Special Forum Issue
“The Russia-India-China (RIC) Triangle”
A View from China
The Russia-India-China (RIC) triangle serves China’s interests by assuaging Russian alarm about asymmetry in the Sino-Russian dyad and also Indian fears of Russia tilting fully to China. Chinese coverage of RIC plays up what is prevented more than what can be achieved by this triangle. If Russians believe that this grouping gives them reassurance about the emergence of a regional multilateral architecture, Moscow may pay less heed to Sinocentric encroachments on interests it has deemed essential, and if Indians see this grouping as contributing to “strategic autonomy,” New Delhi may be more cautious about fully committing to the US-led alliance system in Asia. It is these prophylactic objectives that stand out in Chinese narratives regarding the utility of RIC.
Under Xi Jinping, China has been the driving force for regional reorganization, and it pushed hard for the expansion of BRICS realized at the August 2023 Johannesburg summit.1 This expansion is perceived as important for extending China’s leadership in the “Global South,” not for boosting RIC as the core of BRICS. Chinese are well aware that Russia proceeds warily in China’s shadow in its Asian initiatives, while India operates to limit China’s reach across the southern tier of Asia. How Chinese perceive Russia’s stance toward regional architecture or India’s ambivalence about cooperation with China or its efforts to block China is critical for grasping the prospects of RIC.
China’s motives in reaffirming the value of RIC are not hard to ascertain. They have to do with keeping Russia close, restraining India’s inclinations to join with the United States and its allies, and strengthening platforms for outreach to the non-Western word, e.g., the. “Global South.” It recognizes Russia’s quest for partnership with India and inclusion of India in organizations from the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) to the Greater Eurasian Partnership (GEP). While offering some assurances to Russia, China can proceed as well with a more Sinocentric agenda. China also grasps India’s attachment to “strategic autonomy.” By keeping alive openings that feed this goal, China diverts India’s pursuit of strategic alignment to constrain China, while going forward with its own Sinocentric agenda. Thus, RIC has value, but not enough to be a priority.
As Vladimir Putin doubled down on his “Turn to the East” and Narendra Modi made his move to take leadership of the “Global South,” Xi Jinping took further initiatives, serving his Sinocentric agenda. Indicative of his uncooperative intentions was the August 28 release of a new, standard map for China offensive to both of its partners in RIC.2 Yet, at the BRICS summit days earlier, Xi secured the cooperation of both Russia and India to expand membership as he had intended.
Although China is cautious about revealing the full extent of its quest for regional hegemony, the essence of Sinocentrism can be understood as follows. First, it revives China as “Middle Kingdom,” on top in a hierarchical Asian order, in which China’s demands take preference and others must be deferential toward its “core interests” and numerous sensitive matters. Second, it claims a sphere of influence extending in all directions and at odds with Russian expectations of its own sphere in Central Asia and with ASEAN centrality, although lip-service has been paid to those notions. Third, Sinocentrism renews territorial claims and historical judgments clashing with thinking by Chinese neighbors—whether in Southeast Asia, Japan, the Korean Peninsula, Russia, or India. Fourth, China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) incubated an economic order seen as conducive to political and strategic objectives rooted in Sinocentrism, starting with economic dependency. Thus, it is a narrative with powerful implications for policies toward neighbors.
Putin’s “Turn to the East” is better understood than Xi Jinping’s Sinocentrism as a strategy aimed at neighboring regions.3 Whether directed at Northeast Asia, Central Asia, Southeast Asia, or South Asia, Sinocentrism is veiled under obfuscating censorship. China pays lip service to Russia for its political and cultural primacy in Central Asia while chipping away at its standing, hinting it is a declining power. China agreed to denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula, in principle, as it prioritized a US retreat and the extension of BRI there. In Southeast Asia, support for ASEAN centrality is a fig leaf for China gaining hegemony. Finally, in South Asia, China treats India as the most serious barrier to its plans, forging a “string of pearls” to deny India a sphere of influence. Sinocentrism can be seen in Chinese coverage of both Russian and Indian views linked to RIC.
Chinese Thinking regarding Russia’s Stance toward Regional Architecture and RIC
China views Russia as a justifiably aggrieved great power, whose national identity is shaped by the legacy of the Soviet Union and whose national interests center on a sphere of influence. Its aspirations are considered normal and conducive to strong Sino-Russian relations. Sometimes Russia’s thinking is treated as suspect, however, as when it seeks to keep its hold over Central Asia despite its declining national power or when Russians express wariness of China’s agenda or even when they defend historical action perceived as part of China’s “century of humiliation.” An extensive record of such views can be found in bi-monthly reports over a decade from 2013.4
There is little mystery to what Moscow seeks in Putin’s “Turn to the East.” Given his obsession with pulling Ukraine back into Moscow’s orbit, it cannot be surprising that keeping a strong grip on Central Asia is Putin’s enduring goal. Prior to 2013 using the SCO to control China’s activities in Central Asia worked rather well: confining Beijing’s role to energy extraction, suppression of “separatist” movements deemed threatening to China’s stability, and recognition of a division of labor ceding military and diplomatic priority to Moscow. Denial of China’s proposals for an FTA with Central Asia was meant to limit its economic and eventual political penetration of the area. As Beijing grew more powerful and confident, its ambitions in Central Asia raised Russian angst.
