It is almost half a century ago that the former Soviet Union mooted the idea of a diplomatic triangle comprising itself, China and India. The idea could not have had a worse beginning. It was declined by both India and China, perhaps because of the long winter of Sino-Indian relations, which was destined to continue for some more years. The climate began to change when A.B. Vajpayee, first as India’s Foreign Minister and then as the Prime Minister, initiated some bold steps, and the 5th President of the People’s Republic of China, Jiang Zemin, responded positively.
That gave a new lease of life to the Sino-Indian ties. But the triangle offered by the Soviet leaders remained obscured by the blizzard let loose over Russia by Boris Yeltsin. That abated only when President Vladimir Putin began to assemble the triangle again, using the now much stronger timbre of the three principal bilaterals of the triangle: the Sino-Russian, Indo-Russian and Sino-Indian. Each bilateral helped each of the other two in its problems with the US or with each other. At the same time it also helped all three in jointly lifting their relations up the steep slope of their other priorities.
For example, certain implicit Russian assurances helped India at certain stages of its negotiations with the US for a nuclear deal, or helped China in coping with third party pressures in the Taiwan Straits, or China’s company helped Russia in sustaining a whole range of its postures towards America, or, despite China’s ambivalence at that time, Russia made it possible for India to face the 1971 crisis over Bangladesh the way it did, or the strength of the Indo-Russian bilateral gave Indira Gandhi the tenacity to speak — in public, in Moscow, over Russian TV — against the Russian role in Afghanistan. This is an important part of the background to what has just happened to the original idea of the triangle itself, which was sent to India by Moscow some decades ago, probably through Yevgeny Maksimovich Primakov, who was later to become Foreign Minister first and then Prime Minister of Russia.
Because of their own bilateral problems, India and China were not comfortable with the ‘triangle’ until well into the 1980s. However all three, for the first time, did sit together at a triangular table in Moscow, in 2006. But that was only because of an occasion, which was not of their own making. The G-8 summit was meeting in Moscow, and as a part of its own ‘outreach programme’ the G-8 had also invited India and China to come and sit somewhere on the lower slopes of the summit. As a man who seizes his moments well, it was Putin who arranged that there would also be his own mini threesome summit. But, perhaps because the occasion itself was not their joint creation, the statements made there were lacking in warmth, except the one by Putin.
On the other hand, the idea of the triangle has now climbed up to the summit of the triangle through efforts generated within the group itself. President Hu Jintao reached Moscow on March 26 for a major bilateral with President Putin. But despite their preoccupation with the important bilateral issues, neither Putin nor Hu wasted any time before reaching out to India. Within a day they released a joint declaration, which not only picked up the thread from where they had left it the previous year but which also struck a more positive and clearer note.
They called for an “expanded trilateral cooperation with India” because such cooperation “enhances mutually beneficial economic cooperation among the three nations, strengthens their coordination in facing new challenges and threats, especially that of international terrorism”, and “contributes to peace and stability in Asia and throughout the world”. They also recalled the trilateral summit they had held in 2006 and said it had given a “new impetus to broader, multi-faceted interaction among the three countries”, and they welcomed the possibility of including Brazil in the three-some format.
Comparing the 2006 summit in Moscow, which was trilateral, and the 2007 summit, which was bilateral but more trilateral in its inspiration, the latter stands out for some specific reasons. As mentioned earlier, the first summit was occasioned by something other than the interests of the triangle. The three who met there were not in town for the reasons of the three but for the purposes of the G-8. On the other hand, although this year too Hu was in Moscow for something else, his joint statement with Putin about the trilateral, apart from being more evocative, was not made in response to something else but in response to trilateral needs. While the 2006 meeting was occasioned by the G-8 summit, the statement this year was made exclusively in response to the appeal of the trilateral idea. In that sense it was the first summit meeting at the trilateral level.
But a more important difference lies in something else. It lies in the increase in the range and reach of India’s foreign policy, for which 2006-07 has been an important period. It has not been distinguished only by the Indo-US bid for a nuclear deal, but also by the far-reaching consequences this bid will have, whether by succeeding or failing. These consequences will have an important bearing on India’s relations with
Russia, depending upon whether Moscow does or does not choose to step into the space Washington chooses to vacate. Either way, these events will have an important effect on the triangle in the coming months.
The year that has gone by is also distinguished by the foray Indian foreign policy has made into the affairs of the whole Islamic world. India is now involved in its fortunes there as never before, and no longer as a spectator of the doings of others but as one among the others. Given the changes that have taken place in India’s relations with Pakistan, and the other changes that are in the wings, India will be a lot freer than ever before to be thinking of its wider interests.
Consider just three changes which have taken place in the region, each important from India’s point of view. One, the first-ever invitation to India from an Arab summit; second, the first-ever invitation to Afghanistan, largely at India’s initiative, to join Saarc and third, whereas once India’s biggest worry about the whole of that area was the Organisation of Islamic Conference, in which Iran and Pakistan were its biggest tormentors, now India’s gaze is on the Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline project.
Pran Chopra is a political analyst and former chief editor, The Statesman