BRICS summit — a prickly proposition but chance to rejig China policy


11th BRICS summit in Brazil : News Photo
[BRICS leaders at a previous summit, in Brazil]


2021 is India’s turn to chair and host the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) summit. These are annual meetings held in rotation by the heads of government of a group that was self-consciously knitted together as counterweight to the US and West-dominated multilateral organizations and as peer influencer of global affairs. That more details about the 15th summit are being withheld suggests there is trepidation within the Indian government.

     Prime Minister Narendra Modi is hoist with a dilemma. Of course, he would like to convey the impression to the world that, under his management, all’s well with India, and to use this event to project normalcy. Except there is a serious downside, especially with the Chinese government cock-a-hoop about getting the better of India in the underway military disengagement agreement in Ladakh and with President Xi Jinping preparing to grandstand at the BRICS forum on Modi’s turf!

     Consider this. Delhi’s summit announcement was almost instantly welcomed by the Chinese Foreign Ministry as an occasion “to consolidate the three-pillar cooperation” that China is committed to.  The “three pillars” being “policy and security”, “economy and finance” and “culture and people-to-people exchanges.” With a strong military and economy, Beijing expects to continue dominating BRICS. To prevent the Indian government from backsliding on the summit decision that Beijing believes helps China’s international standing, Qian Feng, director of strategic research at the elite Tsinghua University, harped on the contradictions in Modi’s foreign policy. He pointed out to Global Times, a Chinese Communist party-controlled newspaper, how India uses BRICS to both “enhance its status as a major power and participate in global governance” and to “better balance the country’s diplomacy” tilted towards the US-run Quad. Had India conspicuous gains to show from this forked stance, Modi would have won Beijing’s respect for “riding two horses” at the same time. Alas, the Indian government seems unable to get atop either horse!

     This much is clear from the conversation last week between foreign minister S. Jaishankar and his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi on the partial de-escalation in Ladakh. While there was pullback of forces in the Pangong Lake area, with the Indian Special Frontier Force troops vacating the heights on the Kailash Range, the issue of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) ending its blockade of the Y-Junction on the Depsang Plains to prevent Indian patrols from accessing the strategic Indian territory northwest-wards of it, was not even on the agenda. Far from restoring the status quo ante the Ministry for External Affairs was aiming for, it amounts to India, in effect, ceding some 1,000 sq kms to China.  It is a situation Beijing means to perpetuate, and was the reason for foreign minister S. Jaishankar’s calling his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi last week. Except Wang did not relent even a bit, sticking to Beijing’s position that the bilateral relations should not pivot on resolving the border dispute! All the give has been on Delhi’s part, leaving India militarily worse off than before the disengagement began.

     The problem is India’s perennially timid approach that has freed-up a hard-nosed China to pummel India at will. Meanwhile, to silence even a squeak of protest from Delhi about the territorially skewed military disengagement, Beijing has dangled the carrot of increased investment, hoping it will also deter a frustrated Modi from choosing  hard options, such as arming states on the Chinese periphery with Agni rocket systems and nuclearized Brahmos cruise missiles as a belated tit-for-tat gesture for China’s equipping Pakistan with nuclear weapons and delivery systems. Absent such Indian counter-mesures Xi and his cohort feel confident of having their way with the usual soft-headed Indian leadership.

     It is time to arrest India’s strategic drift by weaponizing BRICS and the Quadrilateral comprising the four Indo-Pacific powers – India, Japan, Australia and the United States. In the first instance, by pulling the BRIS states in this group into a loose security coalition to contain an over-ambitious China of which Russia too is apprehensive. And, in the second case, by forging a modified quadrilateral – ‘mod Quad’, by getting a bunch of capable Southeast Asian nations, such as Vietnam, Indonesia and Philippines fronting on the South China Sea to replace the US; and easing the latter into its traditional role as an extra-territorial balancer. Donald Trump’s presidency proved just how unreliable an ally America really is. President Joe Biden’s “Indo-Pacific czar”, Kurt Campbell, is reinforcing that posture by voicing his opposition to militarizing any conflict with China. The strategic logic of BRIS and Mod Quad is that countries proximal to China with the most to lose have the biggest stake in containing this menace.

     So, what to do with the upcoming BRICS summit? Tweak it by downplaying the affair and ensuring Xi is not accorded any special treatment. Further, under no circumstances should Modi seek a one-on-one meeting with the Chinese supremo; MEA should hum and haw if the Chinese request one. The idea is to undermine the half-risen BRICS edifice and simultaneously to raise the stock of the security-oriented BRIS – an idea whose time has come and which Modi should explore with Presidents Vladimir Putin of Russia, Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil and Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa.