China looked askance at signs in the early 2000s of Russian aspirations on the Korean Peninsula and with Japan. After Putin’s 2000 visit to Pyongyang, Moscow in early 2003 intended to insert itself at the center of diplomacy with North Korea before Beijing took charge with the Six-Party Talks, winning Moscow’s acquiescence by 2004 to defer to its partner on DPRK diplomacy. Also, as speculation grew on an oil pipeline across Siberia and the Russian Far East to Japan, Beijing put an end to it by cutting its own deal with Moscow. Through the 2000s, Russia did not reassert its ambitions in Northeast Asia beyond bilateral ties to China, while echoing China’s positions on North Korea’s aggression against South Korea in 2010, South Korea’s troubling diplomatic shift from 2008, and Japan’s worrisome regional aspirations in its alliance with the United States. As Putin in 2012 introduced his “Turn to the East,” China watched warily his plans for multipolarity in Northeast Asia, concerned that they could infringe on its own ambitions for regional control.5
Russia’s rather limited ties to India, Vietnam, and other states in Southeast Asia apart from arms sales drew scant apprehension in China through the 2000s. When ASEAN approved expansion of the East Asian Summit in 2010 to include Russia as well as the United States, China treated Russia as a useful balance to the US entry. If Moscow remained neutral on Beijing’s territorial claims against India, Vietnam, and others, that was not an issue in this relatively quiet period. A more assertive China, however, could react against further Russian intrusions into its backyard.
Two factors transformed the regional coordination challenges facing Beijing and Moscow by 2013: Putin’s “Turn to the East” activism; and Xi Jinping’s “China Dream” Sinocentric activism. Although China welcomed Russia’s decision to turn away from the West and toward Asia with China in the forefront, it could not have been pleased by Putin’s initial stress on multipolarity in Asia, including revitalization of diplomacy with Japan at a time of new Sino-Japanese tensions.
Xi put pressure on Putin by launching the “Silk Road Economic Belt” (SREB) in Kazakhstan in September 2013. He was bypassing the SCO, changing the existing division of labor in Central Asia, and directly challenging those in Moscow wary of doubling down on ties with Beijing. It was a resounding response to Moscow’s plan for the “Eurasian Economic Union” (EEU) inclusive of Kazakhstan and announced in 2011 but yet to be launched. With many uncertain what SREB would entail, China had put Russia on notice it would proceed unilaterally on regional issues. If the EEU was perceived as the first blow against the status quo to block seeping penetration of China into Central Asia, SREB landed a decisive counterpunch to which Putin had no answer.6
After going to Beijing for a “triumphant” May 2014 summit (proof that Russia was not isolated after its forceful annexation of Crimea and subsequent sanctions from the West), Putin paid a December visit to the new Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi. India had not condemned the aggression in Ukraine and refused to be party to any economic sanctions. With Modi interested in keeping Russia from fully embracing China and Putin looking broadly to Asia to counter his pariah status In the West, Beijing looked with a wary eye on this summit, although it had little reason to take it very seriously as a force for multipolarity, given Putin’s strong tilt toward China.
Moscow acquiesced to SREB by agreeing to “dock” it and the EEU with new economic plans and expected SCO coordination. In October 2013, Xi had stepped up his plans for regionalism by announcing in Indonesia the establishment of a “Maritime Silk Road,” soon to be linked to SREB as two parts of the BRI. How Russia fit into this obvious Sinocentric agenda remained unclear, but after vague talk of “Greater Eurasia,” Putin in June 2016 advanced his own idea, the GEP. It not only included ASEAN, but prioritized India, which stayed aloof from the BRI. Although China eventually endorsed Putin’s notion, this did not mean a shared approach to Asian regionalism.
In 2015-16, Putin’s active diplomacy with Abe Shinzo and Kim Jong-un also put him at odds with Xi Jinping, who had strained relations with both men. Moreover, as Xi defied the International Arbitration Court ruling on the South China Sea, causing new strain not only with the Philippines but also with Vietnam, Putin continued to view Vietnam as Russia’s gateway to Southeast Asia. If multipolarity served as a shared ideal for transforming the international order, it proved to be a divisive concept for substantial cooperation on reorganizing the regional order across Asia.
In 2017 to 2021, the gap between Beijing and Moscow over Asian regionalism was difficult to conceal. China’s aggression against India in 2020 dealt a sharp blow to Russia’s hopes for the troika to solidify and for the GEP. Putin’s attempt to forge a closer relationship with Pyongyang stumbled in late 2017 when Russia was pressured to join China in tough sanctions on the North, desired by Beijing for expedient moves to improve ties with Washington. China got Russia to back down on ties to Vietnam as well. Agreeing to tilt much closer to China, Russia was losing leverage on regional issues, having also hardened its position in its negotiations with Japan.
Running short of options, Moscow could try to regain its stature as a great power by invading Ukraine with the expectation of a quick victory and could cultivate a special relationship with North Korea at a time China no longer was catering to the US. As the first prong failed and left Moscow more isolated (but still with India and Vietnam wary of it stopping arms deliveries or falling fully into China’s grasp), the second prong became more essential, seen in Kim Jong-un’s September 2023 visit to the Russian Far East, where he was eagerly greeted by Putin. Beijing had little reason to welcome being outflanked by Moscow with Pyongyang, but the pressure this put on the United States, Japan, and South Korea may have led to mixed feelings inside China.
