IAPS Dialogue: The online magazine of the Institute of Asia & Pacific Studies

India-China rivalries overshadow the larger purpose of BRICS

Written by Urvashi Sarkar.

The ninth BRICS summit in China began on September 3, 2017 in the shadow of tense relations between India and China. The summit came in the wake of border tensions on the Doklam plateau, with the two countries agreeing to end the stalemate just days before the summit.  The BRICS Summit concluded on September 5. For India, the main takeaway was that the summit declaration contained a reference to Pakistan-based terror groups Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) and Lashkar-e-Taiba as posing a threat to the security of the region. While Pakistan was not specifically mentioned, the names of the terror groups it supports were explicitly mentioned.

This was interpreted as a victory by India which had unsuccessfully tried to insert a reference to cross-border terrorism by Pakistan in the previous year’s Goa summit declaration.

Prior to Doklam, the India-China relationship was already tenuous on several counts. China’s refusal to back India’s membership at the Nuclear Supplier’s Group and opposition to including JeM chief Masood Azhar on a list of UN-designated terrorists caused resentment in India. India’s decision to stay out of the China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has not pleased China either.

Issues prior to Doklam

Prior to the Doklam tensions, the India-China relationship was already tenuous on several counts. China’s refusal to back India’s membership at the Nuclear Supplier’s Group and opposition to including JeM chief Masood Azhar on a list of UN-designated terrorists caused resentment in India. India’s decision to stay out of the China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has not pleased China either.  Longstanding and unresolved matters like the border dispute, trade imbalance, China’s cultivation of India’s neighbours (which the latter perceives as encirclement), and India’s support to Tibetan leader Dalai Lama have continued to dog the relationship.

The most recent and significant setback to ties was when China started road construction activities in the Doklam plateau, an area over which China and Bhutan have contesting claims, and which is a tri-junction of sorts between China, Bhutan and India. India intervened to fulfil its security obligations to Bhutan, in an area that is close to India’s borders. Tensions escalated between the two countries to new levels with the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) spokesperson Wu Qian warning India that it should learn lessons from its defeat in the 1962 war between the two countries.

The two month stand-off came to an end days before the BRICS summit began in Xiamen. There was speculation about whether India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi would attend the summit. Eventually, he did attend.

The 9th BRICS summit declaration specifically mentions the names of Pakistan-based terror groups.  But whether China will actually agree to designate JeM Masood Azhar as a global terrorist group at the UN Security Council remains to be seen.  As the Indian newspaper The Hindu pointed out, this was not the first time China had agreed to name JeM and LeT in a declaration. At the Heart of Asia conference in Amritsar last year, 14 countries including India and China signed a declaration specially naming Pakistan-based terror groups.

BRICS defuses tensions

It is not entirely clear why China conceded to the reference in the declaration, especially since Beijing had already communicated to India that ‘Pakistan’s counter-terrorism’ was not an appropriate topic to be discussed at the BRICS summit.  However, the BRICS summit certainly succeeded in defusing tensions between the two countries.

Analysing the role of BRICS in defusing tensions, Oliver Stuenkel, Assistant Professor of International Relations at the Getúlio Vargas Foundation (FGV) in Sao Paulo writes: “Asia is the region with the world’s lowest institutional density, and opportunities such as the BRICS’ National Security Advisors’ meetings are less frequent than most would assume. Particularly when nationalist fervour runs high, merely inviting the other side for a meeting to discuss the matter can be interpreted as a sign of weakness. In such instances, there is nothing better than a long-scheduled meeting that offers a low-cost opportunity to continue talking. In addition, the BRICS grouping is one of the few outfits that forces Indian and Chinese policy makers to work together on numerous issues, thus creating personal relationships that can matter greatly in moments of tension.”

Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping also participated in a bilateral meeting, the first after the Doklam standoff.  There were two gains for India: the mention of terror groups in the declaration and the bilateral meeting with Xi.

