Indo-Pacific or Community of Common Destiny?

Reuters photo



Andrey Kortunov



To say that the next couple of decades promise to usher in a multitude of changes to the international political scene is to say nothing at all. Changes on the international level are constant and never-ending; sometimes they are almost imperceptible, but sometimes they are quite dramatic in nature. The next fifteen to twenty years, however, would seem to portend something special: the new world order for the distant future, indeed right up to the end of the present century, is at stake.


Who will determine the rules of the game in the future world order? What will the main currency of power and influence be? To what extent will the hierarchy of world leaders change? How will global governance be organized? A fierce struggle around these issues has already begun, and the stakes are exceptionally high for individual states, for entire regions, and for the world system as a whole. It is clear that the epicentre of the struggle is and will continue to be the Eurasian continent. After all, not only does it remain the main historical core of and driving economic force behind the modern world, but is also rightly considered the main prize in the forthcoming redistribution of the world.


At the present time, two competing long-term visions of Eurasia are coming into focus. Each represents the national interests of key players, a combination of regional military, political, and economic strategies, bilateral and multilateral international mechanisms, and corresponding ideological and conceptual designs. Each vision is collecting its coalition, allies are mobilizing, and resources are being accumulated. The main battles are yet to come, but the scent of gunpowder is already in the air.


Everything points to a protracted and demanding confrontation. Tactical compromises between the two visions are possible and likely even inevitable, though in the long term, the two projects are in no way fully compatible. In the end, there can be only one winner, and the loser shall be relegated to the fate of being a redundant historical evolution of the Eurasian continent.




Indo-Pacific, Quad, and Containing China



The term Indo-Pacific has entered geopolitics via biogeography, which studies the patterns of geographical distribution and the distribution of animals, plants, and microorganisms. Biologists have drawn our attention to the fact that the vast ocean that spreads from the south of Japan to the north of Australia and from the Hawaiian Islands in the east to the Red Sea in the west has many shared features and is in essence a single ecosystem.


Approximately a decade ago, geostrategists borrowed the biological term and gave it a different spin. It was originally Indian and Japanese strategists that discovered, so to speak, the geopolitical Indo-Pacific, justifying the strengthening of bilateral Indian-Japanese cooperation. At the present time, however, and especially following the arrival of the administration of Donald Trump in Washington, the idea of building up the Indo-Pacific has undergone a significant metamorphosis and taken on the form of a predominantly American strategy.


In effect, we are talking about the long-term development of Eurasia along its outer contour by strengthening cooperation primarily between maritime powers of the eastern and southern periphery of the Eurasian continent (from South Korea to the countries of the Arabian Peninsula) and the Pacific Island states (from Japan to New Zealand). Meanwhile, the main goal of the new Eurasian vision, as one may easily guess, is the political, military, and strategic deterrence of China through the creation of a rigid shell intended to keep Beijing from occupying a dominant position in the region.


Practical implementation of the Indo-Pacific strategy calls for both the strengthening of US bilateral relations with countries in the region and the fostering of multilateral cooperation. The most important aspect of the latter is the so-called Quad, designed to unite the four “democracies” of the Indo-Pacific region – the USA, Japan, Australia, and India. Attempts to create a Quad have been ongoing for many years now, though the administration of Donald Trump has created additional momentum, already achieving a moderate amount of success. And all of this in spite of the generally disdainful attitude of the current American leadership towards international institutions and multilateral cooperation!


It would, of course, be premature to exaggerate the Quad’s significance for the general situation in Eurasia at the moment. Moreover, the very concept of the Indo-Pacific remains rather loose, to say the least. The Indian interpretation of the concept differs significantly from the American one, both in terms of geography and content. Some Indian experts interpret the Indo-Pacific to fall under the historical sphere of Indian cultural influence (something like the Indian World, to compare it to the Russian World), while others suggest including China and even Russia within the construct of the Indo-Pacific. Whatever the case may be, the general thrust of Washington’s strategic design of the new Eurasia within the context of the Indo-Pacific is aimed squarely at the military and political containment of Beijing in one form or another.




