Amit Baruah

India, China, and Russia have the opportunity to come together and oppose the U.S.' unilateral course.

TRILATERAL MEETINGS between India, China, and Russia could prove to be a mighty force in international relations. But, so far, the three countries have been extremely careful in defining what these sessions might amount to.

The dialogue between the countries' Foreign Ministers, which began with an informal session on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York in September 2002, is an amorphous one, whose results are still to be seen. On February 14, the Indian, Chinese, and Russian Foreign Ministers Pranab Mukherjee, Li Zhaoxing, and Sergei Lavrov will meet in New Delhi for what will be their second stand-alone interaction at this level.

It is not difficult to understand the diffidence with which the three countries are approaching their trilateral meetings given that they remain convinced that good relations with the United States remains at the core of their foreign policies.

Though the idea of a "strategic triangle" among the three nations was proposed by the former Russian Prime Minister, Yevgeny Primakov, back in 1998, the current trilateral process is far from being a strategic alliance.

In fact, all three countries have been at pains to stress that their budding trilateral cooperation is not directed against any other country. Given these countries' influence in world affairs, such statements are, clearly, not out of line.

India is being closely watched in the world: will its cosy relationship with the U.S. mean that New Delhi abandons its hitherto closely-guarded independence in the making of foreign policy? Or will the close Indo-American embrace fade away and New Delhi, once again, occupy its role as a nation that speaks for the developing world?

The trilateral framework for dialogue, along with the separate meetings India has with Brazil and South Africa in the IBSA framework, was agreed to at the time a Bharatiya Janata Party-led alliance was in power in New Delhi. Both arrangements have proved useful, both for the BJP and its successor government led by the Congress, to demonstrate that India remains independent in making foreign policy choices. Form, on occasion, must substitute for content.

China, on its part, is obviously considering the nature of the world around it as it marches ahead economically. Beijing has chosen to adopt a low-profile role when it comes to tackling global issues such as Iraq, but on Iran has gone along with the international consensus, like Russia, when the United Nations chose to impose limited sanctions on Tehran for its nuclear programme.

The third country in this equation, Vladimir Putin's Russia, has transformed itself from a funds-starved nation to a major energy producer, one with enormous strategic clout in a world hungry for gas and oil.

Interestingly, it was the Russians who initially pushed the idea of trilateral cooperation with India and China. In 2002, a weakened Russia was looking to play a more pro-active role on the global stage, a role that it could not perform alone. Today, its coffers are tinkling with oil and gas money.

It could legitimately be argued that India, China, and Russia have been finding their feet in their trilateral framework since 2002. But now the three countries will have to define, albeit loosely, what their meetings amount to.

Mr. Primakov's strategic triangle will only be formed if India, China, and Russia display an appetite for taking on the unilateral course the United States has charted out for the world. From time to time, the three countries must come together on issues where they enjoy a consensus. They must make their views count on the world stage.

U.S. on the rampage

Globally, a post-9/11 U.S. has been on the rampage. Iraq and Iraqis have, however, made George Bush and his hordes of troops come a cropper in creating a "designer nation": one that would quietly supply hydrocarbons and also meet the standards of American democracy in West Asia.

Iran remains on the American hit list, but North Korea has shown that Washington cannot take on a militarily strong nation even one which has walked out of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty and conducted a nuclear test, as Pyongyang has done.

During their first-ever stand-alone meeting in June 2005, the Foreign Ministers of India, China, and Russia committed themselves to creating a "just world order" based on the observance of international law, equity, mutual respect, cooperation, and progress towards multipolarity.

If the three countries are genuine about creating a multipolar world, then the U.S. might find it that much more difficult to repeat an Iraq elsewhere.