Unity in Diversity’; Multiculturalism; Core Values of Truth, Tolerance, Humanism, Non-Violence; Ayurveda; Yoga; and Spirituality. 

Cumulatively, hard and soft power capabilities are likely to boost power quotient of India and put the country in a state of useful and beneficial bargaining advantage vis-a-vis Russia and China. Similarly, both China and Russia will also try to bolster their respective hard and soft power tools as well for increasing their clout in both Eurasian and Asian theatre as well as at the global scene.

  • In the Eurasian sector, it is a time of profound transition marked by – endemic instability, climate change, uneven population growth, resource scarcity, the resurgence in fundamentalist ideology and the ramifications are being felt by Russia, China, India, and other countries, 
  • There is a likelihood of the emergence of ultra-nationalism in China, India and surrounding geographical regions such as Af-Pak, Arunachal Pradesh/Tawang province, Korean Peninsula/North Korea, China’s Xinjiang province, India’s North East and Maoist infested regions in India’s hinterland. 
  • Although a significant shift in global power is unlikely in the short term, yet a Concert of Power is plausible, marked by both cooperation/rivalry, between China and India as well as between China and Russia.
  • The emergence of multi-polar Balance of Power system will ensure that there will be multiple centers of power such as China, India, Russia, Japan, USA, Germany, EU, Africa, Brazil, which will compete with one another for maximizing their respective spheres of influence. Some of these countries might also cluster around continental versus maritime coalition set up. Space power competition between Russia, China, and India will be another area that might witness both competition and cooperation. 
  • In the present scenario, a possibility of China-America Co-hegemony/Co-leadership/Co-partnership/Co-facilitations in Eurasia and the Asia Pacific may arise. Additionally, the Indian Ocean and Indo-Pacific theatre may bring Russia and India to forge an even closer relationship. Australia might throw its hat into the leadership contest. 
  • There is the possibility of a threat of WMD (Weapons of Mass Destruction), Bio-terrorism, possible escalation of NBC (Nuclear, Biological, and Chemical) warfare and cybersecurity challenges that might be the norm rather than an exception. It is, however, very likely that India, China, and Russia, will act as responsible state actors and strive toward further nuclear non-proliferation. 
  • Rise in cases of Pandemics such as SARS, H1N1, Swine Flu, Ebola, etc, will force countries such as India, Russia, and China to look beyond being just simple power enhancements regimes and give support wholeheartedly to UN, WHO and other international organizations that are dedicated and technically equipped to counter and negate the further spread of these dreaded diseases. 

*** The author is Professor (Retired), Department of Political Science, Faculty of Social Sciences, Jamia Millia Islamia University, New Delhi ***