Community of Common Destiny, Russia, India, China, and the Consolidation of Eurasia



An alternative strategy for the alignment of a new Eurasia involves consolidating the continent from within and not without, not from the periphery towards the centre but from the centre towards the periphery. The primary continental shell ought to be made up of a whole system of complementary axes (transport and logistical corridors), pulling the west and east, north and south of a huge and very heterogeneous Eurasian space together into a single entity. Xi Jinping outlined the approach’s underlying philosophy in November 2012 at the 18th Congress of the Communist Party of China. Although the Chinese leader attached universal significance to the idea of a Community of Common Destiny, applying it to international relations as a whole, it has always been first and foremost about the future of Eurasia.


The approach further developed to define the objectives of Beijing’s policy towards neighbouring countries (the Peripheral Diplomacy of China). The approach can also be seen in the advancement of various multilateral continental initiatives, in particular, the One Belt, One Road Initiative and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership Project. It is indicative that in addition to ASEAN countries, the participants of this last project included South Korea, Australia, and New Zealand, the traditional maritime allies of the United States in the Asia-Pacific Region.


Unlike in the case of the American Indo-Pacific, the Community of Common Destiny does not imply the strict commitments of an ally on the part of participating countries, and China itself does not alter its non-bloc status. Although China cannot completely disregard security when considering the future of Eurasia, the economic and social development of all the regions of the Eurasian continent and the need to surmount existing disparities in living standards and degrees of involvement in the continental and world economy are of primary importance to the Chinese approach. It is clear that the more energetically Washington creates an external military and political network around China, the more Beijing will pile military and political elements into the inner Eurasian shell.


When projecting the Chinese vision onto a map of modern Eurasia, it is logical to foresee the triangle of China–India–Russia forming the foundation of the new structure. The triangle (Russia, India, and China) has been cooperating for some time now, though in recent years it has been partially absorbed by the broader BRICS and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization structures. The foundational triangle could be supplemented by more complex multilateral structures embracing the three most important regions of Eurasia: North-East Asia, South-East Asia, and Central Asia, as well as Western Asia (the Middle East) at some time in the future.


In an even more distant future, we could see the integration of the westernmost periphery of the Eurasian continent, Western and Central Europe, as well as the easternmost periphery and the island states of the Pacific Ocean into this new architecture. Such large-scale tasks could not realistically be put into practice any earlier than by the middle of this century.




Open moves: setting up the pieces



At the present time only the first moves have been made in the big game for the future of Eurasia, the game is still in its opening stage. And the goal of the opening, as we know from chess, is to mobilize resources, take move pieces to the most advantageous positions, and to hinder the opponent’s development. And how about the geopolitical chessboard: what can we say about the players’ positions present?


Neither of the two alternative visions for a new Eurasia has yet fully crystalized. Each has its own strengths and weaknesses, its advantages and disadvantages. The strength of the American Indo-Pacific is the already existing, time-tested system of US bilateral agreements with numerous allies and partners in the waters of the Indian and Pacific Oceans. The undoubted advantage of Washington remains its prevailing military power and naval and air force capabilities.


The main weakness of the American vision is, in our opinion, its precarious economic foundation. The US refusal to participate in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) seriously restricts America’s ability to comprehensively implement its Indo-Pacific vision and to see to China’s economic containment. Considering that the number one priority for most countries of Eurasia is social and economic development, it can be concluded that without an economic dimension, the vision will be limited in its effectiveness. When the United States set itself the goal of containing the USSR in Europe seventy years ago, the Truman Doctrine was joined by the Marshall Plan, which many historians still consider to be the most successful program of economic assistance in the history of mankind. Nowadays, when the question of containing China in Asia is of such importance, the United States is not only unwilling to implement another Marshall Plan for the Indo-Pacific, but has already begun to toughen its stance on the economic aspects of relations with its closest Asian allies and partners.


