At RIC meeting, a tussle over partners, interests but much synergy too

Two elephants were in the room when Russia, India and China held their tenth trilateral ministerial meeting here this week — the United States and Pakistan — and a consensus on driving them out proved elusive as Indian and Chinese officials rejected language on blocs and terrorism that would have upset their American and Pakistani friends.

The joint communiqué issued after the meeting gingerly noted that trilateral cooperation “does not target any other country,” even as it expressed support for a multipolar, democratic world order based on international law and collective decision-making, codewords for a reduction in American influence. Russia and China wanted to go further, building upon their September 2010 declaration on Asia-Pacific security that India sees as essentially aimed at the U.S. and Japan. During preparatory meetings for the Wuhan ministerial, they suggested that the trilateral speak of a security architecture for the region based on the “non-bloc” principle. But India — which is wary of sending a wrong message to Washington and Tokyo at a time when both capitals are warming to Delhi — baulked.

In the end, it persuaded Russia and China to subsume their concern about blocs within a wider — and more anodyne — call for an “open, transparent, inclusive and balanced security and cooperation architecture in the Asia-Pacific.” The two also wanted an official-level working group to study possible institutional structures for the region but finally agreed with India that the matter be examined by experts from the three countries first.

If the Indians sometimes batted for American positions in Wuhan, Russia and China also made it a point to remain unmoved by Barack Obama's recent endorsement of a permanent seat in the U.N. Security Council for India.

Chinese officials admitted to their Indian counterparts here that the U.S. announcement had taken them completely by surprise and that they had since received instructions to stick firmly to their existing position on Indian permanent membership. Indian officials tried a couple of formulations that would have put China and Russia more squarely behind India but quickly backed off. In the end, the joint communiqué called for reform to make the U.N. more representative and democratic, “appreciated the role played by India in international affairs” and noted that Russia and China “looked forward to deepening cooperation with India” in the Security Council during its two-year tenure.

Indian officials say they are not surprised by the lack of forward movement in Wuhan on the U.N. issue. “The trilateral is hardly the forum where a country will make a major gesture to India,” an official told The Hindu. “When China is ready to back us, they will do it in the same way Mr. Obama did — during a state visit.”

On terrorism, an issue which figured prominently in the RIC discussions, China was wary of agreeing to any formulation that would appear as if Pakistan was being targeted. Thus, an Indian suggestion that a reference be made to the unacceptability of safe havens for terrorists was shot down. The Chinese side remained unmoved even when the Indians noted that Mr. Obama, who is an ally of Pakistan, had made a similar observation.

On issues like Iran and Afghanistan, however, the three countries took broadly similar positions, and opened the door to trilateral cooperation in new areas like energy and innovation.

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