Original purpose of BRICS

While this is well and good, strangely, the bigger questions about BRICS are not being asked.  Other than having a role in defusing the Doklam tensions, what are the other takeaways from the summit? No doubt, the issue of terror needs to be dealt with strongly and countries need to act unitedly. But the tensions between India and China appear to be taking over the multilateral goals and original purposes of the BRICS.

The BRICS was formed, taking cognisance of the need for reform of international financial institutions like the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, which continue to be dominated by the United States and Europe. It was meant to be an alternative to – if not a replacement of  – Western hegemony.  However, the recent actions of BRICS have not lived up to the intent.

A report by the INGO ActionAid ‘Reclaiming Relevance: BRICS and the new multipolarity’ says:  “the BRICS  seem to be too deeply subsumed within the existing global capitalist development paradigm to pose a frontal challenge”.  For example, the BRICS nations allied with the Washington-led Copenhagen Accord, a strategy that allowed them to avoid binding emission cuts, and weakens the Paris Agreement on Climate Change. This allows developed countries and the BRICS governments to continue pursuing an extractive, high carbon economic model. Second, while the BRICS succeeded in achieving a quota-shift in favour of large emerging economies at the IMF, the BRICS still require borrowing countries to have an agreement with the IMF if they want to draw more than 30 per cent of funds from the CRA.

The BRICS countries are also against the unipolarity of  the United States. However, India continues to seek closer relations with the US. Indian commentator and analyst C. Raja Mohan writes: “Indian leaders would stand up in Washington and talk of a “natural alliance” with the sole super power, America. At the same time, India would sit down with Russia and China to call for a “multipolar world.” According to Raja Mohan, this is not hypocrisy but India’s need to manage multiple contradictions after the Cold War. One might disagree about whether this constitutes hypocrisy or not, but it certainly indicates a lack of coherence in policy as far as BRICS is concerned.

The BRICS have also repeatedly endorsed a multipolar world order. However, China’s efforts in the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and CPEC (China Pakistan Economic Corridor) have been interpreted as an effort to bring about Chinese unipolarity in Asia.

These contradictions weaken the BRICS, while the internal rivalries of its members also divert it from its purposes. In this regard, the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) comes to mind. The SAARC was established to forge unity and cooperation among South Asian nations. But the prolonged rivalry between members India and Pakistan has resulted in the erosion of SAARC over time.

Of course, the BRICS have the signature New Development Bank (NDB) and Contingency Reserve Arrangement to show for it, since the first BRICS summit in 2009. However, the unique selling proposition (USP) of the NDB is still not clear. The bank has not shown how it will treat loan conditionality differently from the major international financial institutions that the BRICS repeatedly criticise. Despite being a development bank, its policy documents are silent on concerns of poverty and inequality, major challenges of the BRICS countries.  The NDB will fund largescale infrastructure projects — but how it will deal with social and environmental concerns any differently from existing development banks? These are important questions that the NDB will have to address, in order to stay true to the original intent with which the BRICS was formed.

More of a decisive role in world affairs

On the political front too, BRICS could take a lead in addressing some of the major crises which confront the world today — whether it is the burgeoning global refugee crisis, the challenges from a Trump administration, the rise of xenophobia and hatred or the growing resource conflicts in the world. It is a well-known fact that Indian and Chinese companies are themselves competitors in Africa for access to resources. It should step up peace-making efforts in Syria and participate in international actions to free Palestine from Israeli occupation. In a little noted section of the Xiamen declaration, the BRICS called for direct dialogue with North Korea as opposed to the United States which called for a military response to North Korea’s testing of a hydrogen bomb.

Such responses from the BRICS are welcome and more interventions needed. It is high time that the BRICS becomes a more decisive force in world affairs.

Urvashi Sarkar (@storyandworse) is an independent journalist and researcher. She can be contacted at urvashisarkar@gmail.com. Image credit: CC by the Kremlin.