The BRICS factor

Print edition : October 13, 2017

Prime Minister Narendra Modi (right), Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) arrive for a meeting in Xiamen, China, on September 5. Photo: REUTERS

At Kupup, the closest point to Doklam. Photo: Suvojit Bagchi

The simultaneous announcement by India and China of “withdrawal” from the Doklam plateau allows both sides to “save face” ahead of the BRICS summit.

It was not a coincidence that the 71-day-old Doklam standoff ended just before the start of the BRICS summit in Xiamen, China, in the first week of September. It would have been difficult for Prime Minister Narendra Modi to be present at the summit if the dispute, the most serious between the two countries in the last three decades, had remained unresolved. For the Chinese leadership, a BRICS summit without Indian representation at the highest level would also have been viewed as a serious diplomatic setback. Therefore, the simultaneous announcement by the two sides of “withdrawal” from the Doklam plateau was timed and planned in such a way that it allowed both sides to “save face”.

The External Affairs Ministry issued a statement without going into any specifics that “following diplomatic communications, expeditious disengagement of border personnel of India and China at the faceoff site in Doklam has taken place”. It was a quick withdrawal by the few Indian army personnel who were still stationed there. The Chinese side had reported that the Indian army presence was gradually dwindling as the crisis was dragging on. India had started preparing the grounds for a withdrawal. The statement by the External Affairs Ministry made no claims of the withdrawal of Chinese forces from Doklam. China has been insisting that there is no confusion or doubt about its sovereignty over Doklam. The Chinese side has only indicated that it is stopping road construction due to the onset of inclement weather. From September to April, the entire area is covered in snow. Road construction activities take place only during the summer months.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry was much more direct in the statement issued a day after the “understanding” reached on Doklam. The statement emphasised that it was diplomacy coupled with “effective countermeasures” at the military level that made the Indian Army withdraw all its personnel and equipment. The Chinese troops “continue with their patrolling and stationing” in the Doklam area and will “adjust and deploy” its military resources in the area to safeguard its borders, the statement said.

Importantly, the Chinese side made it a point to state that road-building activities were only temporarily suspended and that in the future, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) would “make proper building plans in light of the actual situation”. Clarifying the situation on the ground, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson said that “Chinese border troops continue to be stationed in Doklam” and “continue to patrol the area”. The statement took care to highlight the withdrawal of “trespassing personnel and equipment to the Indian side”.

The Chinese leadership has been carefully avoiding any actions that could smack of triumphalism after the withdrawal of Indian troops, although it was clear that the entire episode had left a lasting imprint on bilateral ties. The Indian media generally has been trying to portray India’s withdrawal from Doklam as another “diplomatic victory” for Modi.

Modi met Chinese President Xi Jinping for more than an hour after the conclusion of the BRICS summit. After the meeting, senior officials from both sides have acknowledged that the atmospherics at the meeting were not very “warm”. The Chinese side was particularly upset that the Doklam crisis was triggered soon after Xi and Modi had a cordial meeting on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan.

India and Pakistan were admitted as full-fledged members of the SCO at the summit. As members of prestigious groupings such as BRICS and SCO, India and China are supposed to solve bilateral issues through negotiations and not by resorting to force or political brinkmanship.

Xi was busy making preparations to host the BRICS summit. The important 19th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party Conference is also scheduled in October. China had notified the Indian side about its road-building project in Doklam in the month of May but India preferred to send its troops to the part of the Doklam plateau to which the claimant is Bhutan. The last thing the Chinese leadership wanted was another crisis on its hands, preoccupied as it was with the ongoing drama in the Korean peninsula. China’s stated goal is to rise to superpower status through peaceful means. The last thing the ruling Chinese Communist Party leadership wants is a war not of its choosing at its doorstep.

Both Xi and Modi cultivate the persona of strong leaders. According to some sources, Modi had realised that the policymakers he trusts, led by National Security Adviser Ajit Doval, had blundered on Doklam. Besides, India was in splendid diplomatic isolation on the issue. Indian diplomats more conversant with China and its politics were roped in to salvage the situation. After the meeting between Xi and Modi, the two sides reportedly agreed that “Doklam” like situations should not be allowed to crop up again along the disputed border.

Military officers and Foreign Ministry officials from both countries will be now meeting more regularly to resolve issues relating to the Line of Actual Control (LAC) and preserve peace and tranquillity along the border. Modi described the talks with the Chinese President as “fruitful”. Xi was slightly more forthright. He told Modi that India “can view China's development in a correct and rational way”.

Indian Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar told mediapersons that the two leaders agreed that efforts should be made to ensure that defence and security personnel of the two countries “must maintain strong contacts and cooperation” at the borders. He said that such contacts were necessary “to ensure that the sort of situation which happened recently should not recur”. The Chinese Defence Ministry, in an earlier statement, had said that India needs to learn a lesson from the Doklam incident. “We remind India to learn lessons from this incident, tangibly abide by the historical treaties and the basic principles of international law, and to meet China halfway, jointly guard the peace and tranquillity of the border areas, and promote a healthy development of military relation,” it said.

After the recent events, India may find it difficult to arm-twist Bhutan into getting involved in Sino-Indian border disputes. During the entire period of the Doklam standoff Bhutan issued only one statement and a demarche supportive of the Indian position on Doklam, all the while insisting that the impasse should be resolved peacefully. Public opinion in the kingdom, according to reports, is no longer tilting towards India. The Bhutanese are upset with India on a host of issues. The infrastructural projects promised by India are either running behind schedule or going overbudget. Modi’s demonetisation hit the kingdom’s economy adversely as the Indian rupee is official tender there.

