Back in the fall of 1998, Russian premier Yevgenni Primakov threw down a gauntlet at the Clinton administration's feet when, during a visit to New Delhi, he proposed the formation of a "strategic triangle" encompassing India, China, and Russia as a counterweight to the United States.
Back then, Primakov's grand plans did not find much purchase: Russia was in the throes of a disastrous economic meltdown, while China and a newly nuclear India both rejected the idea of such an axis outright.
Six and a half years later, much has changed. Today, worrying signs suggest that Primakov's idea for an anti-American coalition in Asia may be finding a new lease on life.
During his visit to New Delhi last month, Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao took pains to stress the similarities between Russia, China, and India, and to urge "coordination and cooperation" between the three countries as a means of promoting international "peace and security." Jiabao's comments were notable, insofar as they represent the first public endorsement by a Chinese official of a trilateral alliance between Beijing, Moscow, and New Delhi.
But is such a construct possible? Many observers remain deeply skeptical. Earlier this year, Moscow's Nezavisimaya Gazeta ridiculed the idea. "China, Russia and India are not forming and will not be able to form such a conglomerate," the opposition paper insisted in a January editorial, stressing the historically-rocky ties between Beijing and New Delhi and Moscow's wariness over China's expanding energy ambitions. Some Chinese scholars are likewise incredulous, citing competing priorities between China and India and the long-standing premium placed by the PRC on independent foreign policy decision-making.
Indeed, for the past decade, an Asian "triple entente" has remained more rhetoric than reality, with Moscow, Beijing, and New Delhi all charting vastly different political trajectories. Now, however, a convergence of factors suggests that the historical impediments to such an alliance could be diminishing.
For one thing, Russia appears to be reverting to old habits. Over the past year and a half, through a series of electoral victories and not-so-subtle power grabs, President Vladimir Putin has succeeded in virtually monopolizing Russian foreign and security policy. More ominously, these successes have been matched by the return of an assertive, neo-imperial foreign policy—one very much on display in the "post-Soviet space" and, increasingly, well beyond it. As a result, Russia today is drifting away from cooperation with the United States, and toward a distinctly counterproductive stance on an array of issues of serious concern to the Bush administration—from arms sales to Syria to continued nuclear assistance for Iran's ayatollahs. And a Russian-Chinese-Indian triangle is increasingly part of these new priorities; during his December 2004 visit to India, Putin explicitly echoed Primakov's vision of an anti-American axis in Asia when he declared that strategic cooperation between the three countries "would make a great contribution to global security."
An evolution is also increasingly visible in Sino-Indian ties. While rivalry over commercial and energy contracts with the Central Asian republics, as well as Beijing's vibrant strategic partnership with Pakistan, remains the order of the day, recent weeks have seen competition begin to give way to cooperation. In early April, the two countries convened a landmark summit in New Delhi, at which they settled long-running border demarcation issues, agreed to significantly boost bilateral trade, and codified an array of cooperation agreements on civil aviation, finance, education, and technology exchanges—laying the groundwork for what officials in both countries are already terming a "strategic and cooperative partnership."
To be sure, practical constraints are still present, chief among them India's burgeoning partnership with the United States. Since September of 2004, as part of the new strategic framework between the Bush administration and the Indian government (dubbed "Next Steps in Strategic Partnership"), Washington and New Delhi have drifted toward expanded cooperation on an array of military and security issues. This convergence was on display during secretary of state Condoleezza Rice's recent tour of Asia—a visit that included American offers of new defense and security incentives to India, including advanced fighter aircraft and U.S.-made theater missile defenses.
Nevertheless, for the first time, both Moscow and Beijing have formally articulated their support for an architecture expressly designed to diminish American influence in Asia. Policymakers in Washington would do well take notice. And, given the growing opposition to American policies now evident in Russia, as well as China's increasingly aggressive, expansionist foreign-policy agenda, they would do even better to begin planning how to prevent such a construct from becoming a reality.