By RC Patial*
The relevance of BRICS appears to be in danger after the US withdrawal from Afghanistan and the Taliban taking over with the support of Pakistan and China. Russia and China may be the first to recognize this government of branded militants. Over the years, skepticism has been expressed about the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) initiative, especially when looking at the interests of India and China, the two immediate neighbors always tend to clash on almost all issues on all platforms. The Ladakh 2020 Standoff brought India and China the closest to war since 1962. Now India is attaching more importance to the Quad (India, US, Japan, and Australia).
The reason is a clear lack of traditional logic behind the coming together of these countries of different continents. They are dispersed geographically, ideologically and their economies are in different stages of development. There seems to be no common ground other than all emerging economies other than the fact that the purpose of BRICS was to form a front to influence global events.
Each member of BRICS also has their own reason to sustain this movement. Russia sees BRICS as a geopolitical counterweight to the eastward expansion of the West. For South Africa, it is a means to legitimize its role as a gateway to the African continent and its powerhouse. For Brazil it allows collaboration as a geopolitical counterweight, despite its geographical location. China participates in the forum because through BRICS it can spread its political influence, economic growth and influence the world events. Finally, for India, BRICS was to give a voice and reinstate its erstwhile identity as the leader of the developing world and an emerging power. The BRICS members in due course must have realized that the group itself has a ‘limited purpose partnership’ in which political barriers and country interests will always limit the partnerships to its full potential.
The clash of interests between India and China include border disputes, China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), South China Sea control/influence spreading to Indian Ocean, terrorism specific to Pakistan, economic interests, UN permanent membership and on other related forums, Pak-China Defence Nexus and China’s strategy to tighten the ‘noose’ around Indian Peninsula by heavily investing in infrastructure in the Indian neighborhood — and now its involvement in Taliban’s Afghanistan.
Pakistan-China, longtime friends and allies, declared 2011 as the ‘Friendship Year,’ jointly celebrated 60 years of their completion of diplomatic relations with multiple celebrations and terming their relationship; “Higher than the Himalayas, deeper than the Oceans and sweeter than Honey.” Even Pakistan has started arms exports in the region; a development India needs to take note off.
China is trying to surround India by heavily investing in ports, infrastructure and defense exports to India’s immediate neighbors on comfortable terms of payment and in the process, China is making grounds for future bases in the garb of development. The ‘Red Dragon’ is leapfrogging over land and sea and in the process strangulating India’s environment of its strategic sphere of influence. To achieve this Pakistan is an instrument providing the base to meet China’s long-term interests to extend its reach and sphere of influence in South Asia and beyond. In this game Sri Lanka was forced to transfer the Hambantota Port to China for 99 years failing to meet its loan obligations which gave China control of territory just a few hundred miles off the shores of India, and a strategic foothold along a critical commercial and military waterway.
China has built permanent military infrastructure in Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR), including five airfields in Tibet, as well as the Beijing-Lhasa rail-road that connects China with Tibet. China plans further to extend this into Nepal and up to Indian borders. China is involved in major developmental projects in Nepal, Myanmar (Burma), Sri Lanka, Djibouti, Oman, Yemen and in Pakistan.
The China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is a gigantic project which will connect Gwadar’s deep-water seaport in Pakistan to Xinjiang in China. It has a huge Infrastructure network that is part of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). This allows China to connect to the world by road and sea through the BRI utilizing Pakistan’s location to bypass the chokepoint of the Malacca Straits. Making the route of its energy supplies to Xinjiang from the Persian Gulf via Gwadar warm waters, this route will shorten the distance by thousands of Kms and reduce the traveling time considerably. The route passes through Gilgit-Baltistan (POK) making it the shortest route for China to reach Gwadar port and posing a major concern for India. PLA has around 10,000 troops stationed in the Pak-Occupied Kashmir (POK) in the northern areas in the garb of technicians and labour.