Much of the coverage of Chinese views of Russia’s aggression in Ukraine has concentrated on support for the case that the West provoked China, failing to consider “indivisible security.” A similar logic applies to the US approach to Asia, ignoring “indivisible security” for China. Less noted is how Chinese have responded to the impact of the war on Russia’s Asia policies, e.g., how did the war impact the SCO, the premier institution for managing Sino-Russia relations in Central Asia? Is Russia’s position in Central Asia impacted, and how should China respond? For answers to those questions, I examine recent Chinese articles, some already summarized.7
An article in mid-2023 by Deng Hao argues that although the “Ukraine crisis” has presented challenges for the SCO—now expanded to include India, Pakistan, and (shortly after publication) Iran—it has also created new opportunities to extend the SCO’s influence. In effect, Deng argues that Russia’s influence over the SCO’s agenda and its members has weakened further in the wake of Russia’s war with Ukraine, creating conditions for China to advance its own interests through enhanced multilateral cooperation and a more institutionalized and expanded SCO. In short, in the past Moscow stood in the way of Beijing’s plans for the SCO, but it has lost this capacity.8 Not only is there no image of joint RIC leadership, China is seen as advancing at odds with Russia.
The SCO, Deng insists, faces increasing security challenges, arising not only from the conflict in Ukraine, but also from internal instability in some member states, escalating border conflicts, and energy, food, and financial security crises spurred on by the war in Ukraine. Moreover, sanctions aimed at Russia have had spillover effects: Russia’s sluggish economy has led to its decreased investment in Central Asia and reduced demand for Central Asian labor (which, in turn, has decreased remittances to Central Asia) and regional trade routes have been interrupted. As it faces this regional turmoil, the SCO has limited influence over the direction of the Russia–Ukraine war. The SCO’s virtual absence in new Kyrgyz–Tajik border clashes further damages its reputation.
In the context of the Russia–Ukraine war, the SCO faces significant challenges, Deng adds. As a result of the complete breakdown of Russia’s relationship with the United States and the West, with significant geopolitical tensions and talk of a “New Cold War,” Russia finds itself in a difficult economic and strategic position. It faces Western sanctions and the “cautious neutrality” of most of the SCO member states, unlike the United States and Europe which overcame previous differences and adopted a more unified position against Russia. As countries like Turkey, India, and Saudi Arabia vie for greater regional influence, SCO member states have sought enhanced cooperation. If Russia imagined that the SCO could become an anti-Western organization, Deng argues, member states are not willing to line up against the US. Pushing this line would only fracture the SCO.
Nevertheless, Deng sees the war as an opportunity for the SCO to expand its influence—and, by extension, for China to advance its foreign policy objectives. As Russia’s global position weakens, its reliance on the SCO increases: the SCO provides an important forum for it to negotiate with India and China, as well as a way to break its diplomatic isolation and pursue trade relationships. Furthermore, Deng believes that by aggravating anti-Russian sentiments, the war in Ukraine has made countries more receptive to the “Shanghai Spirit”—the shared values, consistent with Xi’s overarching foreign policy approach, that China believes underpin the SCO. As Russia has become more reliant on the SCO, Central Asian countries’ interest in the organization has also increased.
Resisting Russian efforts to create an anti-US organization, these states instead want to maintain neutrality and avoid picking sides. They hope that the SCO will help to ensure their security and promote economic growth. Meanwhile, India and Pakistan see the SCO as a useful mechanism for addressing security concerns like terrorism and Afghan instability and improving relationships with countries in Central Asia. Deng sees the current juncture in the development of the SCO as an opportunity for China to gain regional influence and advance its view of a new world order. Channeling standard Chinese diplomatic language, Deng argues that the SCO can advance “major-country diplomacy with Chinese characteristics” and the “construction of an SCO community with a shared future.” The biggest challenge is to persuade member states to internalize these values.
Other Chinese authors echo Deng’s main themes. In one article, authors argue that increasingly institutionalized multilateral cooperation in Central Asia—as seen in the SCO—has come about because of both China’s increasing demand for multilateral cooperation and Russia’s declining veto power in the context of a regional power transition, creating the conditions for China to realize its goals. As China’s economy grew and Russia’s stagnated, Russia’s veto power declined. China’s “new security concept” even proved more attractive than Russia’s approach. The challenge for the near term will be to improve coordination between the SCO, i.e., China, and the Russia-dominated EEU and Collective Security Treaty Organization, as Russia seeks to reassert its fading influence in Central Asia.9 The clear impression is that China will oppose Russia’s intention.
Li Yonghui assesses Russia’s diplomatic strategy in the context of the “Ukraine crisis,” arguing that it launched its “special military operation” against Ukraine for three reasons10: the geopolitical conflict of interests between the United States and Russia, as Russia seeks to maintain its sphere of influence; economic, cultural, and political differences between eastern and western Ukraine; and a perceived opportunity to resolve questions of the European security architecture in its favor at a time when the United States wanted to shift its attention to the Indo-Pacific region. Li argues that the “Ukraine crisis” has rapidly worsened Russia’s external environment and predicts that NATO will expand its vision to include the Asia-Pacific region (to the detriment of both Russia and China).
