Special Forum Issue
“The Russia-India-China (RIC) Triangle”
Three great powers are vying from within Asia to forge a new regional order: Russia with its hopes for a Greater Eurasian Partnership (GEP), India intent on leading the “Global South,” and China utilizing the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and other tools to achieve Sinocentrism. As the United States pursues an Indo-Pacific Strategy (IPS), contestation over the architecture of the world’s most wide-ranging region grows more heated. Middle or even rogue powers such as Japan, South Korea, Australia, Indonesia, Vietnam, North Korea, Turkey, and Iran enter the mix along with European powers such as Great Britain, France, and Germany. Nonetheless, if one sets aside the oft-studied US strategy, the core states driving transformation in the 2020s are in Russia-India-China (RIC). In 2020 Xi Jinping drew attention for his wolf-warrior approach to the COVID epidemic, putting Sinocentrism in the forefront. In 2021, Joe Biden launched the IPS as a US strategy for mini-lateral alliances and partnerships to reshape the region. Invading in Europe while accelerating his “Turn to the East,” Vladimir Putin in 2022 put Eurasianism in the forefront. Finally, it was Narendra Modi’s turn to take center stage, hosting the G20 in 2023 with the Global South in mind. How Modi will balance the Quad led by the US and RIC is emerging as a central question.
The articles that follow look at RIC from three angles. The Russian angle considers how views of China and India in the broader regional context have evolved since the decision to launch a war in Ukraine. The Chinese angle compares thinking about Russia and India, drawing a sharp contrast. Finally, the Indian angle asks how Delhi manages clashing views of Russia and China in its handling of the triangle and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), where China and Russia, not India, matter, and BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa), where RIC stands as the core grouping.
While much attention has centered on Sino-Russian relations, India’s ties to these two powers and the RIC troika have drawn far less scrutiny. India has emerged as the swing country. It has defied the West’s containment and sanctions against Russia, raising doubts about the solidarity of the Quad. Yet, it has resisted Russia’s GEP, insisting on the Indo-Pacific region as the dominant regional framework. Above all, it has reacted to the “China threat.” As great powers woo India and struggle with its “strategic autonomy,” India is gaining credence as one of the great powers.
Stephen Blank, “A View from Russia”
Russian policy and influence are failing across Asia. Russian analysts, if not the regime, know this and have long warned about it even if they must do so obliquely because the government disregards these warnings. The accelerating erosion of Russia’s decades-long partnership with India that owes much to its alliance with and rising dependence on China exemplifies this. The RIC troika is a Russian concept and key to its vaunted GEP. Yet, neither China nor India is invested in RIC’s success. If expectations for RIC were dashed in 2020; they persist despite evidence of its failure. Ignoring reality, Russians cling to the delusion that RIC could become the nucleus of a regional and global order, supplanting Washington’s liberal international order.
The Russo-Chinese alliance undermines Russia’s independence and partnership with India. Russian commentators largely reject this conclusion but convey a mixed picture of the forces impacting RIC, which, when juxtaposed with the accumulating evidence, validates this assessment. They maintain this troika confirms multilateral success in Asia. Sometimes, they lament that India’s ties to the United States, or the Quad are undermining the triangle, but they accentuate India’s “strategic autonomy” as proof it retains a high priority for Russia. Regarding Sino-Indian ties, Russians complain that Russia cannot affect them, but find hope in bilateral trade levels and seemingly shared efforts to boost the non-Western world against the existing US-dominated order. Constrained from criticizing either Beijing or New Delhi, Russian writers struggle to substantiate their arguments that \RIC is advancing as the nucleus of a new order.
Blank focuses attention on Sino-Russian relations, Sino-Indian relations, Chinese relations with Central Asia (at the intersection of the three countries), defense, and the big picture regarding coverage of the RIC, BRICS, the SCO, and Russia’s “Turn to the East.” He argues that Russia’s increasing acquiescence to Chinese policies undermines Russian interests and partnerships and if an Asian realignment took shape based on support for China, that would terminate Russian hopes of playing a significant role across Asia, supposedly its foreign policy’s main direction. Global goals overlap but regional goals keep clashing. Yet, the bottom line is refusal to admit any serious problem in Sino-Russian relations. Russia needs China even more.
Russians walk a tightrope, both praising India and criticizing the Quad, of which India is a vital member. They can hardly comment extensively on how China’s policies toward India undermine RIC. Hopes rested on claims that India would be wary of the US. Yet India’s regional clashes with China are critical in understanding why India gravitates away from Russia in search of a more reliable partner. Russian coverage on Sino-Indian relations and the Quad show what a bind Russians are facing. They acknowledge serious problems impacting Russia’s desired outcome but feign that a positive result lies within reach, avoiding blaming China and insisting that India’s strategic autonomy national identity will, in the end, trump any national security imperatives.
