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12-01-05, 00:33

Fear Not the Russia-China-India Strategic Triangle

December 25, 2002 - January 1, 2003
By Matthew Oresman

The diplomatic pageantry of the last several weeks is befitting of the winter season of Hollywood blockbusters. Imminent war in Iraq, NATO’s new future, and the deployment of Russian forces to a Kyrgyz airbase just across town from a main staging ground for allied forces in Central Asia are all major marquis items. The best peace of diplomatic theater, though, came out of Russia’s Vladimir Putin as he made his way from Beijing to Delhi and heightened talk emerged of a Russia-China-India strategic partnership being offered as an alternative to the United State’s global leadership.

The good relationships being built bilaterally between Russia and China and Russia and India cannot go unrecognized, especially in the increasingly worrisome area of arms sales, but this is hardly the foundation for major strategic cooperation and trust. This is increasingly true given the preeminent priority these three nations have in establishing better relations with America and the West and the fact that China and India are no where close to being strategic partners. Perhaps this alliance should be called a strategic "V."

As one former senior American diplomatic explained (after a much more succinct, colorful, and unpublishable description), this talk is the sort of diplomatic rhetoric that makes Russia and India feel good about themselves and reminds India of the heyday of Nehru’s Third Way foreign policy and Russia of its lost Cold War era global leverage. Still, the U.S. must pay attention to these developments and give them careful analysis, so as not to be blinded by future developments or make preventable mistakes that will alienate important nations and potentially close allies.

First, let’s take the Russian-Chinese relationship. The current relationship between these historically cyclical friends and enemies is at one of its best levels in the last thirty years, though still diminished from the near revolutionary high of the late 1990’s and first months of the Bush administration. In 2001, both nations entered into a new treaty of Peace and Friendship and initiated the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, an organization including both China and Russia as well as the four Central Asian states of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. And the military relationship between these nations is even better, with a robust arms trade that has fueled China’s military modernization and funded Russia’s struggling economy and crumbling armed forces. For some, it appeared as if China and Russia were beginning to unify in a way that could seriously challenge America’s position of global power.

As a Pentagon official recently noted, though, it appears as if the military relationship between these nations has gotten ahead of their political relationship, which, at certain points, has merely become a bargaining chip with the West. In a repeat of history, Richard Nixon’s brilliant calculus that Russia and China’s vital national interest fundamentally was focused in opposite directions was again realized as Russia, in a major foreign policy shift, firmly aligned itself with America and the West. Similarly, China, in a Kissinger Diktat redux, also realized that it had more to gain from relations with America than it did with Russia. Still, Russia and China’s relationship continues to grow, based primarily on practical necessity than related strategic interests. However, for the immediate future, both nations will give priority to their ties to America and continue to stake their strategic futures in opposite global regions.

As for the India-Russian relationship, there is room for much future growth and a strong foundation of historic cooperation. During the Cold War, these nations had robust diplomatic ties and barter trade that greatly benefited the Indian economy. Now, cash-for-goods trade has dwindled to $1.5 billion a year, though Russia will likely sell India a nuclear attack sub in the coming months. Moreover, India’s relationship with the United States has drastically improved over the last ten years. Though they still value their ties, at the basic level, Russia and India do not require each other’s help as they once did and are not yet close to having a new strategically significant bond.

The main weakness in the triangle comes from China and India’s competitive relationship. Above all, it cannot be forgotten that China, too, has a stake in Kashmir and is a major arms supplier to Pakistan. Add in the competition for global investment, particularly the new challenge China is mounting to India’s essential technology sector, as well as conflicting visions of regional dominance, and you have a recipe for conflict. Although there are areas of growing cooperation, especially in the commercial sectors, cooperation will not come easy to these countries and any sort of strategically significant relationship is very far off.

However, there is a real appeal for this possible triangular relation; specifically, in the voice it gives these nations in the war on terrorism. All three have a similar view of the terrorist threat based on their "internal" situation: Uyghurs in China’s Xinjiang Province, rebels in Russia’s breakaway province of Chechnya, and militants in Indian held Kashmir. If anything, expect that these three nations will have an increasingly coordinated position on the direction the global war on terrorism should take and what is considered permissible action. (1)

It is far too early to tell if this relationship will become anything more than rhetoric, but some foundation does exist. These nations, especially China and India, will have to overcome many difficult issues first, including fundamentally different views of the international order. In the meantime, there is no reason to fear this talk of union, though the U.S. should recognize that some of this discussion does originate from dissatisfaction with the direction of the war on terrorism. This triangular diplomacy offers the United States an opportunity to understand the needs of these countries and continue to nurture its own relations with these vitally important nations.

(1) These similarities, and their possible convergence with positions held by the United States, were explored in Nikolas K. Gvosdev's "The New 'Big Four'?", In the National Interest (October 30, 2002), at http://www.inthenationalinterest.com/Articles/Vol1Issue8/Vol1Issue8Gvosdev.html.

Matthew Oresman is a researcher for the Freeman Chair in China Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.