Russia has hosted multilateral conferences to demonstrate its continued international influence and has attempted to counter Western containment by shoring up relations with countries to its east, such as North Korea and India, and with ASEAN. Meanwhile, relations between China and Russia have remained strong, and their economic and trade cooperation has continued to grow. Russia and the West are in an ideological, geopolitical confrontation, with Putin seeking to restore the historical Soviet sphere of influence. Russia’s ambition to be a global power and to reshape the world order threatens US hegemony. In the debate over whether the actions of Russia in Ukraine have been motivated more by geopolitical concerns, such as NATO’s expansion, or by imperialist dreams, Li’s answer seems to be “both.” Another facet of Russia’s strategic culture is its desire to construct a multipolar world order of relatively independent regional powers that do not have to abide by any externally imposed order (i.e., the rules-based international order created by the US and its allies after WWII). Li views Russia as uncommitted to globalization, with an economy that is built on natural resources. Russia’s efforts to construct a new Eurasian regional order conflict with the US “Indo-Pacific Strategy,” most notably the formation of the Quad (which Russian analysts see as an attempt to turn India against Russia) and AUKUS. Li concludes that these basic elements of Russian strategic culture will outlast the Russia–Ukraine conflict. Its efforts to build a Russia-centered regional order grounded in Russian values place it in confrontation with the West. This article is not an endorsement of Russia but an implicit warning that it departs from China’s ideals.
As it intensified its hostility to the United States in 2019-21, Russia took comfort from the view that China too had become a “total antagonist” of the US (Trump trade war, pandemic clash of ideologies, and China’s anger at Biden’s Indo-Pacific strategies) and from China’s agreement to a joint Eurasian strategy had declared a new epoch in their relationship. China supported the advance of integrationist processes within the EEU and the initiative for the formation of the GEP, as Russia backed the BRI, and both promised to accelerate the docking of the EEU and BRI. The 2021 Dushanbe SCO declaration acknowledged the idea of creating the GEP.11 Yet, behind the scenes, the struggle over Central Asia was only intensifying. China sought to turn the SCO into an all-around regional unit, especially with economic ties, but Russia blocked that and from 2005 sought India as a counterweight to widen the SCO, not deepen it. In reality, China used this multilateral cooperation to penetrate Central Asia with bilateral ties.
This is Li’s message, as she notes that the Ukraine war further tilted the balance in Sino-Russian relations to China, emboldening China in Central Asia, while making Russia more desperate to turn to North Korea. Although Russia was wary of Sinocentrism, including the BRI, and posited different regional goals, China considered it a constructive partner. It has largely accommodated China, deferred to China’s key objectives, and proved to be increasingly unable to resist Chinese behavior. Its infatuation with India was a problem, but a positive effect was that India tilted less to the US and its allies. China generally toned down Sinocentrism where Russia was concerned, despite signs of arrogance and use of the history card, which had riled the Russians by 2020.
Dismissing Russian pleas, China rekindled its territorial dispute with India. By 2020, China felt less need to cater to Russia. By 2023, China challenged Russia more directly in Central Asia. In that year, China was also emboldened to post an official map undercutting bilateral trust. RIC, it assumed, would not be jeopardized since Russia had thrown itself completely on China’s mercy. In any case, Chinese pay little heed to RIC or to its presence within the SCO and BRICS.
Chinese Thinking regarding India’s Stance toward Regional Architecture
The most intense debate about India occurred in 2017-2020 before Russians became resigned to the helplessness of their country in dealing with Sino-Indian relations. Russians were troubled by Sino-Indian tensions in 2017, took hope from a summit in 2018, and lost almost all hope in 2020. Chinese saw this evolution and focused on Russian thinking toward India, seeing it wavering. They also looked more broadly at Indian perceptions, weighing strategic autonomy’s continued hole.
On December 6, 2021, Putin met Modi in New Delhi, striving to breathe new life into bilateral relations. Defense topped the agenda, extending a military technology agreement. In defiance of forces pulling the two countries apart, they reaffirmed their special relationship. The subtext, however, was Modi’s desire to keep Russia from drawing even closer to China and Putin’s aim to keep alive the notion that Russia is not fully in China’s camp. Upbeat messages reflected the mood in Moscow to keep alive a vision of Greater Eurasia beyond Sino-Russian relations as it was intensifying conflict over Ukraine and facing even greater dependency on China.
In the fall of 2022, Tanvi Madan argued that China has lost India, pushing it to join the West.12 China’s aggression at the Himalayan border became a gamechanger for India. Whereas Beijing calls for setting this issue aside and acting as if nothing is the matter, New Delhi insists on more substantial de-escalation. Modi not meeting Xi at the September 2022 SCO was one sign of the estrangement. A year later Xi did not attend the G20 summit in India, again alienating Modi.