Bhutan had also objected to India’s proposal for road connectivity between Nepal, Bhutan, India and Bangladesh. It has been keen on establishing diplomatic relations with China for a long time now. It will be difficult for New Delhi to stop Bhutan from exercising its sovereign rights for much longer. Doklam was a wake-up call for the Bhutanese. They do not want to get sandwiched in a fight between their two giant neighbours.

The Indian Army chief, Gen. Bipin Rawat, in a speech delivered in the first week of September, once again talked of a “two front war”, pitting India simultaneously against China and Pakistan. “We have to be prepared. In our context, therefore, warfare lies within the realms of reality,” he said in the speech just a day after Modi and Xi had a cordial meeting. The two leaders had agreed to establish a “forward looking” approach to bilateral ties, putting the Doklam incident on the back burner. But the Army chief again painted China as an “adversary” who was busy nibbling away at Indian territory. He is of the view that the concept of “nuclear deterrence” nay not be sufficient to deter war in the region. “Nuclear weapons are weapons of deterrence. Yes, they are. But to say that they can deter war or that they will not allow nations to go to war, in our context, that may also not be true,” he said in his speech.

The Chinese side would have put forward their other complaints during the meeting between Xi and Modi. Beijing is extremely unhappy with the support extended to Tibetan separatist groups in India, exemplified by the permission given to the Dalai Lama to make a highly publicised visit to Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh earlier in the year. The former American Ambassador to India too was allowed to visit the area last year. Arunachal Chief Minister Pema Khandu made a statement in April this year saying that Tibet was not a part of China. Tawang is the second holiest place for Tibetan Buddhism.

India is also involving itself in the South China Sea territorial disputes, siding with the United States and Japan. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was in India in the second week of September soon after the Doklam dispute was resolved. The budding military alliance involving India, Japan and the U.S., coupled with New Delhi’s unabashed support for the U.S.’ containment policy against China, has the potential of precipitating more tensions between Asia’s two biggest countries.

Tokyo and New Delhi will also be joining hands on the African continent with the launch of the $40 billion India-Japan-Africa Corridor. Japan will be providing $30 billion and India the rest. Tokyo is also trying to sell expensive defence weaponry and nuclear reactors to India. But there is still considerable domestic opposition in Japan to the sale of weapons and nuclear technology to India as it is not a signatory to the non-proliferation treaty (NPT).

Beijing views the Africa Corridor as a counter to its ambitious Belt Road project in which Africa plays a pivotal role. India’s continuing refusal to be part of China’s Belt Road project has baffled the Chinese leadership. All countries in the region, barring Bhutan, are part of the Belt Road initiative. China is India’s biggest trading partner; in contrast, Indo-Japan trade ($15 billion annually) is only a quarter of the bilateral trade between India and China. Japan participated in the Belt Road Summit in Beijing held in May this year. Japanese companies want to be part of the multi–billion-dollar projects envisaged under the Belt Road initiative. Joining the project would have galvanised India’s economy, especially that of eastern States such as West Bengal. China will be investing a total of $60 billion in Pakistan; it has already invested $20 billion. The Indian government seems to be happy with the investments and loans Japan has promised for high-speed railways and other infrastructure projects.

As the BRICS summit has shown, there is also ample scope for cooperation if the Indian and Chinese governments so desire. The BRICS grouping is a challenge to the unipolar world. Xi said in Xiamen that the five BRICS countries should play a “more active role in global governance”. Egypt, Tajikistan, Mexico, Guinea, and Thailand have been designated as “dialogue partners” of the BRICS grouping. This is the map Beijing has set for the possible expansion of the grouping.

There is talk of setting up a Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) by the end of the year. It will be a replacement for the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) that was proposed by the Obama administration and scrapped by U.S. President Donald Trump. The TPP had noticeably excluded China and Russia. The RCEP will include all the major Asian countries including Japan, the Asean countries and Australia. Unlike the Belt Road Initiative, it is not being led by China. Beijing hopes that New Delhi will be less suspicious of the RCEP and join it.

The BRICS countries have been discussing the “unfairness” of the global financial and economic architecture. “We resolve to foster a global economic governance architecture that is more effective and reflective of the current global economic landscape, increasing the voice and representation of emerging markets and developing economies,” the BRICS Declaration at Xiamen stated. The two speeches Xi made at the summit reviewed the progress made by the BRICS grouping in the last decade and the plans for the future. The Chinese President spelled out the blueprint for the development of the grouping for the “golden decade” it was now entering.

The Indian government was particularly elated that the BRICS finally issued a statement saying that the militant groups, Lashkar-i-Taiba, Jaish-e-Muhammad (JeM) and the Haqqani faction of the Taliban based in Pakistan, are a “regional concern” and that those extending “patronage” to these groups should be held to account. India has long wanted BRICS to condemn terrorism. Modi had gone to the extent of describing Pakistan “as the mother ship” of terrorism at the BRICS Goa summit last year. Pakistan has been quick to reject the accusations, although its Defence Minister, Khurrram Dastigir Khan, did admit that the government was still engaged in “cleaning” out the “remnants” of some terrorist outfits that continued to operate from its territory. China, like India, is also worried about Islamist forces spilling over into its territoryfrom Pakistan and Afghanistan. Some diplomatic observers believe that it was the hard bargaining from the Indian side that produced a declaration that pinpointed terror groups operating from Pakistani territory.

China and Russia are more worried about the situation in Afghanistan, where radical Islamist forces could strike root. India is hoping that the Chinese side will cooperate when the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) meets again to decide on the issue of designating the JeM chief Masood Azhar as an “international terrorist”. China may not be ready as yet to lift it “technical hold” on the issue. As it is, Islamabad is unhappy with its “all weather” friend China agreeing, in the BRICS statement, to name Pakistan as a country harbouring banned terrorist groupings.