At an international conference in Vietnam (February 25), FM Lavrov took aim at the concept of the Indo-Pacific, calling it an artificially imposed construct promoted by the US, Japan and Australia to contain China and “to get India involved in military-political and naval processes”. He said Russia was comfortable with the Asia-Pacific concept. When questioned by a participant why, in a multipolar world, the objective of balancing China should be considered artificial, he said a more natural format was the RIC grouping, which he said was successful because it reflected complementarity of interests of its participants, unlike the effort to put India together with Japan, “which has no love lost for India”, to counterbalance China.
These are strong public words, coming from a Russian Foreign Minister, implying that India is being dragged helplessly and unwillingly into the Indo-Pacific construct. Russia is well aware of the challenges in the India-China relationship, of India’s self-perception of its pivotal role in the Indo-Pacific geographical region, and the fact that India has often been relegated to the periphery of Asia-Pacific deliberations. It should also be aware (and this figures regularly in bilateral discussions) that India’s Indo-Pacific activities have not impinged on Russia’s interests. As for Japan, its strategic “love” for India dates back at least to 2000, when then PM Yoshiro Mori outlined his vision for a strategic partnership with India.
The choice of Vietnam as the venue for these remarks is curious, since that country also had a difficult history with China and has festering territorial disputes. Seeking some balance to Chinese dominance in its neighbourhood is a Vietnamese strategic objective, not publicly articulated for obvious reasons.
On the other hand, the “complementarity” of interests in RIC was, unfortunately, not in evidence – as far as India is concerned – at the RIC Foreign Ministers’ meeting in Zhejiang, China (27 February). The communique does not even mention the Pulwama terrorist attack, let alone endorse India’s perspectives on it. It contains the usual boilerplate formulations on terrorism, lifted from earlier communiques. It does pat China on the back for the achievements of the Qingdao SCO Summit and endorses Russia’s efforts in the Astana process on Syria, while containing the usual patronizing support of Russia and China for “India’s aspirations to play a greater role in the United Nations”. India needs to seriously consider whether and how its perspectives can be better reflected in RIC deliberations and communiques.
February 28, 2019