However, one such rare occasion came when he boarded his aircraft with his entourage last week and warily began the 6,000-kilometer journey home from Bangalore, the capital of the southern state of Karnataka, where he had attended a meeting of the Russia-India-China (RIC) trilateral format.
Moscow has tried its level best over recent months to draw India and China closer together on a common regional initiative on Afghanistan. The RIC meeting in Bangalore took place against the backdrop of the eight-year war in the Hindu Kush radiating negative energy all across neighboring regions - the Caucasus
and Central Asia, China's Xinjiang Autonomous Region, Iran's Sistan-Balochistan province and Pakistan's tribal areas. However, Russian diplomats watched helplessly as eddies in Sino-Indian ties began polluting their efforts to bring Moscow and Delhi closer in Bangalore on the core issues of regional security. They finally called it a day.
Russia puts on a brave face
The Russians, whose pet project is the RIC, must have felt exasperated with their "time-tested" Indian friends. But they wouldn't have been surprised. They could have anticipated that the disequilibrium within the RIC format would impact the Bangalore meeting. Russia and China are intensifying their cooperation; India has largely neglected its ties with Russia in the post-Cold War years, although most recently it has signaled renewed interest in reviving the atrophied relationship; India and China, on the other hand, have drawn closer incrementally over the past decade, but only to pull apart dramatically in the recent period.
Moscow usually generates a lot of hype when a RIC meeting approaches. This time, it adopted a low-key approach. An article in the influential Nezavisimaya Gazeta newspaper by Vladimir Skosyrev, a leading commentator, underlined that bilateral Sino-Indian problems - border disputes and the activities of the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, in India - were negatively impacting the work of the RIC.
After the RIC meeting, Lavrov went out of his way to put a brave face on Skosyrev's prognosis. He said, "I want to say that no bilateral problems between India and China had any impact on today's [RIC] meeting. In no way did these themes surface." True, the Indian and Chinese foreign ministers held a separate 90-minute meeting to devote to the hot issues in their bilateral relations.
Lavrov took pains to explain that the RIC was shaping up to be "a highly promising format", given its "dialogue" on agriculture, health and business. He minimized the RIC's role in crafting any initiative on Afghanistan. Lavrov offered a lengthy explanation:
RIC is a group of countries that are integrally needed to mobilize regional efforts. But they are not enough. All of Afghanistan's neighbors are needed. The US, the main supplier of troops ... is needed. Iran is needed. The Central Asian countries are needed.
RIC is a group that was not created for Afghan affairs at all, but for other reasons ... Although India, Russia and China have an influence on how to normalize the situation in Afghanistan, our efforts are not enough. The three nations can and are willing to work with other major actors to develop a collective strategy, meaning exactly collective.
Not that the RIC format lacks a raison d'etre - as the pro-American elements in the Indian strategic community and media constantly try to establish. Its relevance is acute, as three big countries with common concerns in the Asian continent come together within an exclusive format to discuss shared interests on the core issues of regional security - terrorism, religious extremism, political separatism, etc - and coordinate their policies.
Without doubt, regional cooperation has become the leitmotif of international politics within the new reality of a polycentric world. World politics is beginning to operate in a new coordinate system. Regional formats so far remain mostly in dialogue formats with relatively modest agendas, but all understand that this format sets a certain standard of equal, cooperative relations.
Regionalization of global politics attends to various compulsions. A need often arises to find regional solutions to conflicts and crisis situations. Again, regionalization fills in where global mechanisms are either insufficient or are lacking. At other times, a safety net is simply required in case of any likely "de-globalization" (as in Afghanistan) so that fragmentation is arrested. Clearly, regional formats provide additional possibilities for the formation of unifying agendas.
But, unlike Russia and China, which take to regional formats with zest, Indian diplomacy generally holds back. India's preponderant size in its region and its problematic relationships with China and Pakistan partly account for its reticence. But the crisis building up in the Pakistan-Afghanistan region shows up the inadequacies of India's "solo approach". Delhi's inability to partake of regional initiatives on Afghanistan virtually isolates it in the region.
