On April 18, the latest round of trilateral discussions between the foreign ministers of China, Russia and India took place in Moscow. These three countries, all major players in Asia, have now met regularly for fourteen years to discuss the many issues of common concern.
The three countries make an interesting combination. They are, of course, the Asian components of the BRICS group, and thus share joint concerns reinforced by their proximity. Geographical factors also create a joint interest in the progress of China’s main regional and international economic cooperation project, the “Belt and Road” initiative.
Politically, though, the alignment is less close. For some years now, China and Russia have been working closely together on global political and security issues, sharing a concern to create an adequate counterweight to Western, and particularly U.S., preponderance on the world stage.
India, however, has hitherto aligned her interests along a slightly different axis. While India has historically maintained good cooperation with Russia, Sino-Indian relations have been a little trickier, ever since the two countries fought a brief border war in 1962. As they are both rapidly-growing Asian powers with huge populations, it was probably inevitable that they should find themselves to some extent in rivalry, especially as they have followed very different patterns of development. A further problem has been China’s strong, consistent friendship with India’s main regional rival, Pakistan. Thus, a three-way dialogue, with another country friendly to both, might well be a promising route to closer regional agreement.
Over the last two years, one key plank of the close Sino-Russian relationship has been mutual support on security issues relating to the immediate neighborhoods of the two major powers. Thus, China has always refused to endorse criticism of Russia’s policies on the border with Ukraine, and in the same way, at the Moscow meeting, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov stated Russia’s opposition to any attempt to internationalize the dispute over the islands in the South China Sea, supporting the Chinese position that any problems need to be resolved through bilateral negotiation and consultation rather than attempts of international arbitration.
This Moscow meeting was of course one of the diplomatic stepping-stones to the further regular meeting to be held this year. President Putin will visit China in June, he told Foreign Minister Wang Yi during the latter’s visit. The Russian leader did not go into details, just saying that “we’ll have a nice detailed and friendly conversation with the Chinese leader, with whom we have really warm business and personally friendly relations.” This implies that the Russian leader wants to send out a clear message that, whatever subjects for discussion may be on the table, there are unlikely to be any serious points of dispute.
As for the Sino-Indian relationship, it is notable that Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj’s visit to Moscow coincided with the Indian Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar’s visit to China, where he held bilateral discussions on common security issues and tension-reducing measures along India’s troubled border with China. But the Moscow meeting included talks on one specific security issues relevant to all three countries; the restoration and maintenance of peace in Afghanistan. The issue of counter-terrorism was also discussed in Moscow; all three countries have a clear and common interest in fighting terrorism in central and southern Asia, but the Sino-Indian relationship has run into problems regardingthis issue, due to the fact that there are intense disagreements between India and Pakistan, and China’s long and close relationship with the latter can make it difficult to reach any agreement. However, a bilateral meeting was held on this subject, and it is hoped that positions will move closer.
Later this year, Uzbekistan is to host a summit meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) which will include further discussions on security and economic cooperation in Central Asia. This year, for the first time, both India and Pakistan will participate as full members. This is one more important reason why the three countries who met in Moscow need to work on developing a common perspective.
China’s basic principle of foreign policy, as developed over the last few years, has been to use close and mutually beneficial economic links to underpin closer relations with other countries, and this trilateral combination is no exception. China may well be concerned that practical cooperation within the BRICS grouping has fallen behind expectation, and hopes that the RIC trilateral can become a powerhouse to energize the larger group.
On security matters, it will always be difficult to reach a unity of view between three countries with such differing interests and concerns. Nonetheless, China’s multifaceted diplomatic policy, involving bilateral, trilateral and many forms of multilateral meetings and discussions, with a firm economic basis for political alignments, appears to be the best way to create a global network of dialogue and to build common interests.
The writer is a columnist with China.org.cn. For more information please visit:
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