As Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov hosts the Russia-India-China trilateral foreign ministers’ meeting on June 23 and Defence Minister Rajnath Singh heads to Russia Monday to attend the Victory Day parade on June 24, Moscow is emerging a key player amid the tension between New Delhi and Beijing.
Over the last few weeks, Moscow has been more engaged with New Delhi. This flows from the understanding that Russia has leverage over Beijing because of recent proximity, while New Delhi has had a history of robust bilateral ties with Moscow. During the Doklam crisis in 2017, Russian diplomats in Beijing were among the few briefed by the Chinese government.
In fact, the phone call between Indian Ambassador to Russia, D Bala Venkatesh Varma, and Deputy Foreign Minister Igor Morgulov took place just two days after the border clash between Indian and Chinese troops in which 20 Indian soldiers, including a Colonel-rank officer, were killed.
“The officials discussed regional security, including developments on the Line of Actual Control on the border between India and China in the Himalayas,” a brief statement by the Russian Foreign ministry said.
Early June, before the June 6 Lt Gen-level talks between India and China, Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla “updated” Russian Ambassador Nikolay Kudashev on the “recent developments” on the situation along the LAC. This was the only publicly available meeting between the Foreign Secretary and a foreign Ambassador at the height of the border stand-off.
The Moscow-Beijing axis is also significant when the US has been at loggerheads with China in recent months and Russia much more calibrated, even in its response on the Covid outbreak.
Tuesday’s RIC Foreign ministers meeting, which was put off in March, will be the first opportunity for External Affairs minister S Jaishankar and Chinese State Councillor and Foreign Minster Wang Yi to engage in that trilateral format.
Asked on the possibility of discussing the India-China tension, Lavrov had said last week: “The agenda does not involve discussing issues that relate to bilateral relations of a country with another member of this format.”
Moscow, too, has responded in a very calibrated manner last week. On June 17, Russian ambassador Kudashev tweeted, “We welcome all steps aimed at de-escalation at the LAC, including the conversation between the two FMs, and remain optimistic.”
“The existence of the RIC is an undisputable reality, firmly fixed on the world map. As for the current stage of of the trilateral cooperation, there are no indications that it might be frozen,” he had said.
According to Russian news agency TASS, Russian Presidential Spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that Kremlin is concerned over a clash between the military on the border between China and India but believes that the two countries could resolve this conflict themselves.
“Certainly, we are watching with great attention what is happening on the Chinese-Indian border. We believe that this is a very alarming report,” Peskov said. “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.”
The Kremlin spokesman emphasized that China and India are Russia’s close partners and allies, and “have very close and mutually beneficial relations built on mutual respect.”
Defence Minister Singh is expected to attend the Victory Day parade earlier scheduled on May 9. Prime Minister Narendra Modi was invited for the parade, which got postponed due to the Covid pandemic.
Like Modi, Chinese President Xi Jinping had been invited for the May 9 parade, but now it is likely to be attended by a senior Defence ministerial level representative from Beijing. So it may offer a window of opportunity for the two sides to break the ice.
The setting in Moscow will be interesting since troops from India and China will participate in the Victory parade as well. A tri-service 75-member Indian military contingent has already reached Moscow. It is led by a Major-rank officer of the Sikh Light Infantry Regiment.