India previously perceived Russia as a power that could help secure its interests in Central Asia. Yet this linkage has failed to realize India’s objectives, while China steadily gains at Russia’s expense, blocking Russian and Indian ambitions there. States will have little choice but to lean towards China given Russia’s declining capacity to protect them. Moscow’s multiple advantages are eroded. Countries see that Russia’s armed forces are not as strong as earlier assumed. Some states fear they could share Ukraine’s fate. Russians note Indian fear that China can dominate.
The BRICS and G20 summits of the summer of 2023 revealed the increasingly unmistakable ideological and regional tensions that divide Russia, China, and India. The BRICS’ planned enlargement despite Indian reservations, the Indo-American proposal at the G20 to build a trans-continental railway from India to Europe, excluding Russia and China, and India’s proposal to include the African Union in the 2024 G20, highlight these cleavages. These summits also reveal wide gaps between the Sino-Russian understanding of a multipolar world and India’s conception of that phenomenon. Although Russian and Chinese thinking about Asia is permeated with the idea of multipolarity, their thinking about multipolarity invariably comes second to sovereignty.
RIC symbolizes Russia’s desperate attempt to cling to claims of multipolarity in Asia. As Russia falls further into China’s embrace, India serves as the only power with the stature to validate its insistence that the “Turn to the East” is leading to the GEP rather than to an asymmetrical bond with China as the dominant tendency. Russia confronts pressure from China’s encroachments on Indian and Russian interests that it cannot stop. China perceives Russia as a weakened “junior partner” that cannot be allowed to lose the war in Ukraine. Therefore, it offers considerable covert support. While Russian foreign policy is increasingly subordinated to placating China, China does not hesitate when it can subordinate Russian interests to Sinocentric objectives.
War in Ukraine, China’s enhanced aggressiveness throughout Asia and especially against India, Chinese covert support for Russia in its war, and superior Western economic-technological-defense capabilities are all eroding the basis for the Indo-Russian entente. India clearly feels China’s mounting strategic pressure in Central and South Asia, the border with China, and the Indian Ocean. While India may not sacrifice its strategic autonomy—its lodestar since 1947—it has joined the Quad and overtly turned to the US and the West. Russia increasingly cannot defend India’s let alone its own interests effectively. Therefore. India is seeking new partners who can better sustain India’s interests, especially defense, technology, and economic growth.
In the censored Russian media, no direct criticism of China or even India is observable. Yet, on the SCO, BRICS, and other groupings involving these countries, we find considerable candor regarding problems that stem from China’s behavior or a divergence in Sino-Russian thinking. The sole explanation is the existence of widespread unease about China’s pursuit of regionalism that dashes Russian dreams. RIC is premised on a shared priority for undermining the liberal international order and forging across Asia an alternative Eurasian partnership. Sinocentrism is scarcely acknowledged in Russia despite the fact it is the principal factor rendering RIC little more than a façade. The Ukraine war has served to boost Chinese assertiveness, whether in Central Asia or on territorial issues. While Russians treat it as a force accelerating their drive for a non-Western order, it has exacerbated differences within RIC and China’s Sinocentric push. By painting itself into a corner, Russia only relies on China with no strategy for solidifying RIC.
India counts on Russia being neutral and playing the balancer against a unipolar or bipolar order. However, Russia keeps ignoring the role of regional states and their agenda for the Indo-Pacific region. Russia’s regional security architecture idea lacks concrete suggestions and gains no support. Russia has not recognized the losses its conflict with the West cause to its cooperation with the East. Evidence of Russia’s decline underscores that Russia’s Asian policy has turned out to be only a pivot to China. Russia’s war, support for North Korea, rupture with Japan, and alignment with China represent the foreign and defense policy causes for this failure. But its failure to reform its administration and economy to make itself attractive to Asian states may be even more critical. As a failed rupees for rubles scheme shows, Russia’s economic incapacity undermines its capabilities. Given the war’s impact: sanctions, stagnation, increased repression, flight of human capital, isolation and greater dependence on China, and China’s aggressive anti-Indian policy, until the war ends not only will India steadily move away from Russia, but Russia’s ability to play a major role in Asia will decline, even to levels not seen in centuries.
Anand P. Krishnan and Jabin T. Jacob, “A View from India”
Strategic balancing through close engagement and cooperation with all leading powers has remained a salient feature of India’s foreign policy. Regional arrangements and multilateral mechanisms of various hues form an integral part of this balancing. It is in this framework that India’s participation in the RIC trilateral needs to be understood. This is not to deny the contradictions or tensions among the three actors—in particular, in India-China bilateral relations—that has constrained it from having tangible or sustainable outcomes. The question then is why India has persisted with the RIC forum.
