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International relations

India courted by rival camps in diplomatic tug of war

US and Japan vie with China and Russia for neutral New Delhi's favor

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina -- India has come under the diplomatic spotlight as a country positioned to tilt the regional power balance, with the leaders of China and Russia as well as the U.S. and Japan holding three-way meetings at the Group of 20 summit here.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin met on Friday, agreeing to deepen their cooperation in response to U.S. President Donald Trump's unilateralism. The talks were the first among the three countries in 12 years, Indian media reported.

According to China's state television, CCTV, Xi said the international community faces instability, adding, "The close cooperation of the three countries, with broad common interests, will be an important force in stabilizing the world's affairs."

"We must oppose protectionism and unilateralism," Xi said. He called for deeper cooperation among the three countries to solve global problems.

Putin was quoted by CCTV as saying the three nations must work to build an international order that is more impartial and fair. Modi echoed this, saying India, China and Russia should safeguard multilateralism as major world powers.

Hours before the meeting, the U.S., Japan and India held their first trilateral summit. The three agreed to cooperate more closely on maritime security and infrastructure construction.

Washington's relationships with each country are "stronger than ever," Trump said before the meeting.

"We're doing a lot of trade together," he said. "We're doing a lot of defense together, a lot of military purchases."

The trilateral relationship is built on the "free and open Indo-Pacific" vision proposed in 2016 by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. This concept calls for countries with common ideals -- such as the rule of law and market-based economies -- to work together, and is intended as a counterweight to a rising China.

Abe noted the three countries' shared "fundamental values and strategic interests" and said working together would "bring more prosperity and more stability in the region, as well as globally."

Washington subscribes to a similar view, as indicated by the renaming this year of the U.S. military's Pacific Command to the Indo-Pacific Command. Vice President Mike Pence announced plans in October to provide $60 billion in aid to the Indo-Pacific region, at least partly in response to China's Belt and Road infrastructure initiative.

But the U.S. and Japan are not entirely on the same page regarding the rivalry with China. Washington has taken a harder line than Tokyo, which hopes to avoid endangering its warming relationship with Beijing, particularly with Xi due to visit Japan next year.

Beijing, meanwhile, has long butted heads with New Delhi over a territorial dispute but is also aware that India is a major regional power and a market of 1.3 billion people. As the U.S. began taking a tougher line on China late last year, one of Xi's first moves was to work toward arranging a meeting with Modi, hoping to avoid a fight on two fronts as well as open a gap in Washington's containment efforts.

The two leaders met in April and agreed to take further steps to de-escalate a border dispute that some feared could erupt into open conflict. China and India also held high-level talks on the issue shortly before the G-20 summit in an effort to keep the powder keg from reigniting.

Beijing's goal for the trilateral summit was likely to persuade New Delhi, with Moscow's help, not to cozy up too closely with the U.S. and Japan. But Russia wants to bring India on board so it can deal with China on a more even footing.

For its part, India looks to strike a balance between both sides.

Before the meeting with Trump and Abe, Modi remarked that "when you look at the acronym of our three countries -- Japan, America, and India -- it is 'JAI,' which, in Hindi or in India, in general, is for 'success.'" But the prime minister also called Russia and China valuable partners.

"India does not see the Indo-Pacific Region as a strategy or as a club of limited members," Modi said in a keynote speech at the Shangri-La Dialogue in June. Though New Delhi does not support the Belt and Road Initiative, it is a member of the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.

Modi and Xi also spoke one-on-one at the G-20 summit -- their fourth such meeting this year -- and agreed to expand bilateral trade.

Nikkei staff writer Wataru Suzuki contributed to this article.

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