India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi has shown a noticeable preference for the “informal” short-notice summit with his peers and held a day-long meeting (on May 21) with Russian President Vladimir Putin in the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi.
This is Modi’s second such informal summit and follows the end April meeting with the Chinese President Xi Jinping in Wuhan. On both occasions, it was a case of seeking to press the reset button and re-arrange the wrinkles in the bi-lateral relationship.
Whatever be the outcome of these informal summits, it is evident that Eurasian geo-politics, as they are unfolding now in the post-Trump tempest and over the next two decades, will be shaped considerably by the nature of the complex, imbalanced and contradictory Russia-India-China relationship.
Both Sochi and Wuhan also testify to India’s centrality as a distinctive swing-state in the geo-politics of the first half of the 21st century.
Informal summits do not have joint statements and neither is the focus on a single issue – as was the case during the Cold War decades when the “summit” usually meant a highly structured meeting between the US and Soviet leaders at the apex level.
More often than not the objective was on the reduction of strategic arms (nuclear weapons and missiles) and it is a reflection of the changes that have taken place in international relations, that the word “strategic” is now used very often and the informal summit is the latest variant in the diplomatic lexicon.
Both Sochi and Wuhan testify to India’s centrality as a distinctive swing-state in the geo-politics of the first half of the 21st centuryC Uday Bhaskar
Complex historical inheritance
The Russia-India-China relationship is tangled, for these three nations have a complex historical inheritance and certain major reversals have taken place over the last three decades. Moscow is the inheritor of the Soviet legacy, though the geographical area of modern Russia is considerably smaller than that of the former USSR.
At the time, Moscow was a superpower capital and both China and India were subalterns in the Cold War strategic framework. While Beijing was formally allied with its communist big brother, Delhi remained neutral.
Beijing played its cards deftly and in the latter phase of the Cold War, moved from the Soviet orbit to align itself with the USA, which in turn led to Moscow entering into a treaty of friendship with non-aligned India.
The Cold War ended in December 1991 and in the intervening decades, the shift in national power is indicative of the imbalance in this triangular relationship. The current Russia-India-China GDP is in the ratio 1: 2: 9 with the Russian economic index being the least at $1.5 trillion (2017).
However Russian trans-border military power and the manner in which President Putin has used it, accord Moscow a very visible profile in Eurasia – whether it is in Syria or Afghanistan – and thus the GDP metric alone can be misleading about the strategic relevance of these three nations.
The India-Russia relationship has been going through an uneven and discordant patch in recent years. Moscow’s dismay over a growing post 2008 proximity between India and the US is matched by Delhi’s disquiet over Russia’s overtures to Pakistan and the tacit endorsement of the Taliban in Afghanistan; as also the deepening Sino-Russian relationship, which has the US as the catalyst.
It would appear that Sochi has led to a reasonably satisfactory review and reset of the India-Russia bi-lateral.
The brief Indian official statement noted that both leaders “shared the view that India and Russia have an important role to play in contributing to an open and equitable world order. In this regard, they recognized each other’s respective roles as major powers with common responsibilities for maintaining global peace and stability.”
From the Indian perspective, the agreement on the importance of a “multipolar world order” and the decision to “to intensify consultation and coordination with each other, including on the Indo-Pacific Region” is significant.
A multipolar world order has been the post-Cold War Holy Grail for Delhi and this reiteration is a signal to Washington, while the Indo-Pacific reference has a sub-text for Beijing. Harmonization of policies over the Afghan quagmire is evidently on the cards.
Paradoxically, both Moscow and Delhi have their own anxieties about an over-bearing Beijing. Geography imposes certain geo-political constraints and all of China’s neighbors have to arrive at some kind of modus-vivendi among themselves about how best to deal with this creeping assertiveness of a muscular Beijing.
While the Cold War geo-politics were binary and zero-sum, the current Trump-led US orientation has led to considerable uncertainty and anxiety about how major power relations will unfold over the next two years. Syria, Iran, Afghanistan and the Korean peninsula are all indicators of the potential for greater instability.
In the Eurasian framework, China and Russia, wary of each other and the US will be jostling to advance their long-term interests and will be cognizant of India’s distinctive swing status. An unaligned India that remains engaged with the major powers may be the most prudent geo-political permutation for the prickly Russia-China-US triangle.
Chitrapu Uday Bhaskar, a retired Commodore who served in the Indian Navy, is one of India's leading experts and outspoken critics on security and strategic affairs. Commodore Bhaskar is currently the Director of the Society for Policy Studies (SPS), an independent think-tank based in New Delhi, India. He has the rare distinction of being the head of three think tanks during his career - the earlier two being the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA) and the National Maritime Foundation (NMF). He is a columnist, editor, and contributor of numerous research-articles on nuclear and international security issues to reputed journals in India and abroad. Bhaskar has an abiding interest in the visual arts, film and theater. He tweets. @theUdayB.