I wrote earlier that India in the 2010s served as a bulwark for Russian aspirations in Asia. It was seen as a force for Eurasianism, the critical piece in the BRICS, a vital addition to the SCO, a barrier to Sinocentrism and the BRI, and an obstacle due to its strategic autonomy from US ambitions. The idea of a “troika” of Russia, China, and India served aspirations: to construct a continental architecture, while others had a maritime orientation; to gain the pivot when the two others struggled to improve their relationship; and to prevent a Sinocentric regional order from emerging. Claims to have special closeness to India served to allay concern about getting caught in an asymmetrical dyad with China and averting India’s warming ties to the US and its allies. Yet, in the shadow of booming Sino-Russian relations. India was moving away from Russia, quietly acknowledged in the far fewer references to India in Russian commentaries about turning to Asia at the end of the 2010s. Russian thinking mattered little, however, for China’s behavior.
China views India very differently from Russia. It is not recognized as a full-fledged great power or the source of a normal national identity. Whereas Russia’s drive for a sphere of interest draws understanding, India’s does not. China claims to have resolved its territorial dispute with Russia, while it publishes maps showing large parts of India as China’s legitimate territory. Even so, it is clear that China recognizes the value of including India in multilateral organizations important for the reorganization of Asia and beyond, while keeping rather mum on Indo-Russian relations.
Chinese are torn in their thinking about India’s role in Asian reorganization and great power relations. They have trouble placing it as a power, insistent that it lacks the power to realize its great power ambitions. They find its national identity torn between “strategic autonomy” and alliance with one great power to balance one or more others without trusting its great power ties. Emblematic of its ambivalence is the tough choice it has faced since 2022 over ties to the US and Russia, the current alliance attraction versus the symbol of its strategic autonomy.13
Li Jiang weighed three explanations for India’s refusal to join condemnations of Russia following the outbreak of the war in Ukraine: 1) dependence on Russian supplies of arms; 2) tradition of strategic autonomy; and 3) desire to use Russia versus China and Pakistan. Arguing that all three of these reasons have validity, Li took a historical perspective on this mix of Indian thinking.14
Yang Fei and Fang Changping assessed mini-lateral cooperation in the US Indo-Pacific strategy, arguing that both the Quad and AUKUS are key parts of US efforts to compete with China for regional influence.15 The Quad has been particularly focused on maritime security and strategic cooperation, while AUKUS is more focused on military cooperation. The key players in the multilateral configurations led by the United States are Japan, India, South Korea, and Australia, which all have similar amounts of national power, long-term bilateral security relations with the United States, and democratic systems. The authors describe efforts at persuading India to side with the United States against China, excluding it from the joint regional security framework.
Growing mini-lateral cooperation will harm China’s security interests. It will undermine other, more inclusive regional multilateral economic mechanisms, such as ASEAN, and intensify geo-economic competition with China, particularly in areas such as infrastructure and technology. Economic and trade relations will be negatively impacted by the influence of “China threat theory” promoted by the US. Yet, India has a long-standing foreign policy of seeking to balance among great powers and will not want to choose just China, the United States, or Russia; its foreign policy preferences also differ from those of the United States in important respects. Yang and Fang conclude that China should strengthen engagement with countries in the Indo-Pacific, with which, they argue, it does not have fundamental security or economic disagreements. India appears to be one of these.
Jiao Jian assessed Japan’s relations with South Asia in the context of its “Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy”16 arguing that it is responsible for transforming the “Indo-Pacific” concept into a strategy. Japan’s priorities include maritime security, “freedom of navigation” and the law of the sea, and a diversified security cooperation system that includes stronger Japanese military capabilities, the US–Japan alliance, and the Quad. Japan’s relations with India have grown much closer since Modi took office in 2014, characterized by stronger strategic interaction, greater regional cooperation, deeper military cooperation, and an anti-China focus. US and Japanese strategic interests are largely aligned, and Japan follows the containment strategy central to the US Indo-Pacific strategy.
Bi Hongye examined the new state of the China-US-Russia triangle,17 saying with Russia’s revival and China’s rise, we have double containment of the United States as three-sided ties drive international relations. China and Russia can cooperate to build a new Eurasian order, using the SCO, and prevent the US from linking the Indo-Pacific and Eurasia. They can also deter India from joining a Quad security system. India insists on continuing cooperation with Russia and will not blindly follow the United States on China. China can boost the China-Russia-India triangle to limit US hegemony and guard against India joining the US-led camp. No matter how the Ukraine war ends, Russia’s national power will be weakened, sanctions of Russia will alter supply chains, polarization will accelerate, and China’s international environment will be more complicated. In this Chinese viewpoint, RIC is a way to deter India, a lesser, third power. Thus, it should be strengthened.
Moscow had to backtrack on energy exploration in the South China Sea and to remain silent in triangular settings over Sino-Indian fighting in the Himalayas. By prioritizing its relationship with China, it has lost ground in Asia’s southern tier, watching a resurgent US host the Quad summits. Obsessing about overturning the US-led world order, Moscow has deferred to China’s assertion of a Sinocentric Asian order, which is undercutting plans for Greater Eurasia and multipolarity.