The presence of Chinese troops in POK poses a military and security threat to India. The Gwadar Deep Sea Port of the Pakistan Naval Base is likely to fulfill China’s ambitions of reaching through Karakoram highway the warm waters of the Indian Ocean.
Add to this the Pakistan-Taliban-China nexus in Afghanistan. The growing China-Pakistan nexus raises the threat to India with the US troops having withdrawn from Afghanistan. Taliban’s mentor Pakistan along with China wants to fill the emerging vacuum with the formation of a new Taliban led government to secure their interests. Their strategic and territorial interests have been cemented by the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). India has invested heavily in building infrastructure and the democratic institutions. India in the past has accused the Taliban of providing a haven to militants so the security of Indian projects and their future may be at stake. Both China and Pakistan will be keen to keep India out of Afghanistan.
India’s quest for self-reliance has so far nearly failed. India is yet to achieve desired levels of indigenous defense capability. Exports are a distant dream and India claims to be an emerging regional and a future power. India now stands as one of the worlds ‘largest arms importer’. With increasing Chinese influence in the region as exemplified by Chinese economic and defense ties with Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Maldives and a growing Pakistan defense industry, India needs to be wary. Indian policy makers should take notice of the Pakistan-China joint nexus strategy to strangulate India. “The increasing nexus between China and Pakistan in the military sphere remains an area of serious concern.”
China’s offensive manoeuvres in South China Sea have inextricably altered the international power equation and to further the Ladakh 2020 Standoff between India and China has perhaps led to the re-birth of the Quad. India has moved ahead with the US by signing the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA) agreement, which essentially means that India is militarily aligning with the US. China and Russia both have shown concerns over the Quad partnership. Spokesman of the Chinese Ministry of Defense on March 25, 2021 said that, “China is firmly opposed to the Quad alliance”.
Post COVID-19 outbreak, India has been actively negotiating with the other nations. China is far too powerful economically and there are too many deep western financial and trade interests with China. Therefore to expect any major actions against China may be a distant dream as it would impact the western corporate interests. This truth is known to both China and the West. India has backed calls for further investigation into the origin of COVID-19 virus which may have originated in a Chinese lab and this has angered China.
As India now attaches more importance to Quad to contain and deter China, it does not want the Quad to only focus on military cooperation, but also economic and financial ones. G7 future moves are also likely to help India depending on how well it plays its role. India fears China becoming the dominant force in Asia, but also knows it cannot compete with China on its own, and thus it hopes to contain China together with the stronger convergence of like-minded countries, ie the Quad. In this vein, India has moved closer to the US-Japan (both are part of the G7 and have their problems with China).
The BRICS cohesiveness is lacking as there is disparity among member countries in various fields which impedes its smooth functioning. The dominance of China in the world arena is increasing through its financial economic control. To pursue its objectives China is also using other platforms like the BRI (Belt and Road Initiative) ,SCO (Shanghai Cooperation Organization), AIIB (Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank), etc. In the current global scenario some member countries of this group are facing economic slowdowns. As a result BRICS has become a more China dominated group. Consequently, India has narrow scope to reap benefits from this group and a smaller role to play due to escalating rivalry between the two countries.
Can the BRICS survive as a meaningful concept in this Taliban-Afghanistan world? The September 9 BRICS virtual meeting sponsored by India almost went unnoticed. On September 24, Biden and Harris are to hold the first meeting in person of the heads of Quad member countries. It is likely to be an attempt to elevate the Quad and sideline China or attempt to force or convince Xi Jinping to follow the universal norms of peaceful relations. These developments signify the possible rise of the Quad. It may also be reasonably fair to assume that BRICS is likely to see a downfall and may one day become a thing of the past.
*Patial RC is a retired Infantry officer of the Indian Army. Possess unique experience of serving in active CI Ops across the country and in Sri Lanka. Regular writer on matters military, travel in military professional journals and magazines. Has been a keen mountaineer and a trekker.