Evidently, its nationalist isolationism is reducing India to being a bystander when momentous regional processes are unfolding. There has been a systematic attempt by influential sections of the Indian strategic community to deride or downright rubbish and undermine India's involvement in regional processes - such as the RIC - that exclude the US or towards which Washington remains antithetical.
India has the maximum to lose in the absence of a regional initiative on the settlement of the Afghan problem. Delhi holds an archaic view of the Taliban. While there is wide recognition in the region that the Taliban are an Afghan political reality, Delhi stands apart. The security establishment in Delhi sets the pace for Indian diplomacy and in its vision, the Taliban are the progeny of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence and therefore India cannot countenance a role for the Taliban in Afghanistan's power structure.
But then, the Afghan conflict is first and foremost a fratricidal strife, and an enduring solution needs to be all-inclusive. Besides, who are Indians to prescribe what is good for the Afghan people? Delhi would have gained by working together with like-minded countries that broadly share India's misgivings about the ascendancy of radical forces in the region and yet accept the inevitability of a broad-based pan-Afghan settlement.
Principal among such major regional countries would be China, Russia and Iran. Now, these three countries are ahead of India in forging regional matrixes within which they advance their national interests. Russia and China work together within the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Russia also has an alliance system in the Collective Security Treaty Organization. Iran has initiated its own trilateral format with Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Obama's Chinese takeaway
To be sure, Washington heaved a big sigh of relief that the RIC process failed to mature. The dreadful moment, from the US perspective, would be if and when the RIC began bearing the fruits of regional activism. Therefore, the RIC's state of health has all along been of intense curiosity to Washington. The US has been stalking the RIC - just as it is doing with regard to Tokyo's nascent idea of an East Asian community. As the president of the influential Japan Foundation, Kazuo Ogoura, wrote last week, "It is intolerable [for Washington] to see Asians considering their relations among each other in a form that excludes the US."
Moscow will feel concerned. Lavrov candidly admitted to Russian journalists accompanying him, "[The George W] Bush administration sinned by a lopsided interpretation of collective efforts ... Obama has announced a different philosophy - that of collective action, which calls for joint analysis, decision-making and implementation rather than for all others to follow Washington's decisions. [But] so far inertia lingers at the implementers' level in the US, who still follow the well-trodden track ... This is a process which will take time before the president's will is translated into the language of practical actions by his subordinates ... a need for joint analysis is still evident in Afghanistan."
The RIC's failure at Bangalore to work substantially on a regional initiative regarding Afghanistan ensures that the US can now press ahead with its own strategy of striking "grand bargains" individually with the three major regional powers - Russia, China and India.
Conceivably, the "Chinese takeaway" will be a substantial outcome of US President Barack Obama's forthcoming visit to Beijing. The Pentagon press release on the talks in Washington between US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and the visiting vice chairman of China's People's Liberation Army Central Military Commission, General Xu Caihou, said the two sides "agreed on the need to work together" on Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell said, "The takeaway is that there was broad agreement on the importance of, and how to deal with, the situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and the need to work together to create a more stable and secure environment in both those places."
Writing in the New York Times newspaper last Friday, two influential American voices - Mark Brzezinski, who served on the National Security Council in the Bill Clinton administration, and Mark Fung of Harvard University, who is an old Beijing hand - argued that Obama must carry a purposive "China List" when he travels Beijing. They wrote:
Three overarching "deliverables" could be identified that if implemented would significantly reshape the US-China relationship and address serious challenges the two countries face together. One, establish a formal mechanism among the leaders of the United States, China and Pakistan. China is Pakistan's most important supporter both because of their geographical proximity and China's perception of China as a counterweight to India ...
The interests for the United States and China are consonant in Pakistan: removing extremist fundamentalist activity, stabilizing the leadership and encouraging economic growth ... The United States should make it clear it does not want to displace Beijing's influence in Islamabad, but a tripartite approach would advance shared interests ... The Obama trip to Beijing provides an opportunity to elevate the relationship to include constructive engagement in concentric areas of shared interest - stabilizing Pakistan, advancing soft power interests in Afghanistan, and cooperating on security matters and shared challenges in East Asia.