Through RIC, India is able to highlight those aspects that it sees as missing in terms of its global status, e.g., the “historical injustice” of its lack of a UN Security Council permanent seat, On the one hand, India manages to make a statement of being able to be part of a powerful collection of countries despite not being a permanent member. On the other hand, it is a subtle way of putting pressure on the two permanent members of the UN Security Council for supporting India’s candidacy. From a strategic and economic perspective, involvement in RIC provides India access to Eurasia, and helps in engaging with all the countries in the region, portraying itself as a “continental power,” reminding itself to “not cede geostrategic space to China” in its extended neighborhood. Equally important is the need for a stable Afghanistan from a long-term security point of view. India has highlighted its worries about terrorism, radicalization, and drug trafficking, by flagging Afghanistan’s predicament in RIC. Once again though, China has had its own approach in many ways preferring a non-American supported regime and now becoming the first major country to send an ambassador under the second Taliban administration. India’s objectives in bringing up terrorism prominently in RIC are two-fold: one, to seek a consensus on the issue, and two, to hold China accountable, over its “all-weather” relationship with Pakistan. Even though Beijing has bilaterally pressured the Pakistanis to cut off support for supposed terrorism, it has consistently blocked efforts to sanction Pakistan-based terrorists at the UN.
As important as the RIC trilateral might have been for India, the fact is that its small composition and the increasing deviation of Russia and China from international law and norms has made membership costly in terms of reputation vis-à-vis its other bilateral relationships, particularly with the US and European nations. India’s presence in a group dominated by two authoritarian states confuses perceptions among other countries of India’s identity as a democracy. India has attempted to soften the impact of its association with Russia and China by seeking to expand BRICS. India was a founding member of what was then BRIC. Of course, Russia and China have entirely different reasons for seeking such expansion—expanding also the size of an anti-US or non-Western bloc. With the addition of six new members in September 2023, the anti-US character would appear to be somewhat diluted given that several are actually US allies. However, its non-Western as well as politically authoritarian character have been strengthened, which arguably serves Russian and Chinese interests more than it does any Indian interests.
India’s engagement with BRICS, the SCO, and RIC is now happening in parallel. Their discourses often intersect with one another. Both BRICS and SCO have grown in profile over time, no doubt diversifying the RIC portfolio. Russia, India, and China are each important in the BRICS format, but India is, as yet, far from being a prominent player in the SCO. While BRICS has regular meetings of the heads of government and ministers, it also has an extensive set of practical cooperation mechanisms at the level of senior officials. Further, there are multiple exchanges and engagements through Track-2 initiatives. The SCO has all of this and more. It is a far more organized and effective setup given that it has a full-fledged secretariat. Importantly, the security agenda has considerable importance alongside economic cooperation, as is reflected in the fact that there are regular military and counter-terrorism exercises among its members.
India strangely views the SCO as an Asian body and not as a military bloc or a body to counter the West. It considers the SCO a useful organization and a dialogue platform for the regional countries to discuss economic and security issues. This brings all the Central Asian countries and its neighbors on the same platform where India can interact at the same time. While it is stated that India’s burgeoning energy needs require deeper engagement with the Central Asian countries, there is very little of practical import that looks achievable. This is due to issues of terrain and geopolitical competition, primarily between India and Pakistan, also a member of the SCO and through whose territory energy pipelines would have to pass. The Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India Pipeline, for example, has been up in the air for well over a decade. The other route for such pipelines to India is through Chinese territory, but while this has been occasionally broached at RIC academic forums, it has never taken shape as a concrete proposal.
Unlike the SCO and BRICS, the institutional structure of RIC is still loose. The trilateral has largely been limited to the foreign ministerial level and at least in India, there has been a considerable lack of enthusiasm since the Modi-led government took power in 2014 with the Ministry of External Affairs completely cutting off funding support for the Institute of Chinese Studies in Delhi, which had served as the nodal institution for RIC exchanges at the academic level.
How serious can the Indian government be about RIC at a time when bilateral tensions are ongoing with China along their disputed boundary? The fact that India attended a trilateral of the foreign ministers in Russia in September 2020 and hosted another meeting online in November 2021 despite the conflict with China while there have been no meetings following the Russian invasion of Ukraine seems to suggest that India-China tensions carried less weight in RIC, including for India, than Western opprobrium against Russia. Despite India-China tensions, it might be the Russia-Ukraine conflict, therefore, that has sounded the death knell of RIC. Another reason for such an assessment lies in the increasing political alignment between Russia and China. India and China have approached the Russian invasion of Ukraine quite differently. India has opposed the invasion as a matter of principle and violation of international law and declared that “today’s era must not be of war”—even getting the statement incorporated in the Leaders’ Declaration of the G20 summit it hosted in September.