The strong economic foundation for the Chinese vision makes it seem preferable in this regard. Or at least aspires to it. The Chinese vision is based on economics and not security, though it too does not involve large-scale economic philanthropy in the spirit of the Marshall Plan of the last century. Moreover, unlike Washington, Beijing can afford the luxury of long-term strategic planning thanks to a strategic depth that allows them to think in terms of decades rather than the current four-year political cycle.


China’s main weakness lies in the fears of neighbouring states regarding Chinese economic, political, and military hegemony in Eurasia. The current American hegemony along the periphery of the Eurasian continent strikes many as less burdensome and more bearable than the potential dominance of Beijing. At the same time, we must admit that over the past one and a half to two years, Chinese diplomacy has made tangible progress in its interaction with its neighbours in both the northeast (North and South Korea) and in the southeast (Vietnam and ASEAN as a whole).


One more important comparative advantage of the Chinese vision over the American one should be mentioned. The Indo-Pacific in one way or another implies a split in the Eurasian continent, since neither China, nor Russia, nor other continental states of Eurasia fit into the construct. Moreover, restricting it to maritime democracies will necessarily mean excluding many other countries, from Vietnam to the Arab monarchies of the Persian Gulf. The Community of Common Destiny, at least theoretically, would be able to unite the whole of Eurasia without any exceptions.




India as a decisive swing state



There is an American electoral concept known as the swing state, which refers to a state where neither party has a clear advantage, and the outcome of the vote is unclear. There are few such states in each electoral cycle, but they determine who will ultimately move into the White House. In the case of Eurasia, the role of swing state falls to India.


The demographic, economic, strategic, and geopolitical potential of India will only continue to grow over time. Without the participation of Delhi, or even more with resistance from the Indian leadership, neither the American nor the Chinese vision can be fully brought to fruition. Without India, the Chinese vision of a Common Destiny remains in the very least unfinished and incomplete, and it turns from a continental plan into a trans-regional one. And it is no different for the Americans, who together with India would lose one of their two primary pillars in the region, thus reducing their vision of the Indo-Pacific to a thinly scattered collection of loosely related agreements between the USA with its traditional Asia-Pacific partners. It would not be an exaggeration to say that for the present, and moreover for the future, a partnership with India is no less important to the US than their Cold War alliance with Japan was.


India, meanwhile, is trying to hang on to as much room as possible to manoeuvre and is in no hurry to make their choice. On the one hand, India has accumulated their share of historical disputes and a tradition of open or hidden competition with China in Southeast Asia. The question remains one of wounded national pride with the memory of India’s unsuccessful 1962 border war with China. There also remains the issue of a global status that has been infringed upon: India, unlike China, is not a permanent member of the UN Security Council, and Beijing, as far as can be judged, is not inclined to help Delhi receive membership. Finally, there remain suspicions about Beijing’s possibly supporting Indian separatists.


Even more realistic and not entirely groundless are concerns over the economic, political, and military expansion of China into the Indian Ocean. There is a popular theory in India known as the String of Pearls, which describes the Chinese strategy in the Indian Ocean basin as one intended to surround India by creating a chain of bases and other Chinese military sites through Hong Kong – Hainan – Paracel Islands – Spratly Islands – Kampong Som (Cambodia) – the Kra Canal (Thailand) – Sittwe and the Coco Islands (Myanmar) – Hambantota (Sri Lanka) – Marao (Maldives) – Gwadar (Pakistan) – Al Ahdab (Iraq) – Lamu (Kenya) – Port Sudan. There are concerns about potential problems for India in accessing the Pacific Ocean, which remains one of Delhi’s most important transportation corridors. Delhi also faces difficult economic problems: India’s overall trade deficit with China exceeded $50 billion annually. In addition, Beijing extensively employs the practice of imposing non-tariff restrictions on Indian pharmaceuticals, food, and IT products.