Global Times on August 25 lauded the solidarity and expansion of BRICS, as a historic milestone and a powerful response to West-led hegemony, but also a wake-up call for India and a victory for China.18 It asserted: “The US-led Western countries want to use India to divide the Global South and weaken China’s position among developing countries in the Global South. Judging from India’s diplomatic actions this year, it seems that it is enjoying this role.” The article added, “the severe standoff in the China-India border area in recent years is not China’s responsibility. The border standoff…is the result of India’s "forward policy" implemented since the 1950s, the geopolitical competition between China and the US, among other reasons. China has no alternative but to carry out countermeasures…India continuously connects the border issue with other issues, damaging the relationship between the two countries, and even obstructing China’s initiatives in multilateral cooperation mechanisms such as the SCO and BRICS. However, the successful BRICS Summit in Johannesburg demonstrates that China’s initiatives are widely welcomed by countries in the Global South…Since Modi came to power, India has been moving increasingly closer to the US, Japan, and Australia, attempting to take advantage of the opportunity of strategic competition between China and the US to contain China and achieve its rise as a major power.” Earlier, the paper wrote, “India is now very inclined toward the US’ Indo-Pacific Strategy… If it goes further down this road, it will eventually lose strategic autonomy, completely become the US’ hatchet man against China in the Indo-Pacific region, or even cannon fodder.19 A week after the BRICS summit, China’s map claimed vast parts of the Indian territory.
China refused to blame itself for provoking India, instead searching for some defect in Indian psychology for its “deviation” from the norms of strategic credibility. Not only had the war in Ukraine allowed China to press for a multilateral framework in Central Asia and expand the influence of the SCO, it put India in a bind in hedging between the United States and Russia.20 India claims to practice “strategic non-alignment” but tilted in the Cold War toward the Soviet Union and lately to the United States at the cost of its credibility. Why should the “Global South” trust it is China’s message. How is its commitment to ASEAN centrality believable when it participates in the Indo-Pacific strategy, which emphasizes great power relations over relationships with small and medium-sized countries? India consistently plays both sides, as in the Cold War when it sought food aid and military assistance from the US and now joining the SCO and Quad.
China considers the Quad to target Sino-ASEAN cooperation. “Chinese pointed to the Quad as having had a “a negative impact on the regional order, security situation, strategic mutual trust and interdependence of China-ASEAN cooperation, thus affecting the further deepening and upgrading of the cooperation.”21 Distinguishing Quad 3.0 from the early Quad 1.0 of 2006- led by Japan and the 2017—Quad 2.0 pushed by the Trump administration, one author points to deeper institutionalization as well as regularization centered on facing the “China threat theory.” The Quad 2.0 and 3.0 signified containment of China under US leadership.
As for the 2023 BRICS summit, India may have hesitated at expansion, but it wanted to dilute China’s role and to show its own leadership in the “Global South,” finding the new members a good mix. China needed to reinvigorate a bloc of emerging economies. All got some of what they desired. Unable to deepen the BRICS as a cohesive body, they expanded it instead. Indeed, the spotlight was shifting to the “Global South,” where the West counted on India to keep China at bay. Putin’s absence in September 2023 from the East Asian Summit in Indonesia and the G20 in India, as well as the late August BRICS summit in South Africa, where he risked arrest on an International Court warrant, demonstrated Russia’s peripheral role in the “Global South.”
In early 2023, Chinese analysts expressed concern that increased Indian naval capabilities could threaten China’s economic development and enable India to impinge on China’s core interests. Li Xinya and Shi Yinhong evaluated how India’s maritime policy impacts China’s 21st Century Maritime Silk Road initiative, warning that India has adopted a hedging strategy toward China.22 Despite India’s support for the Quad, they argued, India will be unlikely to agree to a formal NATO-like alliance because of the value it places on its autonomy and because of differences among the four countries. Second, India has identified specific international maritime chokepoints—an “implicit warning” targeted at China because China is uniquely dependent on these waterways. Efforts to strengthen ties with island states in the Indian Ocean parallel India’s outreach to countries in Southeast Asia on issues of maritime security. Third, Li and Shi assert, India has tried to persuade neighboring countries that have already adopted pro-China policies to adopt neutral or pro-India positions. India’s influence in the Maldives was weakened in the mid-2010s, but it improved after the election of President Ibrahim Mohammad Saleh in 2018. The Maldives has shifted from a “pro-China” to a “pro-India” diplomatic stance, Li and Shi argue, blaming India for also influencing the Sri Lankan government to obstruct Chinese infrastructure projects and for disrupting military cooperation between Sri Lanka and China, resulting in more “neutrality.”
Although India has historically been an advocate of the non-alignment movement, after China announced the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road Initiative, India decided that tighter cooperation with external powers was necessary to maintain its maritime position. As the cooperation of the Quad has deepened, bilateral military cooperation among its members has grown. Li and Shi detect a shift in India’s attitudes following the 2020 Sino—Indian border clash; Furthermore, India has sought support from the United States and Japan to provide alternative infrastructure development plans to those offered by China. Indian analysts believe China to be encircling India, creating a maritime “string of pearls,” and replacing India’s regional influence through infrastructure programs, hedging negatively impacts China’s economic and military security by strengthening the Quad, exposing China to greater commercial and military threats in the Indian Ocean, and disrupting China’s infrastructure deals.
