Prime Minister Narendra Modi is expected to meet the leaders of Japan and the US as well as Russia and China in two different sets of trilaterals on the sidelines of the G20 summit from 28-29 June in Osaka, underlining New Delhi’s balancing act among major powers.
This comes amid strategic convergence with Japan and the US on some aspects of the Indo-Pacific concept and similarity of views with Beijing and Moscow on issues of freer trade and protectionism.
According to officials, leaders of the BRICS countries—i.e. Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa will also meet on the sidelines of the G20.
These are three of the many interactions Modi is expected to have on the margins of the G20. The others are bilaterals with President Donald Trump, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan, Prime Minister of Australia and Prime Minister Lee Hsein Loong of Singapore, two people familiar with the development said.
“These dialogues —the Russia-India-China and the Japan-America-India—are a reiteration of Prime Minister Modi’s thinking that if India has to be a leading power it must engage with all powers," said former foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal.
The Japan-America-India meeting or JAI, at the summit level with Abe, Trump and Modi, will be the second of its kind—the first took place in December on the margins of the G20 summit in Argentina. “Both Japan and the US are key partners for India in the bilateral sense," said an Indian official who did not want to be named, referring to the strong one-to-one ties that New Delhi has with Tokyo on the one hand and Washington on the other.
Japan under the India-friendly Abe is seen as a crucial partner in helping build critical infrastructure, providing key development support as well as a major source of foreign direct investment. The two countries are also looking at starting negotiations on the Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement (ACSA) to deepen defence cooperation between the two countries. Once concluded, the pact will allow armed forces of the two countries to use each other bases for logistical support.
The India-US relationship has evolved to the point where shedding the inhibitions and suspicions of the past, the two recognize each other as strategic partners. India is currently one of the top military hardware buyers from the US. Washington has provided key support to India in counter-terrorism cooperation, pressing Pakistan to close terrorist training camps and stop their funding. There are at least two dozen dialogues between India and the US spanning cooperation in health care to education.
All three share a wariness about the rise of China and agree on the need for an “open" Indo-Pacific region without hindrances in freedom of navigation or overflight.
The Russia-India-China or RIC summit also took place last on the margins of the G20 meet in Argentina last year. The grouping includes an old partner of India—ie Russia. Though India has diversified the source of its military purchases, Moscow still remains a major supplier of critical military spares given that a large chunk of India’s weaponry is of Russian origin. Analysts have also pointed out that though India has signed civil nuclear pacts with many countries, it is the Russian-built nuclear plants at Kudankulam that are in operation and at various stages of construction. Of late, Russia’s slant towards China and Pakistan has worried India, with prime minister Modi visiting Russia’s Sochi last year to reset ties.
On the other hand, China is a key neighbour of India with which New Delhi is stabilising its ties after the 2017 Doklam military standoff that had arisen due to a dragging border dispute.
The “RIC dialogue has certain limitations," given Beijing does not recognise India’s ambitions to play a major role on the world stage, Sibal said. But given that globalisation is under stress and there is an increase in protectionism, the RIC dialogue is a useful forum to exchange views on these issues, Sibal said.
Similarly, in the context of the trade and tech war between the US and China, it is important to keep channels of communications open with both sides, he said. “These countries need to understand and accept that India will not align itself with one power or another but develop understanding and agendas of cooperation based on India’s own self interest," Sibal said.