On the other hand, it is unlikely that India will be able to avoid junior partner status in the USA’s Indo-Pacific with all the accompanying costs. If Washington does not wish to see Beijing as an equal player on the international scene, it is unlikely that it will readily offer this role to Delhi. Although India’s current leadership is gradually moving away from many of the principles of Jawaharlal Nehru, including the basic principle of non-alignment, a complete break with the traditions upon which the Indian state was founded seems unlikely in the foreseeable future. The inconsistency of the American strategy and the rigidity with which the current administration negotiates economic issues even with its closest allies should give rise to serious concerns among the Indian leadership. While the US trade deficit with India is much less than that with China, it is not difficult to predict that Donald Trump’s application of economic pressure on Narendra Modi will only grow with time.


The Indian political establishment as a whole supports the policy of strengthening cooperation with Donald Trump’s America but finds the prospect of losing even part of their freedom on the world stage extremely unpleasant. By entering into a formal military and political union under the auspices of the United States, India would certainly lose some of this freedom not only in relation to China, but also in its relations with other important partners, such as Moscow and Tehran.


In all likelihood, India will continue to hesitate. Much will depend not only on the evolution of a strategic vision among the Indian elite, but also on the professionalism, flexibility, and adaptability of American and Chinese diplomacy. It would seem that given the peculiar negotiating style of the current US administration and some problems with the adoption of foreign policy decisions in general, China currently enjoys some serious tactical advantages, at least in relation to India.


Nevertheless, tactical advantages are clearly not enough to seriously increase the Common Destiny’s attractiveness to India. China will have to make significant concessions on issues of importance to India, such as the problem of international terrorism in Eurasia, India’s permanent membership in the UN Security Council, and bilateral trade issues among others. It would appear that in one way or another, Beijing will have to recognize the special role of Delhi in South Asia, just as it recognizes Russia’s special role in Central Asia. The later Beijing takes serious steps towards Delhi, the more difficult it will be to involve India in the Community of Common Destiny.




Russia’s interests



Strictly speaking, the Indo-Pacific does not directly involve Russia in any way. The current US strategy does not view Moscow as a serious player in either the Indian Ocean or the Asia-Pacific region. Geographically, the Indo-Pacific does not extend north of Hokkaido and the Korean Peninsula. Perhaps that is reason Washington effectively ignores ongoing attempts of Japanese-Russian rapprochement under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe as well as political pushback from South Korea, which has consistently sought to sabotage anti-Russian Western sanctions for some time.


Moscow’s only potential benefit from implementing the Indo-Pacific vision is that, if the project is successful for Beijing, the value of partnership with Moscow objectively increases. In this sense, a standoff between the maritime and continental parts of Eurasia would clearly be preferable to Russia than the hypothetical version of close American-Chinese cooperation as the G2, which would certainly reduce the value of Moscow as a partner not only in Washington’s eyes, but in Beijing’s as well. But the costs of a new Eurasian bipolarity for Moscow would in any case outweigh possible benefits: Russian policy in Eurasia would lose its flexibility, and many traditional partnerships, such as with Vietnam and India, would be jeopardized. An overall decline in stability in the Asia-Pacific Region, an inevitable side effect of the Indo-Pacific project, would also create additional problems for Moscow.


The Community of Common Destiny looks much more promising for Russia if only because Russia’s role would not be that of a spectator in the audience or even of an extra somewhere on stage but that of one of the leads. But is Moscow capable of playing such a role? To do so, Russia must not behave like a spoke attached to the central Chinese Eurasian axis, but as a parallel axis, albeit one smaller in diameter. In other words, Russia must enter the Community of Common Destiny with its own Eurasian integration project (EAEC) and not empty-handed.


Creating a parallel Russian axis is a socio-economic task and not a political one. It can be resolved without the need to transition to a new, more effective model of economic development that would be more attractive to its neighbours. It would be a strategic mistake to consider the prospect of joining the Community of Common Destiny a working alternative to long overdue structural changes to the Russian economy, or to hope that the Eurasian structure would somehow miraculously allow Russia to avoid the challenges of globalization. On the contrary, joining the Community would place additional demands on the effectiveness of the Russian economic model and on the openness of the Russian economy. An obviously superfluous axis in the new Eurasian machine would have no chance of surviving; it would weigh down the structure and would quickly be called out and dismantled one way or another.


