Beijing-Moscow-New Delhi trialogue

HOW TO appraise the "trialogue" of India, China and Russia now that the Foreign Ministers of the three countries are due to meet this week in New York, as part of the process that began two years ago? Some tend to see it as larger than life, as a precursor to the establishment of a "strategic triangle". Others may dismiss it as a routine affair. The truth lies in between — it is an informal consultative exercise, focussing on the convergences on a wide range of issues, political and economic. Its significance is not to be underestimated, apart from other factors, because the three countries represent the vast majority of the global population. It could be counted upon to strengthen the forces of stability in the region — and the world.

In any discussion of this subject, the loose talk of a "strategic triangle" has to be avoided. Those who indulge in it are either unrealistically wishful or do not understand the implication of a triangular strategic relationship. To say this is not to ignore the steady improvement in the bilateral ties among the three countries — between Russia and China, Russia and India and China and India — but to emphasise the need for an objective view of their relationship.

There are several positive factors in favour of trilateral cooperation — at least four, according to a Chinese scholar. One, they are faced with similar security environment and tasks and have similar or close positions on many international issues. All of them advocate a multi-polar world and the establishment of a just and fair new international order. Two, all the three countries need to develop their economy and rejuvenate themselves. And their economies are complementary. Three, Russia has a special position among the three — it is a traditional ally and partner of India and also has close ties with China. Its special role could help facilitate development of trilateral cooperation. Four, this cooperation, though just started, has gained strong momentum. On the negative side are the unresolved boundary dispute between India and China, and Beijing's special relationship with Islamabad.

The trilateral meeting last year of Yashwant Sinha, Igor Ivanov (Russia) and Tang Jiaxuan (China) discussed matters related to the agenda of the United Nations General Assembly with the three taking "common positions on principal matters", with stress on "formation of a world order based on the superiority of the U.N. Charter and international law".

The talk of "strategic triangle" gained currency in 1998 during the visit here of the then Russian Prime Minister, Yevgeny Primakov. At the very start of his trip, at the formal reception at the Rashtrapati Bhavan, he was asked by a correspondent whether Russia favoured this concept. "If we can succeed in establishing a triangle", he replied "it will be very good." However the issue did not figure in his discussions with the Indian hosts. China, too, was cautious in its reaction. Interestingly, Russia was cool to the idea barely a year ago. This was evident during the Moscow visit of I.K. Gujral, then External Affairs Minister. His Chinese counterpart, too, was in Moscow then. Mr. Primakov, then Foreign Minister, did not approve of Mr. Gujral's idea of a meeting of the three — even of the two visiting Ministers on the Russian soil. Obviously there had been a major shift in the Russian stand after a year, with caution giving place to enthusiasm, which continues till now. China, too, appears to have given up its earlier lukewarm attitude. In recent years China has been pro-active in the region, with a bigger role in ASEAN and the Shanghai six, a grouping including the Central Asian republics and Moscow. It offered a free trade area with ASEAN, well before India came out with such a proposition, and is far more active in the campaign against terrorism and religions fundamentalism. It has taken greater interest in matters like energy, connectivity and WTO. Some of the matters of common concern now are obvious, like the situation in Afghanistan, and the danger of its lapsing into religious fundamentalism, and Iraq.

All these items are expected to figure in the coming trilateral round which may also cover steps to counter terrorism, U.N. peace-keeping processes, reform of the Security Council, human rights and environment concerns, apart from the General Assembly agenda items. Next year they may move on to substantive economic matters. India was far from enthusiastic when the trilateral process started two years ago. It has warmed to the "trialogue" now, primarily because of the improvement in its ties with China, as evident from the outcome of the Prime Minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee's recent visit there.

Not much is given out officially on what transpires in the Foreign Ministers' discussions. To get a better idea of the rationale and scope, it is useful to refer to a parallel track II exercise — the meetings of the academics from the three countries. This initiative, by now institutionalised, is not formally connected with the Government but is an authentic index of the context of the trilateral exercise, especially of common concerns and parameters of the collective approach. A detailed account of this process which too began in 2001 is called for.

Involved in this track II exercise are the scholars from the China Institute of International Studies, the RAS Institute of Far Eastern Studies, Moscow, and the Institute of Chinese Studies, New Delhi. Both in Beijing and Moscow, the consultative process is officially encouraged and gets considerable official attention. The institutes in these two capitals have close relation with their respective foreign offices, while their Indian counterpart is autonomous and independent. The first meeting was held in September 2001 in Moscow, the second in November 2002, and the third is scheduled for November this year in New Delhi. According to published accounts, they made known, at the very beginning of the first meeting, their continued adherence to the three "no"s — the tripartite relationship is not an attempt to forge an alliance, nor meant for confrontation and not targeted against a third country. The press release, issued after the first meeting made the following points:

"Participants to the conference were in agreement that trilateral cooperation between China, India and Russia had a rich and positive potential based on common or similar positions on a broad range of international issues such as democratisation of international relations, formation of a multi-polar world, opposing hegemony, construction of a fair and rational new international order, countering international terrorism, extremism, separatism, organised crime and illegal circulation of drugs.

"All the three countries are firm supporters of the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence. As noted by the participants, the strengthening of trilateral cooperation does not imply any diminution of national autonomy or of the national identity. On the contrary, constructive interaction must become a guarantee for the full development of the most valuable qualities and genius of all three peoples.

"Another common position taken by the participants was that trilateral cooperation does not imply the formation of alliances, blocs, etc."

Now some significant highlights of the discussions in the last two years. To guard against the perception of an anti-U.S. ganging up, the scholars went out of the way to emphasise the importance of good relations with Washington. But while taking the positive stand in relation to the sole superpower, they felt concerned over the dangers of unilateralism and the strategy of pre-emption. Hence their emphasis on active cooperation to promote multipolarity and on steps to democratise international relations.

There was complete unanimity over the need for international cooperation to combat terrorism but some felt that the approach of the coalition, under the U.S., needed to be tampered with caution. In some cases, the U.S. objectives could not be shared and, in other situations, there were strong reservations to the means used by it. As seen by the scholars, the U.S. appeared to be motivated by three goals — to eliminate Islamic extremism, enhance its status as the sole superpower and increase control over energy sources of West Asia and Central Asia.

Globalisation was seen as having both positive and negative elements. Among the suggestions to contain the negative factors were 1) joint steps to build defences against movement of speculative capital 2) sharing of the experience of the three countries in dealing with multinationals and 3) establishment of a trilateral study group on WTO.

The track II may be an independent channel but the ideas mooted there do find their way to the corridors of official policy-makers. That is its additional utility.

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