Their summit in Xiamen, China, has allowed the five BRICS members to assess the global environment and reimpart relevance to the grouping, which was beginning to look obsolete as the economies of Brazil, Russia and South Africa – exporters of commodities, oil and gas – looked shaky. In fact, they appeared far from the world beaters that Jim O’Neill of Goldman Sachs described them as in 2001. Understandably then, some are calling this summit the second coming of BRICS.
Geopolitics has also evolved since the founding of BRICS in 2009. The most obvious change has been the advent of President Donald Trump. He has been a disruptive force internationally, his berating of globalisation, climate change, treaty allies and American interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq signalling isolationism and abandonment of American exceptionalism, which much of the United States’ activism in the 20th century was based on. Trump’s desire to simultaneously overturn many of his predecessor Barack Obama’s initiatives has merely caused more geopolitical churn. For instance, by endorsing and participating in the Sunni conclave in Riyadh in May – incidentally his first visit abroad as president – he widened the Shia-Sunni schism, emboldened Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to target a fellow member of the Gulf Cooperation Council, Qatar, and drew in Turkey and Iran to back the latter.
With White House aides and officials in higher echelons of the US administration, particularly the State Department, making a beeline for the exit, policymaking is ad hoc and meandering. Trump has approved a partial troop surge in Afghanistan, berated Pakistan for its complicity in abetting terror, needled China over its unwillingness or inability to restrain its protege, North Korea, and found US-Russia relations in a bind with the Congress sanctioning Russia and the president not knowing whether he trusts or distrusts President Vladimir Putin.
Against this background, the BRICS Summit was hosted by China to see how it could leverage the grouping to capture more of the strategic space vacated by Trump, and impose a new order with Chinese characteristics on global trade, finance and governance. Stymying China was the stand-off with India, symbolised by the Doklam confrontation though not limited to it. The Chinese have been needling India by financing the $46-billion China Pakistan Economic Corridor that traverses Gilgit-Baltistan, over which India has a claim. They have also repeatedly blocked India’s membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group and the listing of Masood Azhar, the leader of the Jaish-e-Mohammad, as an international terrorist by the United Nations Security Council.
India used the Doklam stand-off to good effect. It realised that China was constrained for time because it did not want the BRICS Summit to flounder and stayed resolute in a sector where it held tactical advantage. Undoubtedly, members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, and closer home, India’s neighbours in the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, were watching who would blink first as this was the first time anyone was seriously confronting the regional bully.
De-escalation at Doklam, followed by the Chinese concession in allowing the Lashkar-e-Toiba and the Jaish-e-Mohammad to be mentioned in the Xiamen Declaration and the positive sentiment generated by the bilateral meeting between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Xi Jinping require closer scrutiny.
For one, China is not known for sudden strategic shifts. Its moves are calibrated and slowly revealed, although at times with sudden action to gain advantage or impart a military lesson to an adversary. Henry Kissinger once said China makes time an ally. On the contrary, Modi likes sudden and dramatic moves accompanied by loud bonhomie and embraces. Like for any leader in a democracy, publicity is important to Modi, particularly when the news at home about economy or governance is depressing. Xi’s preaching of the Panchsheel must be seen against the Chinese attempt to rewrite global governance rules and pave the path for its hegemonic rise.
China faces economic, strategic and historical constraints. It is confronted with a slowing economy and huge domestic debt. So far, its strategy has been to spend its way out of the slowdown. The Belt and Road Initiative is essentially the off-loading of surplus capacity abroad – with Beijing hoping for returns on the investment – and for creating a new hub-and-wheel web for future Chinese trade. China certainly cannot afford hostilities on the Korean peninsula or along the boundary with India. At the same time, it retains great military superiority to push for the kind of historical revisionism it has unleashed in the South China sea region. China will thus test the limits of tolerance of those opposing its power and land or sea grab.
China’s strategic constraint is that its actions along its maritime boundary are riling the affected countries. Beijing’s inability to restrain North Korea has sucked the US back into the region. China’s protégés Pakistan and North Korea, in fact, won’t allow Trump to retire to the US mainland as the former harbours terror groups with global reach and the latter has missiles and nuclear weapons with range to hit the US. Thus, a natural alliance of the US, Japan and India outweighs Chinese military might or deterrence. This was one of the factors that made China step back at Doklam as its actions were bound to cement India’s partnership with the US and Japan.
Finally, countries have often fallen into the middle-income trap when their economies just could not leap to the “developed nation stage”. China obviously does not want that. But it fears political change and is thus resiling from its “one nation two systems” promise to Hong Kong. It has shown an inability to peacefully assimilate Tibet and Xinjiang. It fears the very shadow of the Dalai Lama.
This will keep China from trusting India. It will keep propping up forces in India’s neighbourhood to tie New Delhi down, exactly as it has used North Korea against Japan and South Korea. Possibly thus, China is serious about avoiding conflict along the Line of Actual Control with India and a new mechanism to resolve the boundary disputes may help. But for amity to flourish China needs to delineate the border as per the principles agreed to by the Special Representatives of the two nations several years ago. Both countries also need a modus vivendi to have India accept the China Pakistan Economic Corridor, possibly with China conceding that the corridor traverses disputed territory, as it did in its 1963 border agreement with Pakistan. If there is a lesson China can learn from the nuclear nightmare created by North Korea, it is not to repeat the same in Pakistan. It must curtail Pakistan’s nuclear programme while it can. Cutting its nose to spite India is not a great strategy for a major power like China. The coming weeks and months will show if China is serious about détente with India or it was simply acting tactically to ensure a trouble-free BRICS Summit.
KC Singh served as India’s ambassador to Iran and the United Arab Emirates, and retired as secretary in the external affairs ministry. He tweets at @ambkcsingh.