This week’s BRICS summit was an unalloyed success for India. Despite China’s serious misgivings, terror was placed firmly on the table. The joint declaration adopted by the five BRICS nations condemned for the first time Pakistan-based terror groups Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM).
Before the summit began, Chinese President Xi Jinping had made it clear that BRICS was not the right forum to discuss terrorism. He spoke vaguely about a “holistic” approach to address the “root causes” of terrorism. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, buoyed by his successful strategy over Doklam, was equally determined to not only discuss terrorism but also make it one of the centrepieces of the summit. In the end, the summit declaration devoted seven paragraphs to terrorism, naming the terrorist organisations that Pakistan sponsors and China protects from international sanctions.
China has long wanted to use BRICS to counter Western influence projected through organisations like NATO, OECD and G7. China’s economy is larger than the other four BRICS nations — India, Russia, Brazil and South Africa — put together. That has enabled it to arrogate to itself de facto leadership of BRICS. There’s a hitch though: India, the second largest economic power in BRICS, isn’t playing along. The Doklam standoff may have ended — partly to ensure a trouble free BRICS in Xiamen — but the fact that China had to back down on road building (the only reason Indian troops entered Doklam in the first place) has caused it loss of face.
For the Chinese, losing face is intolerable. It emboldens smaller Asian countries it has so far successfully bullied to defy it in future. It also sends a signal to the United States, the superpower China wants to supplant, that Beijing has an Achilles Heel.
For China, BRICS suffers from another problem: Brazil and South Africa face serious economic downturns. Russia’s economy too has been hit by Western sanctions and falling oil and gas prices. With three of the five nations in relative decline, that leaves BRICS a largely bipolar forum — China and India. That’s an equivalence the hubristic leadership in Beijing does not relish. India’s success at staring down China over Doklam has further angered Beijing. To counter this, China put forward a proposal to expand BRICS by inviting more emerging economies. A big fish in a small pond (as Beijing views BRICS) does not satisfy China’s global ambitions. Expanding BRICS does.
India thwarted Beijing’s proposal, decisively ruling out an expansion of BRICS. For the time being, New Delhi strategically prefers the India-China binary that BRICS has in effect developed into. As a face-saving sop, China then invited five countries — Mexico, Thailand, Guinea, Tajikistan and Egypt — to the BRICS summit in Xiamen earlier this week as part of an “outreach”. Pakistan was carefully omitted.
For India, BRICS serves a more nuanced purpose. India is the big fish in the BIMSTEC and SAARC ponds. BIMSTEC brings together countries in the Bay of Bengal region and significantly includes Myanmar (to where Prime Minister Narendra Modi flew straight from the BRICS summit on the evening of September 5). Myanmar’s Rohingya refugee problem meanwhile needs to be dealt with swiftly and sensitively. As the biggest member of BIMSTEC, India can use the forum which, apart from Myanmar, includes Bangladesh (to where over 80,000 Rohingyas have fled) in order to resolve border issues with both countries.
For China, BRICS in its present form does not advance its global objectives. It is the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), of which the One Belt, One Road (OBOR) and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) are a part, that Beijing wishes to use to achieve economic and geopolitical clout in an arc sweeping from the South China Sea to Europe and Africa. India’s opposition to the BRI and OBOR rankles with the Chinese almost as much as the Dalai Lama’s visits to Arunachal Pradesh. Beijing cavils at its impotence to do anything about either.
More annoyance lies in store for China. On September 13, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will arrive in India for a three-day visit to launch the Asia-Africa Growth Corridor (AAGC), widely seen as a direct counter to OBOR. AAGC will link Asia and Africa across trade, infrastructure and people-to-people contacts. In conjunction with the north-south corridor that India is planning with Iran and Russia to more closely link Asia with Europe, the contours of New Delhi’s geopolitical ambitions are now sharply etched.
Beijing has noticed these developments and is not pleased. It also sees the emerging India-US-Japan tri-lateral alliance as a threat to the hegemony it seeks. But no country that supports — and protects — terror-sponsoring states like Pakistan and North Korea can earn the respect of the rest of the world. North Korea’s provocative hydrogen bomb test has placed its mentor China in direct confrontation with the US, which has threatened sweeping trade sanctions against Beijing.
Modi was right to ignore President Xi’s advice to not raise terrorism at the BRICS summit. China does not like to listen to home truths. This week it learnt to do just that. As a pragmatist, Modi regards BRICS as only one arrow in his quiver. BIMSTEC, SAARC (with Pakistan largely sidelined), SCO and the two new corridors linking India to Africa and Europe are the other instruments he has. As the BRICS summit in Xiamen proved, in Modi, Xi — China’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong — has met his match.