Russia-India-China Foreign Ministers meet in Wuhan this week will serve as a reminder that India is still willing to play ball with powers that see themselves as rivals to the U.S.

If Barack Obama's triumphant visit here gave the world the impression that the Manmohan Singh government was drawing too close to the United States, the Russia-India-China (RIC) Foreign Ministers meeting in Wuhan this week will serve as a reminder that India is still willing to play ball with powers that see themselves as rivals to America.

“The timing of the Wuhan trilateral is fortunate because it allows us to do a bit of a repositioning exercise,” a senior Indian official told The Hindu. “Both Russia and China and everyone else will be able to see that we have not given up pursuing all our other interests just because our relations with the U.S. have improved.”

The Indian desire to send out a signal of balance is significant because it comes despite President Obama's endorsement of a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council for India. Indian officials believe the U.S. announcement will likely alter the dynamics of the ongoing discussion on the U.N. reform at the RIC trilateral but refused to speculate on what might happen at Wuhan.

Russia, which once unambiguously backed India for a permanent seat now speaks of the need for U.N. reform “by consensus,” while the Chinese have been willing to support India's aspirations only in a general way. “The Chinese side understands and supports India's aspirations to play a greater role in the United Nations, including in the Security Council,” the India-China joint statement of 2008 noted. The trilateral has been just as cautious and has even avoided a reference to the UNSC. At their Bangalore meeting last year, for example, the three Ministers only went so far as to “[reiterate] that their countries attach importance to the status of India in international affairs and understand and support India's aspirations to play a greater role in the United Nations.”

India will be represented at Wuhan by External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna and Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao, besides senior officials. Mr. Krishna, who will fly out on Sunday morning, will hold bilateral talks with his Chinese counterpart, Yang Jiechi, as well as Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, that evening. The trilateral meeting — the tenth since the format was launched in 2002 — will be held on Monday. Ms. Rao will then move on to Beijing for the next round of the India-China Strategic Dialogue.

The RIC meetings usually cover a range of political and economic issues, from terrorism and the United Nations and world financial reform to regional problems like Afghanistan, Iran and North Korea. But this ambitious agenda is belied by the lack of coherence within the trilateral. The Indians and the Chinese have resisted Russian attempts to give the forum an overtly “political” character for fear of complicating their relations with America. There are also structural weaknesses stemming from an imbalance between India's economic and political ties with Russia and China. Sino-Indian relations have been fraught in recent years, even though trade and investment between them has boomed. As for Russia, India's political relationship remains strong even though bilateral economic ballast is lacking.

The fact that BRIC — the Brazil, Russia, India, China forum — now meets at the summit level has robbed the RIC of some of its sheen, particularly on international economic issues. But Indian officials believe the anchoring of the trilateral in the Asian strategic space gives it a certain geopolitical salience for the region that the territorially diffused BRIC lacks.

Joint Secretary (East Asia) in the Ministry of External Affairs, Gautam Bambawale, told journalists on Saturday that Mr. Krishna and Mr. Yang would focus in their bilateral talks on setting the agenda for a successful visit to Delhi in December of Chinese premier Wen Jiabao.

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