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Putin's push for a strategic triangle

MOSCOW - Russia is again calling for a Moscow-New Delhi-Beijing axis, an alliance of three nuclear-armed countries of some 2.5 billion people that theoretically would be able to balance US power in coming years.

Cooperation among Russia, India and China "would make a great contribution to global security", Russian President Vladimir Putin announced in New Delhi. The Kremlin leader, on a visit to India over the weekend, accused the West of pursuing a dictatorial foreign policy and setting double standards on terrorism. A unipolar world could entail dangerous trends globally, Putin said, adding that unilateralism increased risks that weapons of mass destruction might fall into the hands of terrorists.

Putin refrained from naming the unilateral power in question, but it is widely assumed he was referring to the United States when he lashed out at "unipolar world" policies. Putin and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh issued a joint call for "multipolar world" and a greater role for the United Nations. The Russian leader also backed India's bid for a permanent United Nations Security Council seat.

A "strategic triangle" linking Russia, India and China was first suggested by former Russian premier (and incidentally Saddam Hussein's old friend) Yevgeny Primakov in 1998. Yet the idea failed to serve its immediate purpose of preventing the US-led North Atlantic Treaty Organization air strikes against former Yugoslavia. The concept was dismissed by Beijing, while New Delhi remained noncommittal.

In November 2002, New Delhi denied that India, Russia and China were forming a separate axis, adding that talks among the three countries in New York were informal and not directed against the US or any other country.

However, in December 2002 Putin traveled to China and India, and high-level rhetoric about the need for greater cooperation also included thinly veiled anti-Western pronouncements and calls for a "multipolar world", Moscow's mantra for counterbalancing America's global dominance.

In late 2002, Russian hinted at a possible Moscow-New Delhi-Beijing axis, a move arguably made to highlight the Kremlin's strong disagreement with US policies on Iraq. But this stratagem also failed to prevent the US-led invasion to topple Saddam. Nonetheless, speculation resurfaced about the three countries ganging up together to form the "axis" due to a perceived sense among all three that American power must somehow be checked.

So far, the "strategic triangle" concept is yet to be formally coined. However, Russia, China and India are all understood to have a number of converging interests that could add substance to the axis talk. All three were opposed to the war on Iraq and protested against what they viewed as a rejection of the rules of the international game. They continue to back the primacy of the UN Security Council in solving crises, and support the principle of non-intervention in the internal affairs of sovereign states.

Apart from shared concerns of US dominance, the three have other common interests and mutually reinforcing needs. All three are weary of militant Islamic groups on their soil, and want stability in Central Eurasia.

There is also a growing arms sale relationship between Russia and the two Asian countries. The trade provides Moscow with billions of much-needed dollars and important arms-export markets, while Beijing and New Delhi receive sophisticated armaments ranging from combat aircraft to submarines.

All three countries have opposed missile defense systems, seen as detrimental to their respective nuclear deterrence. Incidentally, Russian generals have hinted they have cheaper ways to defeat an anti-missile system by using some of the Soviet-era blueprints of "asymmetric warfare". These include schemes to confuse and overwhelm a missile-defense system by the use of dummy warheads as well as multiple maneuverable warheads. China and India are reportedly interested in investigating how weaker powers can defeat stronger ones by "asymmetric warfare". Therefore, all three could be potentially interested in pursuing anti-satellite, anti-radar and anti-computer techniques designed to deny a technologically superior military power the ability to operate.

On the other hand, the idea that an Eastern axis may be the only answer to Bush administration arrogance has been dismissed as a mere byproduct of the Cold War-era mindset. It has been also argued that the trilateral axis cannot be feasible because the Indian nuclear and missile program is not so much aimed at Pakistan, but is in fact deterrence against Chinese nuclear warheads. There have been warnings that a well-armed and strong China may one day pose a threat to Russia's resource-rich Far East. The would-be triangle is also seen as implausible because India and China happen to have competing economies. Russia and China have already solved their border disputes, while China and India are still divided by a chunk of barren terrain, the Dalai Lama and a few thousand of his followers.

Meanwhile, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) can provide a convenient forum for the trilateral axis. The SCO currently includes China, Russia, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, yet India has been touted as a potential candidate to join.

SCO was originally intended to band together Russia, China and Central Asian nations to contest America's growing influence in Central Eurasia. Its secretariat is to be based in Beijing, reportedly at China's insistence. The group drafted a Shanghai anti-terror convention and has urged the UN to play a major role in efforts to eradicate global terrorism.

Given the polarizing effect of Iraq, some sort of strategic unity among Russia, China and India is not beyond the realm of feasibility. Therefore, the triangle - formal, informal or in the SCO disguise - may finally get some substance. After all, mutual interests, the greatest of all purposes, may become the cement of this alliance.

There is, thus, a motivation in all three capitals to cooperate on strategic, security and economic issues. But aside from calls for a "multipolar world", the idea of an axis seemingly has yet to evolve into a clear-cut strategy. The would-be "strategic triangle" is still short of an implementation system, a prerequisite to ensure the future success of any stratagem. In the meantime, none of the troika wants to give the impression that they are banding together against the sole superpower.

As the international situation is undergoing a major shift, Moscow may feel a necessity for some "asymmetric" moves to offset its own weaknesses. If Russian policies in Ukraine fail, the Kremlin's response could be the acceleration of alliances with India and China, or at least the acceleration of axis talk. However, "strategic triangle" talk failed to impress the West in the past, and axis rhetoric is even less likely to have an impact now.

Based in Moscow, Sergei Blagov covers Russia and post-Soviet states with special attention to Asia-related issues. He has been contributing to Asia Times Online since 1996. Between 1983 and 1997, he spent some seven years in Southeast Asia, mainly in Vietnam. In 2001 and 2002, Nova Science Publishers, New York, published his two books on Vietnamese history.

(Copyright 2004 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved.)

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