Lei Dingkun and Feng Renjie evaluate India’s efforts to exert military power on land and sea in the context of Sino–Indian border disputes and general competition.23 They assert that since the 2020 border skirmishes, two camps have formed in India. The “radical” one calls for acting aggressively against China in the Indian Ocean to increase India’s leverage over the territorial dispute. By contrast, the “rationalist” camp is wary of escalating the conflict and provoking Chinese retaliation and argues instead that India should adopt a denial strategy in the Indian Ocean to “check and balance” China’s advantages on land. Both advocate the “use of the sea to control the land,” according to Lei and Feng, citing efforts to compensate for India’s military weaknesses relative to China on land by increasing India’s maritime capabilities, through investment in the navy and stronger relationships with the US and other partners.
Blockading maritime channels could cut off China from important energy resources and other important imports, and force China to compromise on a territorial dispute. India has gradually implemented this strategy, Lei and Feng argue, both in the Indian Ocean, where India has a geopolitical advantage, and through its cooperation with Southeast Asian countries and extra-regional powers. Lei and Feng contend that Indian policymakers recognize that India can best leverage its maritime advantages by encroaching upon China’s core interests, such as the South China Sea. In recent years, India has accelerated its naval modernization programs and shifted its funding priorities from the army to the navy, while also taking advantage of the US embrace of the Indo-Pacific strategy and support for a leading role for India in the region. India has operationalized the “using the sea to control the land” strategy through its more extensive military deployments in the region and through its cooperation with both extra-regional countries and island countries in the region, which allows India to better threaten China’s access to sea lanes and deter China’s navy from the Indian Ocean. India’s growing cooperation with the technologically advanced US military and its growing access to advanced military technology have enhanced its ability to contain China.
India has made diplomatic overtures and offered assistance to island countries and deepened cooperation with regional organizations to gain their support in containing China. From this point in the Indian Ocean, Lei and Feng argue, India has moved eastward by deepening its cooperation with countries in ASEAN and its member states, and through its participation in the Quad. This eastward movement brings India’s navy right up to China’s core interests, while attributing India’s shift toward a maritime focus to its border disputes with China.
What happened at the BRICS Johannesburg summit in late August 2023 reveals the dynamics of RIC. On the one hand, states reached a consensus on expanding from five to eleven members and on the overall direction of BRICS in organizing the “Global South.” On the other, they only papered over their enduring differences on regional reorganization through a lowest common denominator, global approach. With Putin participating virtually due to the threat of arrest as a war criminal, the Sino-Indian divide took center stage through Xi-Modi interventions. Their contradictory readouts exposed the divide. Each side claimed the other sought the meeting. China treated the exchange as in-depth, India as just an informal conversation. On the border issue, the two sides agreed that it was discussed, but China’s readout was a warning that the issue needed to be handled with care while India said that officials were directed to expedite disengagement and de-escalation.24
Why is India behaving in an odd way? One cause is the fact that India’s great power aspirations are not, at this point, matched by its actual national strength. It is actually a middle power that is rising and must sometimes seek help from great powers. India is unwilling to become a subordinate in its relationship with great powers, however, so even after seeking help it fails to maintain consistent cooperation with its would-be ally. At the regional level, however, India does not face a similar gap between ambitions and capabilities and can pursue regional hegemony. Another cause is a contradiction between pursuit of strategic autonomy and pragmatic, realist tendencies, pursuing closer ties with the United States to advance India’s national interests, even though this closer partnership undermines India’s traditional pursuit of strategic autonomy and non-alignment. A third cause is the presence of both cooperation and mistrust in the Indian–US relationship. The US has protested India’s non-alignment (and unwillingness to ally with the United States), while India has protested closer US relations with Pakistan. They hold different views of the Indian Ocean: India sees the Indian Ocean as its rightful sphere of influence, while the United States seeks to use India’s position in the Indian Ocean to advance US objectives of regional and global dominance. A key question is how long the United States will tolerate India’s limited partnership and its continued relations with Russia. Also, given India’s history of multidirectional hedging, will it really unite with the United States against China?
Beijing and Moscow’s efforts to reshape BRICS and the SCO into anti-Western platforms limit their utility for India. India would not want to leave a vacuum for China to fill. It will remain in them, but Chinese recognize that its priority lies elsewhere. Its response to the war in Ukraine is shaped by its concern about leaving itself vulnerable to new aggression and to loss of Russian arms. It does not want to push Russia further to China’s side.
Chinese saw India tightening cooperation with ASEAN states, supporting their security agendas through the Quad, and it insisted that this contradicted ASEAN centrality and would not work. They insist Indians have an exaggerated sense of their country’s status, ignoring that it is only a rising middle power. Modi harbors a great power illusion, but India needs a great power’s help versus Pakistan and in the border clash with China. It pretends to use RIC to assert strategic autonomy against the United States and cannot win US trust, especially in the new context of the Ukraine war. India’s strategic space is narrowing. Its words and actions are not in sync. It is in danger of falling into the US camp. Russia has sent warning signals, as in arms sales to Pakistan.
Successively entering the East Asian Summit, BRICS, and the SCO, India became a key partner of China in the reorganization of Asian architecture. Yet, China treats India as a lesser power and a barrier to its Sinocentric agenda. RIC has some limited utility in managing Russia and India, but it is of marginal interest for China’s principal objectives. Of the three, China values it least of all.
