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.