It should be noted in passing that India will face the same challenge if it should decide in favour of the Community of Common Destiny. It would be logical for Delhi to perform a system-forming function for South Asia, similar to the one that Russia must implement in Central Eurasia. Russia, for its part, is interested in preserving and even strengthening India’s position in South Asia, not for the purpose of containing China, but to create a more stable multi-polar balance of power and interests on the Eurasian continent. At the same time, the Indian leadership must understand that the time of exclusive Spheres of Influence enjoyed by the great powers are a thing of the past, that it is no longer possible to count on the unconditional loyalty of even the closest neighbours and partners, like Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and Nepal, and that it will be necessary to fight hard for their attention and benevolence.




From opening to middle game



According to one of Henry Kissinger’s main strategic precepts, in any geopolitical triangle, the corner whose relationship with each of the other two angles is better than their relationship with each other is in the most favourable position. In fact, Kissinger’s not-unsuccessful geopolitical strategy for the US–USSR–China triangle of the early 1970s was based on this understanding. In keeping with this classic of geopolitics, Russia should theoretically be interested in maintaining a certain level of tension in Sino-Indian relations in order to occupy the most favourable position in the Russia–China–India triangle.


However, international relations are built on other foundations nowadays. Geopolitics no longer functions the way it did half a century ago. Russia doesn’t stand to benefit from an exacerbation of Sino-Indian conflicts. To be fair, it’s not trying to play on these conflicts either in multilateral formats or in bilateral relations. However, much more does need to be done in Moscow. It should be a priority for Russian foreign policy (of no less importance than restoring relations with the West!) to seek ways to overcome disagreements between India and China and to strengthen cooperation between the two.


At this juncture new meaning ought to be lent to the Russia, India, China alliance, which was to some extent swallowed up within the BRICS structure. Although RIC meetings have continued between foreign ministers on a regular basis since September 2001, documents adopted in relation thereto are of an extremely general and sometimes purely declarative nature. Approved tripartite documents on the fight against international terrorism, on supporting stability in Afghanistan, and on the need to strengthen global governance gloss over serious differences within the triumvirate on many of the fundamental aspects of these and other problems.


It would appear that RIC discussions should become more frank, specific, and based on trust. The main goal should not be to seek a formal agreement on coinciding positions on the most general issues, but how to identify disagreements on specific problems and search for mutually acceptable ways to overcome these disagreements. The work is extremely difficult and delicate but also too important and urgent to be postponed indefinitely.


It would be possible to start working out a new agenda for RIC by deepening trilateral cooperation in those areas where the positions of Moscow, Beijing, and Delhi coincide on the whole coincide or differ but slightly. For example, on issues of energy in Eurasia, climate change, and the problem of reforming international financial institutions. The new agenda should include discussion of practical steps the three countries could take in such areas as the fight against double standards in human rights and preventing external interference in the internal affairs of sovereign countries. The common concern of Russia, China, and India with the use of sanctions in international trade, the rise of protectionism, and the crisis of many international organizations create additional opportunities for conscientious or parallel action.


Naturally, India and China will eventually have to resolve numerous very painful bilateral problems. For example, the Indian-Chinese border (which stretches more than 3000 km!) continues to be a possible point of conflict. Clashes are also possible in the territory of third party states, which again rose to the fore following the October 2017 incident in Doklam. A potentially unstable border with China pins down a significant part of the Indian army, which under other circumstances could be transferred to the border with Pakistan. The parties accuse each other of unjustified rigidity and unwillingness to compromise on the resolution of border problems.


There is little Russia can do to help its partners resolve the remaining territorial issues. It would, however, be useful to recall that two decades ago the situation on the Russian–Chinese border (even longer than the Sino-Indian border) also aroused considerable concern on both sides. The level of militarization along the border between Russia and China was even higher than that along the Sino-Indian border. In the end, Moscow and Beijing were able to bring about a radical change in the situation, and in an extremely short period of time. Perhaps the experience of Russia and China could somehow be of use to Beijing and Delhi today?




