THE RUSSIA-CHINA-PAKISTAN TROIKA
A partnership that can change the world
During the Cold-War era, India was non-aligned. However, because of the hostile US stance, it was forced to engage with erstwhile Soviet Union for weapons supplies and other help in the UNSC. India has been battling the US trade and technology sanctions since 1974 onwards following the Pokhran nuclear test/explosion. After the end of the Cold War, India remained at good terms with USSR’s successor state Russia. It joined the BRICS and was also part of the informal strategic troika of RIC (Russia-India-China) group. Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov had the foresight to propose the strategic triangle (RIC trilateral) to counter-balance the Western strategic alliance but initially there was strong resistance from China. Primakov’s rationale was that a Russia-India-China (RIC) troika in a multipolar world would allow some protection for free-minded, independent nations not allied to the West and would counterbalance the US. China had immediately rejected the proposal stating that China pursues an independent and peaceful foreign policy. China did not wish to annoy the US which was boosting Chinese economy by relocating all the manufacturing to its soil. China also needed US help to join the WTO. The US, at that time described this strategic triangle as a “coalition of weak powers” trying to balance the US super-power. Despite initial hostility from China, the troika has met formally since 2002 at the foreign-minister level and has had heads of government meetings also. Meanwhile, India continued to engage with China and Russia and joined the SCO as a full member. Since India’s dalliance with the various incarnations of the QUAD and closer relationship with the US in the last two decades, India-Russia bilateral relationship is under severe stress. India has gone through the vicissitudes of non-alignment, genuine non-alignment to poly-valent alignment, strategic autonomy and issue-based alignment in a multipolar world.
Russian strategic postures have changed significantly in the recent years and have become manifestly anti-India. Russia is deeply miffed with India for increasing arms purchases from the US. Russia used to be the chief arms exporter for India and still remains its largest arms supplier, followed by France, Israel and the US in that order. There is an astronomical growth in US arms export to India from zero in 2008 to $15 billion in 2020. India’s top three arms suppliers during 2016-20 were Russia (accounting for 49% of India’s imports), France (18%) and Israel (13%), followed by the US, per SIPRI report. India’s arms imports fell 33% between 2011-15 and 2016-20, The report on international arms transfers attributed the drop in India’s arms imports mainly to an attempt to reduce its dependence on Russian arms and complex procurement processes. Meanwhile, the Government of India under Prime Minister Modi is encouraging a domestic arms manufacturing industry, eventually aiming for total independence from international arms imports. This has become a serious issue for Russia as it does not countenance the loss of a lucrative weapons market. Russia also is upset with India for diversification of its arms import from the West. Russia has started to show its displeasure towards India in more than one way. Russia, for the first time, cancelled the annual bilateral summit with India on the excuse of Covid pandemic. Russia is rebalancing and recalibrating its strategic relationship with various regional actors.
A de facto Russia-China-Pakistan (RCP) strategic axis has emerged in recent years. Owing to the reincarnation of the Quad 3.0 on March 12th, 2021, there is a serious counter-reaction from this group of countries that feel strategically contained and threatened. China described the QUAD as a grouping of the “losers”. Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, has been very critical of this US-led initiative and has commented that the QUAD will undermine the centrality of the ASEAN. On December 9th, 2020, Lavrov expressed his resentment against India by stating that “India was persistently falling for the US’s persistent, aggressive, devious, unipolar, anti-China camp.” He indirectly accused India of undermining the Russian and Chinese efforts towards establishment of a multi-polar world.
It is significant to note that the QUAD virtual summit was followed by a Russian peace conference on the future of Afghanistan on March 18th, 2021. Russia did not invite India as a party though China, Pakistan and Iran were invitees. It is presumed that India was excluded by Russia owing to Pakistani reservations and Chinese attempts to contain India in the South Asia region. The Moscow conference was attended by US peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, Abdullah Abdullah, head of Afghanistan’s National Reconciliation Council, and Taliban co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar. The Russian embassy in New Delhi dismissed the media reports stating that Russia has asked India to keep out of Afghan dialogue and stressed that Russia “always stated that India plays a very important role in Afghanistan, and its eventual deeper involvement in dedicated dialogue formats is natural.” Russian foreign ministry spokesperson, Maria Zakharova did some lip-service and damage control stating that the RIC troika process was an “already established mechanism” and was meeting the same day in Moscow, and that there was no attempt to “leave India out” of the proposed talks. However, the Indian Ministry of External Affairs refused to comment on these developments.
Russia and Pakistan have scaled up their military and economic cooperation. 1n 2015, Andrew Korybko wrote a paper titled “Pakistan is the Zipper of Pan-Eurasian Integration” in a top Russian think tank according a highly privileged status to Pakistan as the “South Asia’s Gate-keeper”. Russia has already started to sell arms and ammunition to Pakistan since 2015 despite Indian reservations. Russia wants to cooperate with Pakistan in the diverse areas of trade, defence, energy and power, railways, telecommunications and information technology. The bilateral trade between Russia and Pakistan is currently at $580 million and is considered well below the potential. Russia has now promised a $14 billion investment in Pakistan’s energy sector including $2.5 billion for the North-South pipeline project. Russia wants to integrate Pakistan into its proposed Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) and wants to integrate the BRI, the CPEC into the proposed Russian investments into Pakistani infrastructure. Pakistan has already granted permission to Russia to use its Gwadar port under the CPEC. Both Pakistan and Russia plan to elevate their bilateral relationship to strategic level. Russian and Pakistani special operation troops conducted joint military drills in November 2020 at the Tarbela training grounds as part of the “Friendship (Druzhba) 2020 exercise”. Russian warships along with Chinese and Iranian assets also participated in the recently concluded 45-nation AMAN-21 biennial naval exercises hosted by Pakistan in the Arabian sea on February 16th, 2021.
Meanwhile, on March 22nd, 2021, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov and Chinese counterpart Wang Yi met in Guilin city in Guangxi Zhuang province in southern China condemning the targeting and the criticism of their two countries over human rights violations. Sergei Lavrov was candid enough to say: “For us, China is a true strategic partner and like-minded friend. Our cooperation in the international arena will have a stabilizing effect on the global and regional situation.” The two countries also discussed the Iran nuclear deal, urging the US to unconditionally return to, and Iran to resume compliance with, JCPOA. They also discussed Afghan peace process, the post-coup situation in Myanmar, UN reforms, climate change, Syria and Sudan. Both countries demanded a special UNSC summit of P5 countries to establish direct dialogue about ways to resolve humankind’s common problems in the interests of maintaining global stability.
Pakistan and China continue to remain iron brothers and “all-weather” allies. China proliferated horizontally nuclear and missile technology, nuclear weapons design and facilitated Pakistan first nuclear test in its Lop Nur testing range in 1990s. China has provided emergency funds to Pakistan repeatedly whenever Pakistan has faced a balance of payment crisis. China is constructing infrastructure as part of the $64 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is on record stating that Russia and China are not going to “subordinate” to the West. There is a serious reason to believe that a new strategic troika of Russia-China-Pakistan is emerging in order to counterbalance the US and its allies including India. Akin to the Primakov strategic triangle (RIC), Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is spearheading the new strategic triangle of RCP. The new strategic troika has been in the making since 2015 but the emergence of the QUAD 3.0 has led to its formal arrival on the geopolitical scene.