It is a fact that after a tense 2017 characterised by the Doklam/Donglang border stand-off, China-India relations have improved in 2018. While few meaningful agreements have been inked between New Delhi and Beijing, there is a decidedly less frosty atmosphere than there was a year ago between the large Asian neighbours. While it is clear that India’s agitation of the international community over last year’s border stand-off largely failed to galvanise global opinion either way, the manifold trade wars of the United States under Donald Trump have in fact galvanised countries throughout Asia to consider the necessity of a multilateral approach to trade and cooperation during a time when the traditional global economic order is clearly under attack from a once largely predictable superpower.
While India continues to expand its still largely positive relations with the United States, three major events have led even some pro-government Indians to call into question the intensity of New Delhi’s alliance with America. First of all, India was not granted a tariff exemption from the United States as part of the wider trade war. This clearly came as a shock to some Indian policy makers. Later, the US threatened India with sanctions over both its purchase of Russian made S-400 weapons systems as well as India’s stated desire to continue and purchase Iranian energy after US sanctions came back into force against the Islamic Republic and its partners.
While the US ultimately issued India with a waiver on third-party sanctions regarding its transactions with Iran, India has realised that the US cannot be fully relied on for taking views on the wider world that are identical to those of the ruling BJP in India. This is even true where China is concerned. While the current Indian government continues to have many disagreements with China to be sure, at least some in New Delhi have realised that at the very minimum, a partial rapprochement with China will result in the country having more leverage against its increasingly unilateral American partner. Others yet realise that pragmatically speaking, India should have more open economic relations with its Chinese neighbour as it simply makes good economic sense to have such positive relations.
It is against this background that Chinese President Xi Jinping, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Indian Premier Narendra Modi held a very visible round-table discussion during the G20 summit in Argentina at the suggestion of Russia, in which the leaders discussed how to further deepen trilateral cooperation. With the de-facto Russian lead Eurasian Economic Union entering into a free trading agreement with China beginning in 2019 and with Russia maintaining much of its Cold War era friendship with India in spite of being a deeply important partner to China, it is clearly in the Russian interest to use its influence in Asia to help foster dialogue and de-escalation between fellow BRICS members China and India.
While such efforts on Russia’s part to create a more harmonious relationship between its fellow Asian members of BRICS would have been crucial irrespective of the other events surrounding the G20 summit, the fact that Donald Trump cancelled his scheduled meeting with the Russian President via Twitter makes the optics of the China-Russia-India meeting all the more important as it demonstrates that Russia, China and India have plenty of work to do among themselves that does not involve the United States.
While Chinese, Russian and Indian officials frequently meet with each other as part of the BRICS format which also includes Brazil and South Africa, this was the first formal tripartite summit between China, Russia and India in twelve years. This so-called RIC format has been reported in positive terms by official and semi-official outlets from China, India and Russia. In addition to the RIC format, the other two BRICS (South Africa and Brazil) also held a full meeting on the sidelines of the G20 while both President Xi and Putin held separate meetings with Turkey’s President Erdogan who is keen on joining an expanded BRICS and has been largely supported by China in these efforts. Taken as a whole, it can be said that while the RICs meeting represented a mini-summit between the Asian members of the BRICS, the meetings between Xi and Erdogan as well as between Putin and Erdogan hinted at a collective BRICS+ mini-summit, while XI and Putin also met with their Brazilian and South African colleagues.
While India’s Premier Modi has also held meetings with his Japanese counterpart and the US President, his two meetings with fellow BRICS members both in the RIC and full BRICS format suggests that the seemingly irreconcilable differences between China and India are capable of being smoothed out. This is particularly true when Russia’s President is present as Russia maintains warm and positive relations with both China and India – all the while Russia also expands a modern partnership with Pakistan. Russia is of course highly keen on creating a sense of balance between all members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation which now includes both India and Pakistan.
With President Xi using his appearance at the G20 to call for a more open economic world order based on respect for the sovereignty of states and peoples as well as a collective rejection of the zero-sum mentality of unilateralism, it is instructive to see multilateralism in action rather than just in theory. This is especially true of the RIC format that is a signpost of positive multilateral thinking.
Of course, as all of this went on, Trump continued to hold fewer meetings with fellow world leaders while it seemed as though the rest of the world as represented at the G20 was busier than ever in respect of meaningful multilateral discussions.