Russia, China, India: A New Strategic Triangle for a New Cold War

Russia, China, India: A New Strategic Triangle for a New Cold WarRussia's inability to impede the eastward expansion of NATO and its frustration over NATO's unilateral military action in Kosovo have forced Moscow to seek closer strategic understanding with China and India. While Yevgeny Primakov's controversial reference to a "strategic triangle" among Russia, China, and India might not materialize, it is a fact that each of these states is involved in a somewhat similar dynamic. Each is consolidating its relationship with the others, while also expanding its relations with the United States. In terms of strategic payoffs, this partnership will yield them, at a minimum, enhanced benefits of bilateral cooperation with each other and, at a maximum, it can serve to circumscribe US influence. This potential partnership is a blueprint for the next Cold War and poses a threat that could affect the lives of everyone in the United States in a significant way. This article discusses the motivation for a triangular strategic partnership among Russia, China, and India, the challenges to US international strategy resulting from such a partnership, and suggestions for avoiding a return to the days of Cold War tensions.

Of course any speculation about future international relations must be made with caution in the weeks and months after the destruction of the World Trade Center and the attack on the Pentagon. At this writing, it is unclear what will be the full course of the US retaliation for those acts of terror, and how other nations around the globe will ultimately respond.

Motivation for an Alliance

Joint opposition to Western dominance is one motivation for a Russia-China-India strategic partnership. NATO enlargement, as well as the West's renewed strategic interest in the southern republics of the former USSR, became a new powerful catalyst for Russia's move eastward. In November 1995, Defense Minister Pavel Grachev warned that in response to NATO's planned eastward expansion, Russia would also turn to its east to seek new allies.(1) It was conceived in Moscow that the strengthening of ties with China would lead to the formation of a new balance of power in Asia that could be advantageous to Russia. Plans were made for a strategic partnership not only with China, but also with India and Iran. One of the goals of such an alliance would be to prevent the West from gaining a foothold in Central Asia and the Caucasus.

The progress reached in Russian-Chinese-Indian relations in recent years cannot be attributed purely to their joint opposition to a unipolar, US-dominated world. Such an approach would be simplistic and would underestimate the great potential for complementary ties--military, economic, political, and cultural-- among the three neighbors sharing more than 4,000 kilometers of common border.

Operation Allied Force spurred Russia and India to consolidate their friendship further, with the two countries signing a Declaration of Strategic Partnership and other agreements of importance during the visit of Russian President Vladimir Putin to India in the first week of October 2000. Military technical cooperation, joint research and development, and training constitute the main aspects of the strategic partnership. This partnership brings Russia and India another step closer to a triangular strategic alliance with China. (2) India and Russia pledged to work together for the establishment of a multipolar world based on the sovereign equality of all states. The two sides expressed their "determined opposition to the unilateral use or threat of use of force in violation of the UN Charter, and to intervention in the internal affairs of other states, including under the guise of humanitarian intervention." (3) This reflected the general unease in the international community about NATO's war on Yugoslavia a nd the economic blockade against Iraq.

Military sales play a prominent role in the relationship. During 1990-1996, India's arms purchases from Russia totaled $3.5 billion (US); the average annual arms trade approximates $800 million. Russia has recently committed itself to supplying India with 50 Su-30 multifunctional fighters and has agreed that a modified version of the plane would be produced by an Indian enterprise. India also will be receiving advanced T-90 tanks, three frigates, a submarine, the S-300 anti-missile air-defense system, as well as a heavy aircraft carrier. (4) Moscow seems to be more relaxed about offering military technologies to India than to China. An idea of the staggering Russian influence on Indian defense procurement is provided by the following statistics: About 60 percent of the Indian army's military hardware is Russian-made, while 70 percent of naval hardware and 80 percent of air force hardware is Russian-made or of Russian origin. (5)

The importance of arms exports for the survival and operation of the Russian defense industry cannot be overstated. While domestic defense procurements comprise between 10 and 15 percent of all Russian defense production, India and China together receive 75 to 80 percent of all Russian arms exports. (6) Russia not only gains commercially from major arms transfers, but also acquires leverage regarding future arms sales as well as greater political and strategic engagement with the recipient states.

Economic and trade cooperation between Russia and China has made headway, although it has not met the goals set by the two. Food and consumer goods that flow into Russia via the border trade with China are essential to residents in Siberia and the Far Eastern region. On the other hand, abundant oil and gas resources in Russia are very attractive to China, which has come to depend on imported oil. However, arms supplies continue to dominate Russia's exports to China. Over the past five years the scale of Russian arms exports to China has more than tripled and now accounts for up to one third of the annual trade turnover--and almost 70 percent of China's arms purchases in the foreign market. (7) For Russia, China is the largest weapons market, with 30 to 40 percent of Russia's total arms sales going there. (8) In 1991-1997, China purchased some $6 billion worth of arms from Russia. (9)

Russia and China have discussed the possibility of developing a joint missile defense system if the United States ignores their objection and goes ahead with a national anti-missile shield. The related prospect of developing a joint regional missile shield was discussed during the January 2000 visit to Moscow of Chinese Defense Minister Chi Haotian and Russian Deputy Prime Minister Ilya Klebanov's talks in Beijing in February 2000. Russia has offered to help China develop a manned space program and has allowed Beijing to use its Glonass global satellite navigation system for various purposes, including the pointing of precision weapons. (10)

Russia and China also have sympathized, supported, and cooperated with each other on international and regional matters. Russia supports China on the issues of Taiwan and Tibet, refusing to back Western pressure on China with regard to human rights. China supports Russian efforts to contain domestic separatism, including Moscow's actions in Chechnya, and recognizes, for the time being at least, Russia's leading role in the Commonwealth of Independent States.

As multi-ethnic states, all three nations are concerned about the prospects of growing ethnic nationalism and Islamic fundamentalism in the region. For Russia, Central Asia has become a volatile southern perimeter and home to ten million ethnic Russians. For China, Central Asia is now an unpredictable zone from which Turkic nationalism and Islamic ideology could radiate into Xinjiang. Russia and China now see NATO and radical Islam as more of a threat than each other. At their meeting in Astana on 30 March 2000 the defense ministers of the Shanghai Five (Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan) addressed the issues of separatism and international terrorism in the context of developments in Chechnya, Xinjiang, and Afghanistan, which Russian Defense Minister Igor Sergeev called "a headache" for all five states. (11) At this writing, again, it is not yet clear how these states will ultimately support or oppose US actions in response to the September 2001 terrorist strikes in New York and on the Pen tagon, whether against Afghanistan or elsewhere.