China, Russia and India: Strategic Triangle or Triangular Co-operation?

30 Jul, 2001    ·   532

Satyajit Mohanty dismissing the idea of strategic triangle, says there are enough grounds for political cooperation between India, China and Russia

The idea of a strategic triangle between Russia , China and India was floated by the then Russian Prime Minister Mr. E. Primakov during his visit to New Delhi in December 1998. The Chinese revived this idea before Jiang Zemin left for the Moscow Summit. This is an important change in the Chinese stand, as it had earlier rejected the proposition outright.



A host of antecedent causes and the more immediate one of the United States wanting to go ahead with the Nuclear Missile Defence (NMD) have bought China and Russia together. Truncated politically, Russia ’s “Look west” policy was meant to revive the crippled economy. However, growing disillusionment with the western aid, the spread of US influence through NATO’s eastward expansion and its involvement in Central Asia to have a stake in the oil and gas reserves has limited Russia ’s sphere of influence. With a Hobson’s choice of strategic partners and allies in the Asian continent, the importance of China , Central Asian Republics (CAR) and India in Russian Foreign Policy has increased.



China initially opposed the idea of strategic co-operation because it thought that it would fill up the “power vacuum” following the US withdrawal from the Asian theatre in the wake of the Cold War. Such a conclusion led the Chinese to reject the role of India as an important player in the world affairs. However, the initial vacillation of the United States Asian Policy displayed in the 1990 and 1992 East Asian Strategic Assessment Initiative (EASI) doctrines, gave way to a fresh thinking in America . American presence is vital to protect its economic and strategic concerns in Asia . This got reflected in the renewed US-Japan Security Alliance (1997), East Asia Strategic Assessment 1998 (EASA) etc. China realised that it had to go along with the major Asian countries to stake its claim as a global leader. Thus, China also moderated its policy towards many Asian countries. China is trying to rope in India into a strategic co-operation with it and Russia , as it perceives a bi-lateral upswing in India ’s ties with the United States .



However, the immediate need for such a move was the Nuclear Missile Defence (NMD) Programme that the United States has apparently adopted in spite of vociferous opposition by both Russia and China who perceive the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty as the bedrock of strategic stability. The development of missile defenses would numb the deterrent capabilities of both Russia and China . For Russia a nuclear warhead tipped missile is the only currency of power and bargaining chip in the international arena.



As the US plans to include Japan, South Korea and more importantly Taiwan in its missile defence programme in East Asia, China’s ability to militarily overwhelm these countries, if need be would greatly be affected. Thus, China which had earlier rebuffed Russian proposal to sign a political treaty to replace the Soviet-Chinese friendship pact which had expired in 1980, signed the 20 year Treaty of “Good “Neighbourliness, Friendship and Co-operation” just two days after the successful American Anti-Missile test. 



From the Indian perspective there seem to be a dearth of concrete imperatives to forge a strategic co-operation. The India-US ties are witnessing a qualitatively new level of engagement with a call for “strategic ties” between the two largest democracies by the US . India should realize that the recently concluded Sino-Russian Treaty is designed to forge a strategic counterweight to the US global dominance and strategic co-operation would be read as anti-US. India has extended unflinching support to the NMD dubbing it as a defensive step. India ’s stance on the NMD is far different from that of China or Russia . Thus, wholehearted support to the idea of strategic co-operation would jettison the US-India bilateral relationship.



The bilateral relations between China and Russia , which are far from smooth, would also limit strategic co-operation. Despite the renunciation of territorial claims under the Sino-Russia treaty Russia is apprehensive of China ’s expansionism, military might and migration of Chinese to Siberia and Far East and a clash of influence and interests in Central Asia . Sino-Indian border problems and Sino-Pakistan collusion are irritants in our bilateral relationships with China . Hence, in the absence of a common adversary or common interests, norms and identities, the idea of a strategic co-operation is bound to fail.



Although the idea of strategic co-operation may be far fetched there are enough reasons for India to pursue a sustained and high level of trilateral political co-operation. Terrorism and Islamic Militancy affect all the countries and there can be common efforts to fight terrorism particularly state-sponsored terrorism. Stability in the Central Asian Republics (CAR) will lead to the flow of oil and energy resources to China , India and Russia . Thus, efforts to improve ties in trade, energy and communication sectors would help bolster the economy of the countries. Support for multipolarity and democratisation of the UN are issues that India can co-operate with Russia and China to a far greater extent then probably the US . Thus, India ’s strategic calculus calls for a greater degree of political co-operation with Russia and China at this juncture.