The BRICS Summit 2016 held in Goa was significant for a number of reasons. First, the previous summit at Ufa caused an India-Pakistan distraction as it was held back-to-back with the summit of Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, which incidentally both South Asian neighbours joined as members. The short-lived thaw between them also commenced at Ufa. The Goa summit was held at a time when the divide between them was wider than ever since 2001.
Second, it was the 15th anniversary of the creation of the original BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China, with South Africa joining later), inspired by banker Jim O’Neill’s envisioning four dominant emerging economies of the 21st century as drivers of growth. Two of them, India and China, continue to deliver on that promise, albeit with diminished vigour as an economic slowdown set in globally. However, the other three — that is, Brazil, Russia and South Africa, being commodity exporters — have been hobbled by shrunk demand. Some are thus uncharitably calling BRICS a wall of loose bricks.
Third, the growing strategic convergence between Russia and China and perceptible drawing closer of India and the U.S. raises the issue whether a grouping can flourish if strategic perceptions between the more powerful members are dissonant. The China-Pakistan full spectrum alliance also is an inhibiting factor for India, a clear example of which is Chinese protection to Pakistani terrorist leaders by putting on hold their listing by the UN Security Council. Russia seemed to warm up to India after the hefty arms deal. The deal delivered S-400 missiles which alter the balance of air power in India’s favour as they can engage Pakistani planes well before they can enter Indian airspace. Russia also made supporting sounds on India’s cross-Line of Control “surgical strikes”. But has India paid a strategic price by letting some language slip into the Goa Declaration which is clearly anti-U.S. and its allies?
Pulling in all directions What was novel was India involving the BIMSTEC nations, consisting besides India of Bangladesh, Bhutan, Myanmar, Nepal, Thailand and Sri Lanka, as part of the BRICS outreach. It was a clever way to disassociate from Pakistan, which would have had to be invited if SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) was the logical regional grouping to be at the summit.
BIMSTEC has been envisioned to bridge SAARC and ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations). It also uses the eastern part of SAARC that is not stymied by India-Pakistan differences. The intent, as stated in the Goa Declaration, is to “explore trade and commercial ties” between BRICS and BIMSTEC. This argument requires closer scrutiny. China borders Nepal, Bhutan and Myanmar. While in Nepal India has so far been able to balance Chinese economic ingress, in Myanmar China dominates with big-ticket infrastructure projects involving energy and import of Myanmar’s commodities such as wood, semi-precious ores, etc. Bhutan so far has allowed India primacy in trade and economic relations.
In fact, the hydroelectric projects in Bhutan are an example of bilateral cooperation that benefits both countries. The earlier system of financial grants to sustain the Bhutanese government has been transmuted into investment-led aid to create projects that give financial returns to Bhutan and assured power to India. Nepal has traditionally been chary of accepting a similar arrangement, pleading loss of valuable arable land if hydroelectric projects are to be set up.
As regards Bangladesh, Chinese President Xi Jinping arrived in Goa after a visit there. A proposal for a corridor linking Bangladesh and China via India and Myanmar (BCIM) has been on the table for a while. It could become an outgrowth of China’s One Belt, One Road (OBOR) initiative. India has, however, been sceptical of its benefits, seeing it as possible encirclement by China since the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor to India’s west would link Gwadar with Xinjiang. Bangladesh has also been wooed by Russia earlier with a loan offer of $11.4 billion to set up two nuclear power plants. Earlier, Japan put $6.7 billion on the table for an LNG terminal and coal-fired power plants in Bangladesh. President Xi topped it, coming with $40 billion infrastructure finance. The last time a Chinese president visited Bangladesh was in 1986, and with considerably less money in the pocket.
What possible synergy Brazil, Russia and South Africa can bring to BIMSTEC is not obvious. Thailand is within the U.S. strategic footprint and after the passing away of their revered king, there is likely to be drift for some time. Myanmar would like to balance China’s predominance by reaching out to the U.S., other western powers and India. Sri Lanka is anyway doing deft balancing between China and its near neighbour India and the West.
Dissonance in the Declaration The Goa Declaration, inter alia, reiterates the importance of maintaining multilateral trading systems. It repeats the mantra that the world needs to transition to a “just, democratic and multi-polar international order based on the central role of the United Nations”. It then intones with a call for a “fair and equitable international order”. Then follows a peculiar sentence rejecting “continued attempts to misrepresent the results of World War II”. In fact, it is China intruding into the South and East China seas and Russia trying to recover the sway it had in the Soviet era in East Europe and Central Asia that are quarrelling with the U.S., Japan and ASEAN in the east and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation in the west, respectively. The part of post-World War II order that India does not like are the Bretton Woods institutions, that is, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, and the UN Security Council membership structure, where the permanent five members indeed reflect a bygone power order — but not the rest of the post-World War II order that has been replaced by the post-Cold War dispensation. Why then did India let this notion embed itself in the Goa Declaration? The line would be read carefully in Tokyo and Washington.
Similar dissimulation surfaces over the Syrian imbroglio. Russia being a prime participant in the Syrian fighting, BRICS needed to extract a more specific undertaking about a ceasefire to enable food and medical help being extended to huge numbers of trapped civilians. But what emerges is condemnation of military interventions in other countries in breach of their sovereignty. Of course Russia would point out that the U.S. is supportive of Saudi Arabian intervention in Yemen where Saudi aerial bombing is in its 19th month. Recently the mistaken bombing of a funeral hall resulted in loss of 140 innocent lives. Nevertheless it raises the question whether India is reverting to anti-West language that used to be normal at Non-Aligned Movement summits. Is there danger of BRICS with closer Sino-Russian convergence and South Africa-Brazil passivity being led by the nose by the former to reflect their world view?
Need for a steady strategy Also BIMSTEC already has strong Sino-Indian competition for influence. If anything, India should welcome diversification of that by encouraging other players like Japan and the U.S. as it cannot by itself balance China. There is much emphasis in the Goa Declaration on multipolarity. That would hardly be enhanced by BRICS, which is really a Sino-Russian strategic grab disguised as a benign emerging economies’ initiative.
Thus while India needs selective alignment to replace non-alignment as economic and political power is redistributed globally, it cannot allow deft balancing to degrade into opportunistic and sequential agreeing with whichever world leader is in town. That is why, as Henry Kissinger, the modern day Chanakya, wrote, good strategy can brook poor tactics but poor strategy cannot be redeemed.
K.C. Singh is a former diplomat.