     If a meeting with Xi becomes unavoidable, Modi should remind him that the principle of  reciprocity requires Beijing to accept the ‘One India’ concept, inclusive of the erstwhile princely state of Jammu & Kashmir, including Gilgit, Hunza and Baltistan, in return for Delhi not disavowing the ‘One China-two systems’ concept, and to demand  genuine autonomy for Tibet – the original basis for India’s acknowledging Chinese suzerainty over this ethnically and historically distinct nation that has been subjected to “ethnocide” using means Beijing now deploys against the Muslim Uyghurs in Xinjiang.

About Bharat Karnad

Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, he was Member of the (1st) National Security Advisory Board and the Nuclear Doctrine-drafting Group, and author, among other books of, 'Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security: The Realist Foundations of Strategy', 'India's Nuclear Policy' and most recently, 'Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)'. Educated at the University of California (undergrad and grad), he was Visiting Scholar at Princeton University, University of Pennsylvania, the Shanghai Institutes of International Studies, and Henry L. Stimson Center, Washington, DC.
This entry was posted in Africa, asia-Pacific/Indo-Pacific, Asian geopolitics, Australia, Brazil, Central Asia, China, China military, civil-military relations, Decision-making, Europe, Geopolitics, geopolitics/geostrategy, Great Power imperatives, India's China Policy, India's strategic thinking and policy, Indian Army, Indian Ocean, Japan, MEA/foreign policy, Military/military advice, Relations with Russia, Russia, South Asia, South East Asia, Special Forces, Strategic Relations with South East Asia & Far East, Strategic Relations with the US & West, Tibet, United States, US., Vietnam, Weapons. Bookmark the permalink.

25 Responses to BRICS summit — a prickly proposition but chance to rejig China policy

  1. Amit says:

    It seems like India has vacillating strategic goals. On the one hand you have politicians making it sound like India’s goal is to get back GIlgit Baltistan, PoK and Aksai Chin, yet on the other hand its actions do not indicate it is working towards achieving its strategic goals.

    We should be clear about our goals first. I would argue that getting Gilgit Baltistan is strategically more important to India – it gives us a route to Central Asia and cuts off CPEC which China wants to dual use to further militarily constrain India; then comes Aksai Chin – we need this more as a bargaining chip for making China behave.

    Once we decide on our goals, then we need to figure out how we need to act to achieve those goals. We cannot have direct war with Pakistan to obtain Gilgit Baltistan. So we need to break Pakistan by weakening it internally so that India can push to getting back Gilgit Baltistan. But Indian actions do not indicate that it wants to do this clearly. On the other hand, there is a strain of thinking in Indian power circles that we want to settle the boundary disputes with China and Pakistan. I am not sure why we should settle for anything less than GB coming back to India. India will never be left in peace as long as CPEC is being built and China has a route to Gwadar. Let them build that route through Iran if they like, but we should prevent CPEC from happening at the very least.

    Similarly, Indian actions do not match its rhetoric on Aksai Chin. There is no way India can go to war with China to get back Aksai Chin (I believe the costs are too high). So there again, it needs to play war by stealth – arming China’s neighbors, cyber attacks, nuclear signaling, military alliances, Tibet card, Xinjian card, Taiwan card and economic warfare.

    But I get the sense that Indian strategic goals are moving goal posts. So its actions keep swaying from aggressive to timid, and mostly reactive than proactive. We need to decide what our strategic goals are. These should not change with changing governments. Then what we need to do to achieve those goals will become clear – like Quad Plus, BRIS etc. Until we define our goals, we will keep swinging from one idea to another, hedging here, hedging there, and not achieving much.

    • avatar says:

      You lot can not even dream about what the Next superpower China is going to do soon.

      • Amit says:

        If you read this article, it shows how deeply the Chinese mistrust western thought. And have contempt for India – don’t even mention it by name and call it the Global South. No one doubts that China has done a great job bringing 800 million people out of poverty. Fantastic! Good job! But no one doubts that China cannot be trusted and is a power that needs to be constrained. Only the Chinese believe that they are a benevolent and civilized lot! If the Chinese keep steamrolling forward with this attitude, opposition to China is bound to grow.

      • San Mann says:

        Avatar@ — As China sees the “Global South” as some faceless alien collective of “sh!thole countries”, then the “Global South” will reciprocally see China as an exploiter. The more China tries to indenture and entrap the “Global South” into debt traps, then the more likely the “Global South” will revolt against it, to throw off their debt burdens and leave China holding the bag. China claims no affinity with them, ideological or otherwise, and thus their loyalty to China will similarly be unsubstantial. It will relatively easy to organize the collective “Global South” into a revolt to throw off China’s yoke.

