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Russia-India-China: Acting in concert in South-East Asia?
Russia-India-China: Acting in concert in South-East Asia?
For almost 10 years Russia-India-China (RIC) trilateral format has been a unique international mechanism uniting three countries that comprise 20 per cent of the total global landmass, 39 per cent of the global population and around 25 per cent of global GDP. Being neither allies nor enemies these three countries are uniting their efforts in creation of a multipolar world order. They are often blamed for their anti-Western rhetoric. In practice they just stand for a greater presence of emerging and developing economies in international decision-making bodies. Trilateral interaction gives them greater leverage on international issues and opportunity to deliver its views through the West-controlled multilateral institutions. These three countries show unanimity of views on recasting the global governance architecture. Eventually trilateral dialogue in areas such as global economic governance architecture, climate change, trade policy and development cooperation may lead to the emergence of an alternative pole in international decision making process. On the whole, interaction in the format of RIC created both opportunities and challenges for these three countries.
Besides pressing global issues, the trilateral format is also designed to push mutual cooperation in economic and developmental areas, including agriculture, disaster relief, health and medicine. They also called for an early implementation of the quantified targets on the governance structure reform of the international financial institutions, speedy shift in IMF quota share of at least 5% to emerging markets and developing countries and a significant increase of at least 3% of voting power in the World Bank for developing and transition countries. All three countries have identical views on the Doha round of trade talks, the rising protectionism in the West, climate change proposals, energy security and cross-border terrorism, border dispute, nuclear and conventional military modernisation. Energy is another key area for cooperation. Russia is a dominant supplier of oil and gas; China and India are energy deficit, but significant suppliers of manufactured products and services. All those facts prove that the RIC trilateral format isn’t just a talk shop and tangible targets should remind sceptics of the growing global clout of these countries.
Surprisingly, strategically important region of Southeast Asia has hardly ever been on RIC’s agenda. Although all three countries are dialogue partners of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and members of ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), Southeast Asian issues were underestimated and even avoided till recently. There are several reasons for that «underestimation»:
First deterrent is trust deficit and frictions between India and China. ASEAN countries are well aware of this Indo-Chinese antagonism. Having a vital stake in the stability of the India-China equation, they try to maneuver between the two countries. The long-standing perception that Southeast Asia forms one of the important theatres of conflict between India and China has regained some weight in the beginning of the 21 century. Both of them are perusing their own interests in the region. This is rooted in the belief that in South Asia and Southeast Asia the presumed spheres of influence of New Delhi and Beijing overlap. Beijing resents India’s attempt to seek influence in Southeast Asia and similarly New Delhi tries to prevent China from seeking its legitimate interests in the subcontinent. India’s non-alignment and Third World activism during the Cold War, its support to Vietnamese move into Cambodia and opposition to China’s war against Vietnam tended to confirm the thesis of enduring rivalry between India and China in Indochina. Since the early 1990s, the intense engagement of New Delhi and Beijing with Myanmar has been widely seen as a renewed manifestation of Sino-Indian rivalry, but it is unlikely to acquire antagonistic proportions. Both sides understand that Asia is large enough to let both states meet their aspirations, so the concept of ‘rivalry’ is counter-productive. The main goal in today’s world is to expand strategic weight, and this could be done by economic means. Until the start of «Look East Policy» in the 1990s India was more or less out of the region, while China was actively scoring economic and political points since the 1970s. It is obvious that in this sense both India and Russia have a long way to go in catching up with China in Southeast Asia where economic and military relations are hugely in Beijing’s favour.
Secondly, there is no common vision of prospects for interaction neither in RIC, nor in ASEAN. The Cold War era left a lasting mark in the mentality of ASEAN elites: some of them got accustomed to American role in keeping Southeast Asia stable, others were seeking support from the Soviet Union, not to speak about Chinese comrades and India’s partners in NAM. Such diverse backgrounds make it quite difficult to pursue common strategy in relation to Southeast Asia (compared, for example, to Central Asia. China’s peaceful rise, India’s (relatively) belated «Look East» initiative and Russia’s past but long-lasting undervaluation of ASEAN’s importance form another set of explanations for the absence of RIC’s joint position towards Southeast Asia. At the same time, ASEAN countries seem to be satisfied with existing bilateral format of relations with each of the RIC countries. No desire to launch another ASEAN+3 mechanism (where the «3» stands for RIC) has been expressed.
Thirdly, RIC’s joint involvement in Southeast Asian affairs doesn’t correlate with American strategy is this region. US systematically test the fragility of Indo-China-Russian mechanism by stirring Indo-Chinese controversy and proposing to establish a format that will bring together the leaders of the United States, China and India. According to another game-plan, India can be replaced in this setup by Pakistan. China is Pakistan’s most important supporter both because of their geographical proximity and China’s perception of Pakistan as a counterweight to India. It is highly doubtful that US really intends to implement any of these projects. Those provocative alternatives are aimed at confusing the regional players and suspending the implementation of so-called anti-American initiatives. They also divert attention from really functioning mechanisms such as US-Japan-Australia and South Korea alliance. Taking into consideration that in this existing American alliance system ASEAN does not figure, it is not impossible that ASEAN+RIC format may become someday a matter of national interest to Southeast Asian. The promotion of ASEAN+RIC format will enhance the core clout of ASEAN in regional affairs and improve geopolitical imbalances without challenging the stability of the existing order.
After Russia’s joining East Asian Summit RIC gained a real opportunity to show unified position in Asian regional affairs. The 10th RIC meeting at the level of Foreign Ministers in November 2010 was dominated by security issues in Asia-Pacific region. All three countries seemed to be ready to discuss and possibly coordinate their policies on the core issues of regional security — terrorism, religious extremism, political separatism, etc. The focus of the meeting were questions of the formation in the Asia-Pacific region of a new, improved security and cooperation architecture and the role of RIC in the system of multilateral regional associations. The ambiguity was that the issue was discussed «in the light of the joint Russian-Chinese initiative to strengthen security and cooperation in the Asia-Pacific», while the role of ASEAN was not specified and even somehow neglected. Assuming that Russia initially admits ASEAN’s leading and core role in regional affairs it is interesting to analyse the origins and nature of Russian-Chinese plan and its potential to reincarnate into multilateral initiative and ability to stimulate «concert behaviour» between Russia, India and China in South-East Asia.
So far, even in Afghanistan where trilateral security cooperation seems to be quite promising Russia deliberately derogates the role of trilateral mechanism and emphasizes the importance of collective strategy of all states engaged in the region (including US, Central Asia and others). According to Russian Foreign minister Sergey Lavrov Russian-Chinese plan is «not directed against third countries. It is required for stability in its regional and global dimensions. Its deepening is one of the most important guarantees that the objective process of the formation of a polycentric international order will not be artificially impeded». True, Lavrov actually criticised American policy in the region, but without calling names. He described closed blocs in Asia as «a threat to national security and a source of dividing lines, mutual distrust and suspicion». Obviously, there is a looming conflict between rising China and a US that wants «to be back» in Asia, while New Delhi is decidedly wary of alienating the U.S. So, Russian efforts to bring China and India closer on the core issues of regional security have not worked — at least, up till now. Will they?
This paper was presented at the Conference on ASEAN-Russia: foundations and Furure Prospects, 26-27 April 2011, Singapore.
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