Endgame: America loses?



Is the Common Destiny project anti-American? Would its implementation spell strategic defeat for the United States? Undoubtedly, most American experts would answer yes to these questions unequivocally. It is our opinion, however, that the answers are not so obvious. First, the vision of a Common Destiny can come to fruition only if it relies mainly on the basic internal needs of the countries of Eurasia and not on a collective desire to confront the United States, or anyone else for that matter. The vision should not be a mirror image of the Indo-Pacific; as a mirror image of the American plan, it has no future.


Secondly, if we ignore geopolitical metaphysics and arguments about the eternal civilizational dualism of Land and Sea, Tellurocracy and Thalassocracy, then we must admit that ultimately a stable, predictable, economically successful Eurasia is in America’s best interests. Making the Common Destiny a reality does not preclude the preservation of the principle of freedom of navigation in the Pacific and Indian oceans, including freedom of movement for the navies and air forces of countries not from the Eurasian continent.


Making the vision a reality also does not preclude the preservation of the openness of the new Eurasia to the rest of the world in matters of trade, investment, and migration. If the Americans wish to seek supporters of protectionism and opponents of the liberal world economic order, there is no need to come all the way to the Dongcheng (Eastern City) District, where the powerful Ministry of Commerce of China is located. It would be sufficient to visit 1800 Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington, D.C., to find the protectionism they are looking for.


Let us stress yet again that the Common Destiny does not in any way signify a return to the old idea of Yevgeny Primakov, expressed during his visit to Delhi in late 1998, about the trilateral cooperation of Russia, China, and India existing to counter the monopolar American world. The monopolar American world has not come to pass nor will it. The balance of power in the world has changed alongside the rules of the game of world politics. Moscow’s biggest mistake would be to try to fill the new Eurasian project with old geopolitical content. Equally erroneous would be any attempt to present the Eurasian project and the development of relations between individual participants and external players as a type of Zero-sum game.


Whatever the outcome of the big game, the United States will not be completely ousted from the Eurasian continent; the level of economic interdependence of the United States and Asia is simply too great, the Asian diasporas in America are too numerous and influential, and American technology, American investment, and American soft power are too important to Asian countries. Nevertheless, it would still be fair if Eurasians themselves and not their overseas partners and patrons were to build the new Eurasia, even assuming the best of intentions.


As for the probable consequences of the Common Destiny for the United States itself, it would be appropriate to rephrase Zbigniew Brzezinski’s famous statement about the role of Ukraine in Russian statehood. The successful implementation of the US vision of the Indo-Pacific will guarantee that the US remains the only global empire in the world, at least until the end of the 21st century. The implementation of the Common Destiny would see the United States gradually lose its imperial status and turn into primus inter pares – the most powerful of several great powers paving the way into the 22nd century.





This article was originally published by the RIAC and is reproduced with their kind permission





Andrey Kortunov

Director General of the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC).

Andrey Kortunov graduated from the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO) in 1979 and completed his postgraduate studies at the Institute for U.S. and Canada Studies of the USSR Academy of Sciences in 1982. He holds a PhD in History. Dr Kortunov completed internships at the Soviet embassies in London and Washington, and at the Permanent Delegation of the USSR to the UN.

In 1982–1995, Dr Kortunov held various positions in the Institute for U.S. and Canada Studies, including Deputy Director. He taught at universities around the world, including the University of California, Berkeley. In addition, he led several public organizations involved in higher education, social sciences and social development, such as the Moscow Public Science Foundation (1993–2001); the Information, Scholarship, Education Center (2002–2017); and the New Eurasia Foundation, (2004–2017). Dr Kortunov has been the President of the New Development Technologies Autonomous Non-profit Organization since 2015.

Since 2011, Andrey Kortunov has been the Director General of RIAC. He is a member of expert and supervisory committees and boards of trustees of several Russian and international organizations. His academic interests include contemporary international relations and Russian foreign policy.

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