Beijing it has by and large sided with the Russians. It is impossible to believe that the partnership “without limits” declared in Beijing in early February 2022 on the eve of the invasion did not come with some sort of signal from the Russians that it was in the offing. Subsequently, Foreign Minister Wang Yi referred to Russia as his country’s “most important strategic partner” and even added that friendship between the two was “iron clad.”
Quite apart from the fact that there is a reluctance to give RIC an institutional architecture, a three-cornered multilateral arrangement comprising two in a downward spiral is unlikely to be a sustainable one. While relations between India and China have not yet stalled across all domains—the trade relationship is still going strong with bilateral trade at over US$100 billion annually—ties are on a downward trajectory, and the status of this bilateral relationship will have an impact on the vitality of RIC. Until now, Russia has acted as the bridge and cushioned tenuous Sino-India relations in the trilateral. If the hardening of public opinion on both sides following the violent clashes between troops in 2020 were not enough, India’s growing strategic relationship with the US will put further pressure on ties given China’s thinking toward the US.
RIC cannot be a sustainable entity if Russia and China are locked in an ever-closer relationship, willing to violate international law and norms, and clearly in opposition, to international order, and democracies everywhere. India will also be watching how the new iterations of China’s Belt and Road Initiative—Global Security Initiative, Global Development Initiative, and Global Civilizational Initiative—play out, and the degree of enthusiasm the Russians have for these.
When India first came on board the RIC platform, Russia was a far more powerful and significant player on the global stage than it is now. Moscow was not as beholden to the Chinese. This reduces Russia’s usefulness as a counter-balance to China. If the G20 summit declaration is anything to go by, it would appear that New Delhi believes or hopes that this Russian position as a secondary player to China is temporary. It remains to be seen how long India will hold on to this position, but it could well be that the G20 statement is the last hurrah of the RIC grouping.
India has previously displayed great tolerance in the face of uncomfortable realities in RIC. Even if RIC does not function, there is still BRICS and SCO, where the idea of the trilateral, if not the actual entity itself, will hold sway. That would be a win for RIC at least as far as Russia and China are concerned. For New Delhi, meanwhile, the impression of “multi-alignment” or “strategic autonomy” in its foreign policy might be too valuable a position to give up, as both a bargaining tool in its dealings with the West and an element of its own external identity.
Gilbert Rozman, “A View from China”
RIC 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 threesome. 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, 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 the Chinese perceive Russia’s stance toward regional architecture or India’s ambivalence about cooperation with China or efforts to block China is critical for grasping the potential 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 SCO) to the 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 this goal, China diverts India’s pursuit of alignment to constrain China, while going forward with its own Sinocentric agenda. RIC has value, but not enough to be a priority.
As Putin doubled down on his “Turn to the East” and Modi made his move to take leadership of the “Global South,” Xi Jinping took initiatives serving his Sinocentric agenda. Indicative was the August 28 release of a new, standard map for China offensive to both of its partners in RIC. Yet, at the BRICS summit days earlier, Xi secured their cooperation to expand its membership.
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 is seen in coverage linked to RIC.
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. One article 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. Moscow stood in the way of Beijing’s plans for the SCO, but it has lost this capacity. Not only is there no image of joint RIC leadership, China is seen as advancing at odds with Russia. Another article notes that as China’s economy grew and Russia’s stagnated, Russia’s veto power declined. China’s “new security concept” even proved more attractive. The challenge for the near term will be resist as Russia seeks to reassert its fading influence in Central Asia. A third article 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 is 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 increasingly unable to resist Chinese behavior, if infatuation with India is a problem.
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.
Not only has 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 US and Russia. 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? India consistently plays both sides, as seen in it joining the SCO and Quad.
What happened at the BRICS Johannesburg summit 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, the Sino-Indian divide took center stage through Xi-Modi interventions. Their contradictory readouts exposed the divide. Each 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.
Chinese see both cooperation and mistrust in the Indian–US relationship. The US has protested India’s non-alignment, 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 regional and global dominance. How long will the United States 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, but India would not want to leave a vacuum for China to fill. It will remain in them, but China recognizes that its priority lies elsewhere. Its response to the war is shaped by concern about leaving itself vulnerable to new aggression and loss of Russian arms. It does not want to push Russia further to China’s side.
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 observers 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.