Even though groups spanning multiple geographic and economic vectors like the East Asia Summit, the Brazil-Russia-India-China forum, and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation have begun emerging and consolidating themselves, it would be a mistake to assume any of these could be a substitute for the Russia, India, China trilateral (RIC). What makes the trilateral unique — and important — is the convergence of geography, foreign policy philosophy, and economic ascent within the group. All three countries are world powers with significant interests in the Eurasian and Asia-Pacific strategic spaces. Unlike economic powers like Japan or the countries of the European Union, their foreign policy is independent. Each is committed to the creation of a multi-polar world order based on respect for international law, multilateralism, and collective decision-making. The three also have strong ties binding them, though these are somewhat uneven. India, for example, has close political relations with Russia but little to show by way of bilateral trade or investment. By contrast, India-China trade is booming, but the bilateral political relationship could be better. Another mismatch within the trilateral stems from the way each relates to the United States. Russia and China would like to use the trilateral to send a signal to Washington that they are unhappy with its bloc-like approach to the Asia-Pacific. India, on the other hand, is decidedly wary of alienating the U.S., at this juncture. Finally, there is an imbalance stemming from the fact that only Russia and China are permanent members of U.N. Security Council. What this means is that Moscow and Beijing are content to involve India in discussions on global issues at the RIC level only to the extent necessary to buttress their own arguments with Washington at the UNSC.

As a result of all these factors, a grouping whose strongest binding factor is political and strategic has tended to adopt a hands-off approach to key regional problems like the Iran nuclear issue and Afghanistan. At the recent meeting of RIC foreign ministers at Wuhan, for example, a common position expressing unhappiness with the current U.S.-led approach on these questions was articulated but there was no attempt to carve out a role for the trilateral as a group in pushing for better outcomes. That said, the three still set for themselves an ambitious agenda of practical cooperation. Agriculture, health and medicine, and disaster management are already focus areas. To this, the foreign ministers have added energy and joint work on innovation as priority areas. Business-to-business cooperation is also being emphasised. If links at the corporate level get stronger, it is possible that the trilateral will feel less coy about taking on a political agenda.

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