As tensions between India and China continue to simmer, Russia has offered to convene a meeting of Russia–India–China (RIC) defence ministers. The trio of states last met June 23 in a video conference, a mere two weeks following a Chinese excursion across the Line of Actual Control (LAC).
The RIC May Have an Expanded Role
The June meeting included the nations’ foreign ministers, but notably did not include discussion of the border dispute between New Delhi and Beijing, according to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Now, the time may have come for the RIC to broach the matter which will put Moscow’s ability to act as mediator to a test.
The RIC traditionally features foreign ministers, but the idea to include defense ministers was agreed upon at the June 23 meeting, according to Economic Times.
“Just recently, we had conducted successful BRICS and SCO (Shanghai Cooperation Organisation) virtual ministerial meetings,” said Russian envoy to India Nikolay Kudashev. “Also, on June 23, we had a very constructive RIC Foreign Ministers’ virtual conference, which demonstrated our common desire to further expand the trilateral agenda, including by involving defence ministries’ dialogue.”
Moscow Has Significant Leverage
The RIC may be the best hope for India and China to resolve their dispute without turning to outside mediation. Moscow is in a prime position to be have the greatest influence over both actors due to its relationship with them. When news broke of the border clash, Russia was one of the first to respond.
“Certainly, we are watching with great attention what is happening on the Chinese-Indian border. We believe that this is a very alarming report,” said Dmitry Peskov, Russian presidential spokesman. “But we consider that the two countries are capable of taking necessary steps to prevent such situations in the future and to ensure that there is predictability and stability in the region and that this is a safe region for nations, first of all, China and India.”
An Entangled Triangle
Russia had valid reasons to be concerned—it is the largest supplier of military weapons to New Delhi. In fact, India had recently agreed to purchase the Russian S-400 missile defense system, drawing ire from China, which both states brushed off.
According to Datla Bala Venkatesh Varma, Indian ambassador to Russia, 60% to 70% of all Indian weapons are purchased from Russia, as Economic Times reported. On a global scale, there are few who can compete with Beijing in terms of military technology aside from Russia and the US. Given India’s relationship and proximity to Russia, it makes sense for New Delhi to look north for a partner.
Russia, however, also has interests with China. Recently, its relationship has grown closer as the US has altered decades of internationalist policies to upend historic trade and security agreements. The result is that Moscow has found common ground with Washington’s fieriest adversary, Beijing.
The sharp drop in oil prices this year further cemented a budding alliance between the two powers. Therefore, Russia appears caught in the middle, having strong reasons to help either side, but more importantly, a great incentive to broker a truce between the two bickering states.
India Engaged Russia Early
A coordinated meet between the defense ministers would represent an increased effort by all parties to find a resolution. For its part, India held talks throughout June with both parties, although nothing solid has emanated from them.
One of Varma’s first calls following the border incident was to Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Igor Morgulov.
“The officials discussed regional security, including developments on the Line of Actual Control on the border between India and China in the Himalayas,” the Russian Foreign ministry said, recapping the conversation.
Russia was also continually kept abreast of the situation as it developed even before New Delhi opened high-level talks with Beijing. Moscow’s involvement by convening a meeting of the RIC’s defense ministers would be the first time Russia takes the initiative to pursue peace between India and China. Previously, Lavrov declared that there was no “reason for Russia or anyone else to impose its services to help India and China,” the Diplomat reported.
No Playing Favorites
That stance has likely changed as Moscow recalculated the potential fallout from a lengthy, armed dispute. The struggle for Russia will be to walk the thin line of not playing favorites toward either Beijing or New Delhi. It is an unenviable position, perhaps why Moscow has tried to avoid it. However the time is now for Russia to demonstrated that the RIC can be effective and serve a purpose.
Including the defense ministers is an encouraging sign that Moscow is taking the problem more seriously and willing to consider other avenues to find peace. Ultimately, the trio is anchored by the weight of Russia and its common bond with both parties.