Triangularity has lately become the flavour of the season in international relations discourse. Major powers, beyond their usual bilateral engagements, have been embracing the tripartite mode of engagement in recent times to establish a tactical thread for a twofold advantage:
- gain more in their foreign policy; and
- influence collectively the regional balance of power in their favour.
A prominent example is the China-Pakistan-Russia triangulation. Its avowed intent is to address regional security problems, primarily the security conditions in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region. For India, however, the emergence of this troika forebodes disturbance in its geopolitical standing in the region. However, this trilateral arrangement is more of a geopolitical alignment that is aimed to influence regional security conditions to the three countries’ strategic advantage, at a possible cost to Indian strategic autonomy and challenging the India-US strategic bonhomie in the region. All the three powers concerned are in close proximity to India. China and Pakistan are its bordering adversaries whereas Russia is a traditional partner.
Officially, India has stated that the troika is a “third country relationship” and that India’s relations with Russia stay “very strong”. The strategic community in India however has been wondering if there is going to be permanent damage to India-Russia relations with Moscow’s strategic shift.
The troika has few significant bearingsfor India:
First, the connectivity politics involving the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) would significantly influence the geopolitics of the region.
Second, isolating India’s advocacy in the fight against terrorism.
Third, addressing the alignments that are taking place regionally, in the backdrop of an expanded Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO).
Fourth, distancing India and China multilaterally.
The troika seems to have a serious influence over CPEC and a consensus appears to have emerged between them on how to advance the Russian and Chinese regional planning. Russia’s strategic intention of establishing a link between the Eurasian Economic Community (EEC) and CPEC gets fulfilled through Pakistani and Chinese backing.
Russia’s engagement with Pakistan comprises aspects that eventually endorse China’s “belt and road” initiative and supplements CPEC. The North-South gas pipeline link is one such aspect which might not be directly linked to CPEC but it endorses Putin’s vision of linking the Eurasian region with South Asia, where Pakistan is emerging as a connecting bridge. This becomes alarming for India when the strategic community in Pakistan notes that Russia might overtly support CPEC. Russia’s partaking with Pakistan bilaterally, as well as with Pakistan and China trilaterally in the region, reduces India’s standing as regards CPEC. India maintains that CPEC runs through a disputed territory that is of concern to India and China and Pakistan have unilaterally taken a decision on CPEC. China’s unilateral decision to engage with Pakistan to invest in Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir (POK) under CPEC affects India’s sovereignty over POK, and brings into question India’s historical claim on POK.
Importantly, the troika poses a new set of strategic challenges for India in its fight against terrorism, a phenomenon which has primarily been sponsored by Pakistan all these years. Pakistan has been protected in this regard at the UN by its “all-weather” friend China. Russia’s joining the troika would further strengthen Pakistan’s standing against India. Also, a coordinated China-Pakistan effort has blocked the Indian effort to list Masood Azhar on a UN terror roll. India needs to search for new grounds on these issues and also needs to discuss with Afghanistan in length on how to offset the troika’s agenda.
As it appears now, it is not India but Pakistan that is emerging as the converging location between South Asia and Eurasia. This is significant when India has been making inroads into the SCO as a member along with Pakistan. The balance of power within SCO seems to stay very much China-Russia centric and the main beneficiary of this could be Pakistan. This must induce India to rethink the advisability of becoming a member of the SCO. The China-Russia strategic alignment with Pakistan would corner India within SCO, posing a new set of challenges for it regionally.
The emergence of the troika will not only distance China and India from each other but will also severely undermine the significance of the China-India-Russia (CIR) tripartite network. From the Indian point of view, the relevance of CIR and BRICS stands to be reviewed with the arrival of the troika. This severely changes India’s equation with China since one of the stabilising aspects of India-China relations is the multilateral chain of contacts like the CIR, BRICS and SCO. The arrival of the troika empowers Beijing’s regional outreach in South Asia, and that conflicts with India’s core strategic interests. Also, the Chinese leadership has not seen South Asia and Afghanistan in isolation from its vision of linking Eurasia with South Asia. Tacitly acknowledging the existing differences between China and India on several matters like listing Azhar Masood as a terrorist under the UN and on the prospects of India’s inclusion in the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group (NSG), Beijing has officially stated recently that “China would like to work with India” for an important consensus in 2017.
The troika will be a game-changer in swaying the regional balance of power against India’s strategic interest. India seems to have been cornered by this tactical regional understanding where Pakistan has emerged as the pivotal point of regional politics. The change of guard in the United States has further complicated the situation for India. Much will depend upon how India approaches the entire spectrum of regional politics against the backdrop of its relations with Russia and China. The troika is surely a development that India cannot afford to ignore. New Delhi needs a serious policy rethink on how to respond to the troika and deal with the powers of this configuration, either bilaterally or collectively.