      • Avatar says:

        Global South is new name for 3rd world.
        Better than the 3rd world. Besides Americans call you South Asia, or Indian subcontinent then you feel no shame? It is India or better “Bharat” which is the real name. Only Pakistan addresses this country correctly as “Bharat”, otherwise shameless Indians do not object when the anglosaxon world addresses as South Asians! USA wants a patsy like India to fight China so that Chinese military is thinned out. Clueless Indians think that USA gives them a seat on high chair!!

  2. Vikrant says:

    The biggest problem with BJP is its inability to carve out a politics different from that of Congress. Its politics oftentimes just improves upon the Congress’s policies, never offering a paradigmatic shift that’s so badly needed. Instead of gutting Rafale in favour of Tejas, it chose to truncate the disastrous hundred-plus order into a less disastrous thirty six, depleting the funds of indigenous R&D for years to come. Similarly, impotent ‘Look East’ became less impotent ‘Act East’. If the GOI wants to get to sound policies then it has to fly off the perch of the previous administration.

    The blueprint going forward isn’t the song and dance of Surgical Strikes, Myanmar Operation or Doklam; but the calm and sober way the objectives were achieved in Maldives without firing a single shot.

    Rather than engaging in symbolic tit for tat regarding One-China policy, it’d be better to invest our energy and money in our economy, manufacturing, digital sovereignty and MIC to prepare for the protracted war. Modi has to let go his liberal politics and become economic realist. Private sector rarely innovates, though it’s good at efficient mass production. American private sector innovation is a mirage, the foundation of its innovation lies in the hundreds of billions of federal dollars poured into various research programs and universities. If India wants to compete in that level, then, it too has to invest billions of dollars in R&D. It can start off with pouring fifty billion dollars in DRDO to indigenize every weapon and it’s sub systems.

    Industrial strength is the core of the nation’s power,. Therefore, we can no longer depend on the capitalisms invisible hand to achieve that but rather create an environment through government investment, tax cuts, subsidies and tariffs.

  3. Apna says:

    Russia, China and Iran alliance is Good news for the world. The world needs the economic and military powers of Russia and China to stop the imperialism and the destructive activities of America and it’s allies around the world.
    Sadly coolie mentality Indians prefer to be enslaved by their old masters – English pirates outside and Islamic Pakis inside India.

    • Amit says:

      Apna@ — And you must be an insecure, uncivilized, commie Chinese or sympathizer, who holds everyone other than the Chinese in contempt!

  4. Apna says:

    Your quote “using means Beijing now deploys against the Muslim Uyghurs in Xinjiang.

    Tells that you are just repeating the lies being put forward by anglo evil 5 eyes empire.
    Just like the British created the Taliban in the 1980s, they also created ISIS in Syria and Uighur terrorism in China. British have always used sunni Muslims as their mercenary armies since the pirate queen, Elizabeth-I, first collaborated with Turks.

    • Sankar says:

      The British did not create the Taliban. Taliban was the brainchild of the Pakistani Lt Gen Abdul Hamid Gul with the one-track view of liberating (Indian) Kashmir along the lines of the Jihadi force under the warlord Osama bin Laden who fought and defeated the Soviets in Afghanistan. Today’s Afghan Taliban is in a sense offshoot of OBL’s jihad army. With great determination and foresight of the Indian State under the previous governments, not today’ BJP Modi Raj, the Indian Army has neutralized Taliban’s jihad in J&K.

      You are oblivious to the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1948-49 and subjugation of the Tibetans since then by China. Britain is a spent force since the end of second world war. But India definitely needs support of the Americans and the British to defend herself and recover her sovereign territory under Chinese occupation ever since China’s PLA marched into Tibet- make no mistake.

  5. Sankar says:

    ” Chinese suzerainty..”-
    Professor Karnad, could you please explain what does the term “suzernaity” precisely stand for in international political context for a nation-state formation?
    I have asked this question to a number of “experts” in political science, but have never received the same response to date – each has its own rather vague definition. In contrast, the term “sovereignty” is well defined and understood. The question arises, does “suzerainty” distinguish itself from “sovereignty”? I doubt any other European language (German, French, Russian …) has an equivalent term for suzerainty – I would say it is non-existent.

    • In simple terms, sovereignty is absolute right and control over a piece of landmass or sea territory (12 miles out to sea) . Suzerainty refers to claims to a piece of territory based on historical connectivity or distant/distanced control. For China suzerainty was easy to claim because of treating all adjoining nations as tributary states. Except, in Tibet’s case, ironically, it was a Lhasa King who made deep inroads into Chinese territory and, to make peace on his western border, the Yellow Emperor offered his sister/daughter in marriage. (Don’t recall the exact matrimonial transaction or the period, look it up on Google or something.) This is the episode that Beijing uses to trace Chinese claims on Tibet!!!