Chinese write rather little about RIC, as if it is of little distinct importance despite summits on the sidelines of larger gatherings. By countenancing RIC, China offers reassurance to Russia at little cost and burnishes its credentials as the driver of cooperation in the “Global South.” What can be discerned in Chinese publications on Russian and Indian foreign policy is a pattern of disregard for triangularity in Asia and warnings against their foreign policy behavior in adjacent areas, whether Central Asia, Southeast Asia, or South Asia. There is no support for diplomacy to manage differences in these sub-regions, just declarations that their unwarranted aspirations are at odds with China’s interests. Russia and China appear as rivals more than as partners.
Recently the Ukraine war and the Quad emerged as forces impacting Chinese thinking. With Russia weakened in Asia and more dependent on China, Beijing feels justified in changing the division of labor in Central Asia, insisting that it is catering to the will of the countries there. In the case of Southeast Asia, Beijing feigns defense of ASEAN centrality, suggesting that New Delhi is interfering with that, either through distorted psychology or in a pact with the US and its allies to win support against China in return for their dubious objectives. Gaining greater asymmetric advantage over Russia in 2022, China pressed its advantage rather than doing more to welcome Putin’s “Turn to the East.” Perceiving India strengthening its hand by joining the Quad, China did not respond by searching for common ground but grew more hostile to India’s foreign policy. In these responses, bolstering RIC proved to be of little interest. Sinocentrism took precedence.
The expansion of the SCO and BRICS will further test China’s interest in cooperating with India as well as Russia. On some issues related to boosting the presence of the “Global South” in the world, they may reach agreement. India does not want to be outmaneuvered in outreach to the countries of the “Global South” by China. Also, Modi has national identity grievances with the West, enflamed by his disregard for values such as minority rights. China will take advantage.
1. Evgenii Shestakov, “В БРИКС вступят еще шесть стран: итоги саммита в Йоханнесбурге,” RGRU, August 24, 2023.
2. Dmitry Novikov and Pavel Vorob’ev, “Китай ‘забрал’ себе часть Хабаровского края. Почему молчит Москва?” NEWS.ru, August 31, 2023.
3. Gilbert Rozman and Gaye Christofferson, eds., Putin’s “Turn to the East” in the Xi Jinping Era (London: Routledge, 2024).
4. Danielle Cohen, “Country Report: China,” The Asan Forum, 2013.
5. Gilbert Rozman, “China Cleaves Northeast Asia in Two, 2013-2016,” The Asan Forum, July 2023.
6. Gilbert Rozman, “Debating Russia’s ‘Turn to the East,’” in Rozman and Christofferson, pp. 37-54.
7. Danielle Cohen, “Country Report: China,” The Asan Forum, 2022, 2023. I draw on these bi-monthly reports, some of which I prepared in her stead.
8. Deng Hao, Eluosi Dongou Zhongya Yanjiu, No. 3,2023, in “Country Report: China,” The Asan Forum, August 2023.
9. Zhu Jielin and He Yue, Eluosi Yanjiu, No. 3, 2023, in “Country Report: China,” The Asan Forum, August 2023.
10. Li Yonghui, “乌克兰危机背景下俄罗斯对外战略调整及基本走势,” Eluosi Dongou Zhongya Yanjiu, No. 1, 2023.
11. “EEC and Secretariat of Shanghai Cooperation Organization signed Memorandum of Understanding within SCO anniversary summit,” Evraziiskaya ekonomicheskaia kommissia, September 17, 2021.
12. Tanvi Madan, “China Has Lost India: How Beijing’s Aggression Pushed New Delhi to the West,” Foreign Affairs, October 4, 2022.
13. Li Jiang, “印度大国结盟战略：信誉缺失、三重背离及成因,” Nanya yanjiu, No. 2, 2023.
15. Yang Fei and Fang Changping, “美国“印太”小多边合作的布局与前景,” Xiandai Guoji Guanxi, No. 10, 2022.
16. Jiao Jian, “战略跟随与外交主体性：印太视域下的日本对南亚外交,” Riben Yanjiu, No. 3, 2022.
17. Bi Hongye, Guoji Guancha, No. 3, 2022, in “Country Report: China,” The Asan Forum, September 2022.
18. Liu Zongyi, “BRICS Summit should serve a wake-up call for India,” Global Times, August 25, 2023.
19. “India seeking courtship with Quad a negative asset of BRICS, SCO,” Global Times, March 12, 2021.
20. Li Jiang, “印度大国结盟战略.”
21. Huang Jie, Zheng Yingyu, Huang Lili, “美日印澳“四边安全对话”机制的发展走向及其对中国—东盟合作的影响,” Dongnanya congheng, No. 3, 2022.
22. Li Xinya and Shi Yinhong, “21 世纪海上丝绸之路”背景下印度海权战略布局的调整,” Guoji Luntan, No. 2, 2023.
23. Lei Dingkun and Feng Renjie, “印度“以海制陆”战略分析,” Xiandai Guoji Guanxi, No. 1, 2023.
24. Ashok K. Kantha, “Expanded BRICS—Delhi must look out for geopolitical agenda with Chinese characteristics,” The Indian Express, August 29, 2023.