After a tense 2017 characterised by the Doklam/Donglang border stand-off, China-India relations improved in 2018 and look to improve further throughout 2019. Although few meaningful agreements have been inked between New Delhi and Beijing in recent years, there is a decidedly less frosty atmosphere than there was two years ago between the large Asian neighbours. Whilst 2017 was a year that tested the boundaries of peace in Asia in both a literal and political sense, now, China and India perhaps awkwardly find them selves in a similar position when it comes to trade with the United States.
India continues to expand its still largely positive relations with the United States although issues of trade continue to represent short term sources of disagreement between the two partners. The disagreements stem from the fact that India was not granted a tariff exemption from the United States as part of the wider trade.
Now, India has had its status revoked as a country with permanent normal trade relations (PNTR) with the US. As a result of the increased US tariffs on Indian imports, India has now placed tariffs on US goods entering the Indian marketplace. As such, India has joined many long term US allies who have become victims of a trade war that is being waged against both partners and perceived rivals.
Although the long term status of Asia’s balance of power will not change due to Trump’s decision to show no leniency towards his Indian partner in the trade war, some short term developments will in fact be altered by this development.
At the end of 2018 on the sidelines of the last G20 summit in Argentina, Chinese President Xi Jinping, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Indian Premier Narendra Modi held a very visible round-table discussion during which the leaders discussed how to further deepen trilateral cooperation.
As the de-facto Russian lead Eurasian Economic Union has since enacted a free trading agreement with China and with Russia maintaining much of its Cold War era friendship with India in spite of being a deeply important partner to China, it is clearly in the Russian interest to help foster greater dialogue between fellow BRICS members China and India.
While Chinese, Russian and Indian officials frequently meet with each other as part of the BRICS format which also includes Brazil and South Africa, last year’s meeting at the G20 was the first formal tripartite summit between China, Russia and India in twelve years. This so-called RIC format has been reported in positive terms by official and semi-official outlets from China, India and Russia. In addition to the RIC format, the other two BRICS (South Africa and Brazil) also held a full meeting on the sidelines of the 2018 G20 while both President Xi and Putin held separate meetings with Turkey’s President Erdogan who is keen on joining an expanded BRICS and has been largely supported by China in these efforts. Taken as a whole, it can be said that while the RICs meeting represented a mini-summit between the Asian members of the BRICS, the meetings between Xi and Erdogan as well as between Putin and Erdogan hinted at a collective BRICS+ mini-summit, while XI and Putin also met with their Brazilian and South African colleagues.
While India’s Premier Modi has also held meetings with his Japanese counterpart and the US President, his two meetings with fellow BRICS members both in the RIC and full BRICS format suggests that the seemingly irreconcilable differences between China and India are on the road to improvement. This is particularly true when Russia’s President is present as Russia maintains warm and positive relations with both China and India – all the while Russia also expands a modern partnership with Pakistan.
It is against this background that one should greet the news that the second RIC meeting in less than a year is set to take place at the forthcoming G20 summit in Japan. Although China, Russia and India all have very different sets of challenges in their relations with the US, the fact that all three are experiencing objective challenges in their relations with the US gives the Asian RIC powers all the more reason to locate common ground between one another.
Furthermore, if the heady and optimistic days of the early 2000s when the BRICS were formed have been exposed as being overly optimistic due to prolonged differences between China and India, a mature and pragmatic RIC format can help to smooth out such differences and in turn can help to give the full BRICS a renewed sense of purpose and direction.
Whilst the US views China as its main global superpower rival, views India as an ally but one that “takes advantage” of America on trade and views Russia as both a military rival and a rival in global energy markets, when it comes to relations between China, India and Russia, the three countries have a mutual interest in exploring how increased trade can de-escalate tensions deriving from historic differences within Asia.
There is hardly any chance that an ultra-nationalist India led by Narendra Modi would ever engage in Belt and Road connectivity. That being said, because in the age of Trump, a partnership with the US does not automatically result in preferential trading relations (often times the opposite is true), it will be important for all three countries to realise that by increasing trilateral trade, it is possible to de-escalate tensions in Asia whilst also constructing an important economic safety net during an age of global financial uncertainty.