In the immediate post-Cold War period, efforts emerged among the former non-aligned states and Russia to balance against the influence of the sole superpower, the United States, and its Western allies. Former Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov first mooted the idea of a Russia-India-China (RIC) triangle in the late 1990s to create multipolarity in the face of U.S hegemony. Since its founding, however, and largely as a result of the three countries’ differing priorities as well as varying ties to the United States, the grouping has largely proven insignificant.
Yet, in the context of recent incongruence between New Delhi and Washington on certain issues and India’s desire to play a larger role in the Eurasian region, the RIC might prove to be a useful forum. New Delhi’s renewed engagement with the RIC triangle can further its policy of multialignment, which External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar has called India’s pursuit of “issue-based” partnerships.
India and the RIC: A Primer
It is important to understand the history of the RIC to appreciate its newfound relevance for New Delhi.New Delhi’s renewed engagement with the RIC triangle can further its policy of multialignment, which External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar has called India’s pursuit of “issue-based” partnerships.
At its inception, the RIC grouping was imagined as a political and economic bloc pushing for the democratization of the global order and as a counterweight to the United States, whose perspectives the three countries believed did not align with theirs. The trio saw mutlipolarity as the best bet to secure their respective national interests, and sought to build cooperation to ensure regional stability.
However, even though the foreign ministers of the three countries met on various occasions through the years, the troika lacked a substantive common agenda to further trilateral relations. Cooperation was also undercut by the overarching desire on the part of Russia, India, and China to deepen their relations with the United States. Moreover, in recent years, analysts have noted that growing Chinese power has severely impeded prospects for success of the RIC triangle given India and Russia’s wariness about evolving power differentials in their relations with China.
Given the shifting grand strategic objectives of the United States under the Trump administration and the growing importance of Eurasia as a geopolitical region for India, the logic behind the RIC triangle remains intact and deserves more attention in New Delhi.
Hedging against American Uncertainties
One of the primary factors that should inform India’s continued participation in the RIC triangle is a strategic dilemma in its relationship with the United States. The current trajectory of U.S. grand strategy indicates that retrenchment and off-shore balancing are likely to continue into the foreseeable future and this could pose challenges for India. In fact, some recent U.S. policy decisions have already complicated India’s issue-based alignment strategy.
For instance, President Trump’s visit to India in February did little to assuage New Delhi’s concerns about the recent exit deal between the United States and the Taliban in Afghanistan. By giving greater leverage to Pakistan, the U.S. decision has undercut India’s defense on its western front. With U.S withdrawal imminent, and Russia and China emerging as significant stakeholders in the future of Afghanistan, India would do well to take note of the changing geopolitical environment in the country, and work with Beijing and Moscow to ensure stability, especially in areas like counterterrorism.
Moreover, despite broad convergence over the years, India and the United States have been unable to expand the scope of their engagement in some key areas. The failure to ink a trade deal and the slow progress of the Defense Technology and Trade Initiative for co-development of weapon systems are two examples of this. This is especially notable in the context of the United States increasingly considering a rising China and assertive Russia as strategic competitors. It seems clear that this could impact India’s relations with Beijing and Moscow, its important trade and defense partners respectively.
Thus, the RIC triangle offers a pathway for India to hedge against any potentially adverse outcomes resulting from its partnership with the United States. For instance, at the RIC trilateral on the sidelines of the G20 Summit last year, China proposed a 5G partnership with Russia and India in a direct challenge to U.S interests. Particularly in the context of the escalating trade war between the United States and China, India’s best bet is to seek concessions from both sides rather than settle for sub-optimal solutions.
The RIC and India’s Strategic Objectives
India can utilize the RIC grouping to secure a greater role for itself in Eurasian strategic, political, and economic affairs, which would solidify its status as a continental power.
For one, India’s adjustment to a new strategic reality in Afghanistan would benefit from an alignment with Russia and China on the future stability of the country and the wider region. In addition, strong relationships with its Eurasian neighbors could further Indian goals of reforming multilateral institutions of global governance and finance such as the UN and the WTO.
Further, in the coming years, the Arctic route for maritime trade would considerably reduce delivery time between Asia and Europe. Given China and Russia’s geographical contiguity to this region and influence in Arctic institutions, it would behoove India to engage with Beijing and Moscow in a trilateral setting, such as through the RIC, in order to secure its trade interests while keeping out of the unfolding great power competition.India can utilize the RIC grouping to secure a greater role for itself in Eurasian strategic, political, and economic affairs, which would solidify its status as a continental power.
Finally, India would benefit from viewing the RIC as a mechanism for overcoming disagreements with Russia and China over its collaborations with the United States. For instance, both Russia and China disagree on the U.S.-led Indo-Pacific order—in which India has emerged as a key player. But New Delhi has a unique opportunity to be a bridge between these emerging alignments. In fact, India’s position on the Indo-Pacific exemplifies this—New Delhi’s vision for the region is inclusive but is undergirded by the principles of freedom of navigation and openness. The RIC grouping can be an effective forum to advance these conversations.
The RIC triangle has the potential to blossom into an effective strategic grouping for India but may require some creative diplomacy from New Delhi. Given the current dissonance between Washington and New Delhi on trade and security issues, greater participation in the RIC triangle could maximize India’s options in a multipolar world, in line with its preferred multialignment strategy. This could take the form of India seeking support from its Eurasian partners in Afghanistan or in the Arctic to influence regional outcomes. As strategic analyst Manoj Joshi notes, India’s strength lies in being a “swing power.” Engagement with both Russia and China would enhance India’s bargaining power with the United States, and enable broad support for Indian initiatives on global issues.
Image 1: The Kremlin (cropped)
Image 2: The Kremlin