‘Primakov Triangle’: New Potential in the North


Nowadays, the idea of Russia-India-China cooperation (RIC) is slightly inferior to the extended BRICS cooperation which seems dominating in Russian, Chinese, and in Indian discourse.

When Evgeny Primakov expressed the idea of a triangle Moscow-New Delhi-Beijing in 1998, it was met with a backlash and even some mockery. The Russian press didn’t approve of the idea of RIC cooperation as it posed "too many challenges": unresolved border issues between India and China, their race for leadership in Asia, especially with the nuclear tests by India in 1998. The official response from China and India was quite sceptical as well.

Russian leftists were mentioned as the only group satisfied by Primakov’s proposition since it somehow reminded them of Lenin’s idea of RIC.

The format of relations where Russia serves as a mediator between China and India still remains a key trend. Russia supports close bilateral relations both with India and China whilst trying to "make them friends" with one another. China has always expressed a desire for a completely independent foreign policy, while India has approached strategic partnership with both the West, namely, the US, and Russia. 

A solution for that issue came slowly and still has a lot of unrealized potential in it - taking an institutional approach to multilateralism, in other words, forming a pure RIC organisation or regular meetings that do not limit to the Foreign Ministers (which is the current format).

Photo: Ministry of External Affairs

The geometry of Primakov’s triangle truly begins to form only in 2002. That is visible from Putin’s visits to Beijing and New Delhi when countering terrorism became the first issue on the agenda. 

India-wise, it was important to join the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), however, the country managed to do that only in 2005 (along with Iran and Pakistan) and joined the organisation as an observer. The status of a member only came in 2017. 

The decision took more than ten years because it was stalled by China since Sino-Pakistan relations couldn’t allow an admission of India without Pakistan and vice versa. For Russia, the motivation can be followed from another perspective: the country and its allies in Central Asia were sceptical about admitting Pakistan because of the terrorist affiliations. As a result, the only possible way for India to finally join the SCO was together with the Central Asian country.

Another definite challenge for the RIC was that Primakov’s initial idea bore the context of anti-Americanism and a counterweight to the Western countries. In the 2000s, this idea was very hard to imagine, but these days not as much…

At some point, Russia had two paths to build the triangle:

  • Pursuing the same policy of Russia building strong bilateral relations with India and China;
  • Proceeding for the active participation in multilateral institutes such as SCO, BRICS, G20, East Asia Summit (EAS), Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM).

The dream option, however, would be to formalise the RIC relations with the format similar to BRICS, especially with its financial institutes.

Overall, following the BRICS and SCO dynamics, it is quite obvious that the institutional path has taken over, despite the odds and challenges which are dealt with in a "constructive" manner, as it is said in China and India.

At present, the idea of Primakov’s triangle is deeply implemented and functions as one of the pillars for current Russian foreign policy. As Sergey Lavrov put it, "This is a thing with which Primakov wrote down his name in world history."

Moreover, so-called ‘Primakov doctrine’ gave a main conceptual base for Russian foreign strategy based on ‘multivectoral’ and autonomous approach to international relations. And the Russian "Turn to the East" in general is usually linked to him too.

The turn to multilateral cooperation began from a collective effort against terrorism, continued upon economic and financial interests of countries, and one of the current trends of RIC’s development is the cooperation in the Arctic.

Photo: Annie Spratt

The Arctic is steadily becoming a field for joint cooperation for Russia, India and China. We can see that year by year intergovernmental relations strengthen, official and unofficial meetings, and active academic exchange of experience increase. A rare academic conference devoted to the Arctic goes without guest reports from Indian and Chinese scholars.

For India, active research in the region is closely bound to climate change, since monsoons affect the country’s economy - rising sea-levels are very dangerous for coastline Indian cities. Another aspect is the energy security as India is the third importer of energy in the world.

For China, a key incentive is creating a counterweight to the West, participation in the NSR and the very same energy security. The existing and ongoing cooperation in the Arctic can be used as a great platform to promote institutionalised interaction. Russia, India and China can use the potential in the Arctic region for enhancing cooperation in other regions and spheres.

The idea of RIC actually gains its initial meaning as it was proposed by Primakov and, interestingly, the best platform for that cooperation is in the North. The problems, however, remain quite the same and the idea is still not realised to its full potential. As before, the development depends closely on the format of relations. There is no institutionalised instrument that would provide pure RIC cooperation - most contacts happen bilaterally or through BRICS and other institutes.

There are also several concerns. That is the supposed risk of “vassalization” of Russia. It can be seen both in Russian discourse and among Indian scholars - “coercive Chinese embrace”. The latter are afraid that Chinese influence will provide too much leverage on Russian policy.

Russia’s official position on that matter always states that all cooperation is built independently and on equal terms. The future of RIC, however, is tied to the same problem that existed in the very beginning. If disputes between China and India resolve, the triangle will finally take its form.

It’s in Russia’s interests to continue efforts on promoting cooperation. Especially now when the new possibilities arise within the Arctic region that can be harnessed for further collaboration.

Dmitry Tarasov