      • Sankar says:

        Thanks for the clarification. It confirms China’s fake claim over Tibet as part of history. In fact, that could not be the case could also be ascertained by the fact that the Tibetan language is radically different from the Chinese. It boggles mind that the previous BJP under ABV gave in writing to Beijing to the effect India acknowledged Tibet as a part of China.

  6. Gaurav Tyagi says:

    The Chinese blockade of Y-Junction on the Depsang Plains has resulted in India losing approximately 1000 sq.kms of land to China. This patch is gone forever now.

    The current regime could have hit China without firing a single bullet by formally recognizing Taiwan as a separate nation. Dalai Lama could be given India’s highest civilian honor. Tibet’s independence issue can be raised globally at every forum.

    China has deeply penetrated the economic and political establishments of every nation on the planet yet, if India choose to do the aforesaid. The country could have succeeded in annoying China.

    The Chinese have no interest in fixing up its border row with India. The problem is that BJP is obsessed with Pakistan. They don’t have any clue regarding China.

    The current foreign minister has connections in both US as well as China since, he served as the Indian ambassador to both these countries. He uses his position not to resolve the issues but to keep them lingering to India’s disadvantage so, as to maintain his importance in the Modi cabinet.

    As regard BRICS, India can simply walk out of the grouping citing its tensions with China anyways, BRICS is just an acronym for these 5 so called emerging economies. The association is more academic than practical.

  7. From Joydeep Sircar via email:
    Absolutely spot on. I suspect India was well aware that China would renege on disengagement but accepted the Pangong deal to reduce exorbitant military expenses and flaunt a partial victory in the forthcoming elections. Gen. Naravane has been chosen to make reassuring noises to keep Rahul’s decibels down.

    If only India had the nerve to reoccupy the Kailas heights, occupy Finger 4 and blast the blacktop road upto Finger 8 in the middle of the BRICS summit ! Better still would be a stealth paradrop to occupy Y-junction till a ground thrust from Burtse can convert it to a permanent occupation!

    Giving Brahmos to Phillippines is a +ve step but we need to take more such steps. The Baloch need more invisible support to make Gwadar a non-starter.


    Dear Dr. Karnad another wonderful article from your mighty pen. I recently read an article from with regards to Indian military powers as in 1989. Already even in 1989 , American experts were mentioning India as a military great power in 1989. Neither Pakistan nor even China were mentioned in the same league by that opinion piece.

    3 decades down the line, a complete shift in the regional situation has taken place with India facing a two-front situation involving Pakistan and China. What do you think changed these scenarios ?

  9. Gaurav Tyagi says:

    “In order to uphold friendly relations between the two neighbour countries, you are kindly requested to detain eight Myanmar police personnel who had arrived to Indian territories and hand-over to Myanmar,”

    An excerpt from the following;

    What will the Indian government do regarding the aforesaid?

  10. Sankar says:

    Here is an interesting assessment in the context of this article:

    • Gaurav Tyagi says:

      Sankar@ — A politically correct ex-army men seeking his moment of glory under the present regime.

      No one has the courage to state the facts like Professor Karnad.

      It’s the tragedy of our nation that a man like Bharat Karnad hasn’t been given his due. He ought to be either the Defense/Foreign Minister of India.

  11. Vivek says:

    I still didnt get why we missed Brahmos for Vietnam?

    • No political will to upset anyone’s apple cart, including the enemy’s.

      • Ram says:

        @Prof Karnad,

        On a lighter note, be careful !!!
        Your views are increasingly uncomfortable for the government and could be targeted as Andolanjeevi for spreading “fake news” .

        As per official records, the border problem is only difference of perception.There is no serious dispute between the two countries and if their WhatsApp Univorsity is to be believed, we have already fought and won the war with China.

        You could also be colour coded as ‘Black” for having a view different from the establishment 🙂

  12. Gaurav Tyagi says:

    India and Pakistan should sit down and resolve the Kashmir issue, once and for all.

    The only practical solution is for both countries to recognize the present status and remove terms like IOK and POK.

    Whatever area of Kashmir, Pakistan has. It can keep it similarly Pakistan should recognize the area of Kashmir with India as Indian territory.

    The present border between India and Pakistan should be declared as the finally settled border.

    India and Pakistan can then move on to have a simple ‘visa on arrival’ scheme for each other.

    Let there be open border and free trade between these two nations.

    Once this is accomplished then focus on bringing peace and stability to Afghanistan.

  13. krishna soni says:

    Sir @professor karnad,please express your views on the recent afghan peace deal,Russia kept India out, US brings Delhi to talks table for Afghan peace plan,
    what should be India’s role in the afghan peace deal.

Leave a Reply to Amit Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.