The Obama administration's worldview is still emerging, but its policies toward Russia and China are already revealing. Its Russia policy consists of trying to accommodate Moscow's sense of global entitlement. So far that has meant ignoring the continued presence of Russian forces on Georgian territory, negotiating arms-control agreements that Moscow needs more than Washington does and acquiescing to Russian objections to new NATO installations -- such as missile interceptors -- in former Warsaw Pact countries. An aggrieved Russia demands that the West respect a sphere of influence in its old imperial domain. The Obama administration rhetorically rejects the legitimacy of any such sphere, but its actions raise doubts for those who live in Russia's shadow. The administration has announced a similar accommodating approach to China. Dubbed "strategic reassurance," the policy aims to convince the Chinese that the United States has no intention of containing their rising power. Details remain to be seen, but as with the Russia "reset," it is bound to make American allies nervous.
Administration officials seem to believe that the era of great-power competition is over. The pursuit of power, President Obama declared during a July speech about China, "must no longer be seen as a zero-sum game."
Unfortunately, that is not the reality in Asia. Contrary to optimistic predictions just a decade ago, China is behaving exactly as one would expect a great power to behave. As it has grown richer, China has used its wealth to build a stronger and more capable military. As its military power has grown, so have its ambitions.
This is especially true of its naval ambitions. Not so long ago, our China experts believed it was absurd for China to aspire to a "blue-water" navy capable of operating far from its shores.
Yet the new head of the U.S. Pacific Command, Adm. Robert Willard, noted last month that "in the past decade or so, China has exceeded most of our intelligence estimates of their military capability. . . . They've grown at an unprecedented rate." Defense Secretary Robert Gates recently warned that China's military modernization program could undermine U.S. military power in the Pacific.
It is hardly surprising that China wants to supplant U.S. power in the region. To the Chinese, the reign of "the middle kingdom" is the natural state of affairs and the past 200 years of Western dominance an aberration. Nor is it surprising that China wants to reshape international security arrangements that the United States established after World War II, when China was too weak to have a say.
What is surprising is the Obama administration's apparent willingness to accommodate these ambitions. This worries U.S. allies from New Delhi to Seoul.
Those nations are under no illusion about great-power competition. India is engaged in strategic competition with China, especially in the Indian Ocean, which both see as their sphere of influence. Japan's government wants to improve relations with Beijing, but many in Japan fear an increasingly hegemonic China. The nations of Southeast Asia do business with China but look to the United States for strategic support against their giant neighbor.
For decades, U.S. strategy toward China has had two complementary elements. The first was to bring China into the "family of nations" through engagement. The second was to make sure China did not become too dominant, through balancing. The Clinton administration pushed for China's accession to the World Trade Organization and normalized trade but also strengthened the U.S. military alliance with Japan. The Bush administration fostered close economic ties and improved strategic cooperation with China. But the United States also forged a strategic partnership with India and enhanced its relations with Japan, Singapore and Vietnam. The strategy has been to give China a greater stake in peace, while maintaining a balance of power in the region favorable to democratic allies and American interests.
"Strategic reassurance" seems to chart a different course. Senior officials liken the policy to the British accommodation of a rising United States at the end of the 19th century, which entailed ceding the Western Hemisphere to American hegemony. Lingering behind this concept is an assumption of America's inevitable decline.
Yet nothing would do more to hasten decline than to follow this path. The British accommodation of America's rise was based on close ideological kinship. British leaders recognized the United States as a strategic ally in a dangerous world -- as proved true throughout the 20th century. No serious person would imagine a similar grand alliance and "special relationship" between an autocratic China and a democratic United States. For the Chinese -- true realists -- the competition with the United States in East Asia is very much a zero-sum game.
For that reason, "strategic reassurance" is likely to fail. The Obama administration cannot back out of the region any time soon; Obama's trip this week, in fact, seems designed to demonstrate American staying power. Nor is China likely to end or slow its efforts to militarily and economically dominate the region. So it will quickly become obvious that no one on either side feels reassured.
Unfortunately, the only result will be to make American allies nervous. For an administration that has announced "we are back" after years of alleged Bush administration neglect in Asia, this is not an auspicious beginning.