On Wednesday, the foreign ministers of China, Russia, and India met in Harbin, where they pledged “to strengthen trilateral pragmatic cooperation.” According to People’s Daily, the self-described mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party, it was the seventh such meeting of the foreign ministers of the three countries, and the first to be held in China. Will these three giants of Eurasia now finally form “the Primakov Triangle” to counter the United States?
In 1998, Yevgeny Primakov, then Russian prime minister, proposed that the trio form a “strategic triangle” to balance against Washington. At the time, the idea had great appeal in Moscow but little in Beijing. New Delhi was, not surprisingly, lukewarm. Today, the Russians remain enthusiastic and the Chinese are mostly supportive of the triangle. The Russian Federation and the People’s Republic are drawing closer to each other on a range of issues as they find common ground. In recent years, these two overly large autocracies have signaled the end of the Sino-Soviet split by inking a strategic partnership arrangement and, more substantively, a comprehensive treaty, signed in 2001. The State Department at the time dismissed the pact as a mere expression of friendship—what else could American diplomats say in the circumstances?—but it has all the markings of the beginning of a long-term alliance. In any event, the world’s two largest authoritarian states have been busy in recent years establishing military ties, reinvigorating trade, and settling border disputes.
But what about the third side of the triangle? Despite happy talk in Beijing and New Delhi and growing trade ties, there seems to be no substantial progress toward reconciliation. There are still-unsettled border disputes—talks are now in their third decade—and a host of strategic issues continue to separate the two. China is still not in favor of awarding to India a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. And even though the proposed nuclear deal between India and the United States appears to be falling apart, New Delhi and Washington quietly are strengthening cooperation across the board.
India undoubtedly will remain nonaligned, which means that it will always talk to the bad boys residing on the Asian landmass. Just because China is adept at turning out press releases, however, does not mean that New Delhi will agree to become part of any alliance, axis, or triangle. America shares ideals with India—and there are fewer issues today to divide them. That gives Washington an advantage in one of the most crucial strategic contests of this decade.