India deftly used the BRICS summit to end the standoff with China in Bhutan, but challenges remain for bilateral relations.
By Harsh V Pant*
One week can be a long time in inter-state relations. In a week’s time, India and China had kissed and made up after their armies stood eyeball to eyeball at the Doklam Plateau for more than two months. The trouble at the India-Bhutan-China tri-junction started June 16, when Indian soldiers detected construction activity on what is considered disputed territory on the Doklam Plateau. Chinese workers seemed to be building a road that would have allowed China to project power further into the territory claimed by Bhutan, thereby giving Beijing an ability to cut India’s northeast from the mainland.
India’s response was immediate. The government sent troops into Bhutan to halt the roadbuilding, demanding restoration of status quo ante. As the Indian external affairs minister explained in the Indian Parliament: “Our [Indian] concerns emanate from Chinese action on the ground which have implications for the determination of the tri-junction boundary point between India, China and Bhutan and the alignment of India-China boundary in the Sikkim sector.” Sushma Swaraj added that “dialogue is the only way out of the Doklam standoff…and this should be seen in the context of the entire bilateral relationship.”
China, for its part, demanded that India withdraw unconditionally from Doklam before any meaningful bilateral talks could be held, and state-owned media launched a shrill campaign, at times threatening war and issuing reminders of the 1962 conflict between the two countries and India’s humiliating defeat. New Delhi was responsible in handling the crisis – refusing to be drawn into escalation by bellicose rhetoric and not losing its nerve. Tensions continued to rise through August 26 when disengagement was announced and an understanding reached with the withdrawal of Indian troops and cessation of Chinese road construction in the area.
Notwithstanding the spin used by both sides to justify disengagement, the BRICS summit played a key role in the final outcome as representatives of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa headed for Xiamen in early September. It would have been difficult for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to justify his presence at the summit with Indian and Chinese forces facing off each other at the border. And for Chinese President Xi Jinping, keen on presenting himself as a global statesman, India’s absence would have meant the beginning of the end of BRICS, tarnishing Xi’s reputation in the run-up to the critical Communist Party Congress in October.
As the scene shifted to Xiamen for the BRICS summit, India underscored its dissatisfaction with how BRICS member states dealt with the issue of terrorism during the previous summit in Goa. Despite India making terrorism a priority, China not only blocked India’s attempts to include the names of Pakistan-based terror groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Muhammad, LeT and JeM, in the 2016 BRICS declaration, but openly defended Pakistan after the summit, saying it opposed linking any country or religion with terror and asked the world community to acknowledge Pakistan’s “great sacrifices.”
A surprise was in store when this year’s BRICS declaration named LeT and JeM along with the East Turkestan Islamic Movement and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, reiterating agreements arrived at during the 2016 Heart of Asia summit. The agreement was not merely an acknowledgment that BRICS member states face common threats in the form of terrorism, but also a tribute to India’s consistently strong stand on this issue. China warned Modi not to raise bilateral terrorism-related issues at the BRICS summit, but India made sure to put these on the agenda. By listing Pakistan-based terror organizations for the first time, the Xiamen declaration underlined changing regional realities for Pakistan, accustomed to using China as a shield against global pressure on terror.
Modi and Xi signaled efforts to move away from the bitterness engendered by the short-lived Doklam standoff by managing to present a united front at the BRICS summit. They agreed that Doklam-like situations should not be allowed to recur by charting new mechanisms to strengthen border-defense agreements that have held in the past and identified the need for closer communications between defense and security personnel. Both nations also sought convergence at the global level by underscoring their positions resisting economic protectionism of the kind that the Trump administration has been espousing, and the BRICS countries committed to an “open and inclusive” multilateral trading system.
After the resolution of the Doklam standoff and show of unity at the BRICS summit, a sense of normalcy has returned to Sino-Indian relations. But the underlying forces shaping this relationship – structural, domestic politics and individual – continue to make for a grim prognosis. India and China are two rising powers in the larger Asian strategic landscape which is being reshaped by American disengagement. Both are governed by nationalistic leaders who want to shape global politics to serve their national aspirations. And China, by diplomatically mishandling India, remains bereft of friends in India and continues to reinforce a perception that it is intent on scuttling India’s rise. New Delhi will be carefully watching if the BRICS declaration on terrorist groups like LeT and JeM translates into action as early as during October when the issue of designating JeM chief Masood Azhar as a global terrorist is likely to come before the United Nations Security Council. China, for its part, has already started back-pedaling by reassuring Pakistan that there is no change in Chinese policy vis-à-vis its close ally.
India’s presence may have salvaged the BRICS grouping this year, but the broader agenda inspires little confidence, considering the serious differences among member states on a range of economic issues. At a time when the global economy is passing through a difficult phase, there has hardly been any real reform of the global governance architecture. Apart from China and India, the remaining three member states of BRICS are facing economic decline. No wonder the Chinese president is calling for expansion of BRICS, and as he argued in his keynote speech at the summit’s opening ceremony: “We should promote the ‘BRICS Plus’ cooperation approach and build an open and diversified network of development partnerships to get more emerging market and developing countries involved in our concerted endeavors for cooperation and mutual benefits.”
The BRICS declaration also called for greater economic cooperation beyond the five-member bloc, including Egypt, Mexico and Thailand, but there is resistance. Even with five members, the platform struggles in balancing China. China’s gross domestic product for 2016 was double that of the other four members combined. By bringing in other countries which it could manage, China’s dominance might just be complete.
India could deftly leverage the BRICS summit in resolving the Doklam crisis as well as ensuring that its concerns are not marginalized. BRICS provides India with a platform to keep China engaged multilaterally as well as working with other members on matters of shared concern. In a reversal of sorts, BRICS for India today has become an instrument to manage the externalities – positive and negative – of China’s exponential rise. The success and failure of the grouping, therefore, depends on how India and China manage bilateral relations. There is no guarantee that other points on the contested Sino-Indian border would not flare up again if political relations remain strained. And despite the peaceful resolution of the Doklam standoff and success of the BRICS summit, there are few reasons to be optimistic about the future trajectory of relations between Asia’s two preeminent powers.
*Harsh V Pant is a Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi, and professor of international relations, King’s College London.