By Bhaskar Roy*
At the 8th BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) summit held (October 15 to 16) in Goa, India revealed that the world was far from reaching a consensus on international terrorism, including cross-border terrorism. But there were take away which could grow in the future within the BRICS and outside it, concerning the world’s biggest threat.
BRICS was founded on the premise of economic and financial development among the member states and to challenge the stranglehold of Brettan Woods financial institutions like the IMF and World Bank on developing and less developed countries (LDCs). At the Goa summit, the BRICS agenda moved a little forward by leaders agreeing to establish the BRICS Agricultural Research platform, Railway Research Network, Sports Council and fast tracking the BRICS Rating Agency based on market-oriented principles among other things. The IMF, especially, requires urgent reform to properly accommodate the poorest of its members.
The BRICS New Developments Bank (NDB) and the Contingent Reserve Arrangement (CRA) has been operationalised. It was also decided to hold an outreach summit of BRICS and BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Multi-Sectoral Technical Cooperation) countries which comprises Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Thailand.
How far has BRICS advanced in its foundational agenda? There are questions about that. An economic/financial organisation like this would have smooth movement if there was a strategic coherence between all its five members including some economic balance. But Brazil and South Africa are in difficult economic states. China, Russia and India are the three who have economic stability but they also have to address difficult challenges. China has huge forex reserves but just sitting on all that money is no help. It is trying to invest abroad but cautiously as it, as always, ties in political gains. India has a comfortable foreign exchange cushion, but is dwarfed by China. Russia has suffered with the drop in oil and gas prices and growing or looming western sanctions making it dependent on China (even near subservient to China) as the Goa summit revealed regarding India’s push on cross-border terrorism and Pakistan based and backed terrorist groups.
Strategic symmetry between the big three is lacking. It is especially so between India and China. There is a serious lack of trust between the two. Chinese President Xi Jinping described the bilateral ties as “encouraging” while calling for “high-level communication and dialogue at all levels so as to expand consensus, improve mutual trust and deepen cooperation”. China has opposed India’s core interest and concerns leading to distrust.
The Russia-China strategic relations is really interdependence against the west. Xi told Russian President Vladimir Putin at Goa that the two countries should promote a “more equitable and reasonable international order”, a comment that none in the West and India will miss. That does not mean that their relationship is unblemished. The mistrust between the two are historical and circumstances have forced this partnership.
Although India-Russia relationship has been ‘critical in the post-war history, there have been problems in the post-Soviet Union era. Moscow flirting with Pakistan is (or was) a message that India was getting too close to the west and ignoring old friend Russia. But the bilateral meeting between Putin and Prime Minister Narendra Modi appears to have cleared perceptions, and India’s deals to purchase Russian military hardware amounting to over US $ 24 billion has reset the relationship. It is unlikely that Russia will sell anymore attack or transport helicopters to Pakistan. But Russia-Pakistan joint counter-terrorism drills may happen again, with encroachment of the Islamic State (Daesh) in Afghanistan near Pakistan’s borders. In Russia’s perception this development is a direct threat to Russia.
It was obvious to the BRICS and BIMSTEC members that India would raise terrorism and Pakistan sponsored terrorism including cross-border terrorism forcefully at the meetings. Mr Modi had declared it earlier at the G-20 meeting in China in September and the ASEAN meeting following that. It was part of India’s foreign policy thrust to isolate Pakistan internationally on terrorism, and labelling it as a state sponsor of terrorism. In his speech as the current chairman of the BRICS PM Modi said, “The most serious direct threat to our economic prosperity is terrorism. Tragically, the mothership is a country in India’s neighbourhood.” This was an expansion of India’s position at the UN that Pakistan was the “Ivy league of terrorism”.
The exclusion of India’s charge against Pakistan was not unsurprising. Most countries would not like to set up such a precedent that would lay open boundaries with unseen consequences. Most of the countries, though aware of Pakistan’s state policy on using terrorism, have diplomatic relations with Islamabad. No country would agree to reduce Pakistan to the position of North Korea or worse.
As Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sk. Hasina told an Indian daily just before the Goa summit she was under tremendous pressure in her country to sever diplomatic relationship with Pakistan, but was against such a move.
The Goa declaration, however, included ISIL/IS or Daesh and Jabat al-Nusra. These organisations are not linked to any country, whereas Lashkar-e-Toiba (LET) and Jaish-e-Mohamad (JEM) are Pakistan based and instruments of the Pakistani state, although both these organizations are UN designated terrorist organisations, this is ironic, but a consequence of global strategic politics.
Following the Goa Summit, China made its position on Pakistan emphatically clear. Asked to comment on PM Modi’s statement on Pakistan regarding terrorism, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokes woman Hua Chunying said “we also oppose the linking of terrorism to any specific country, ethnicity or religion. This is China’s consistent position”. She went on to say “Everyone knows that India and Pakistan are victims of terrorism. Pakistan has made huge efforts and great sacrifices in fighting terrorism. I think the international community should respect this”. Then she delivered the punch line: China and Pakistan consider each other as “all weather friends” and have close diplomatic, economic and security ties.
The Chinese have told India to desist from trying to drive a wedge between Beijing and Islamabad, or use a multilateral forum like the BRICS to corner a single country. Indian policy makers and politicians must learn from how China deals with North Korea on the nuclear weapons issue. Although criticizing Pyangyong periodically, it has given cover to this country to develop its nuclear weapons and medium to long range missiles. Beijing just cannot afford North Korea to unravel. Pakistan is China’s jewel in the crown in the region stretching from South Asia to the Gulf and Central Asia.
China is very well aware of the ISI’s jihadi ideology. It has suffered from that in the past but has managed to control the situation with secret and deft negotiations with various groups in Pakistan. It would not annoy those elements in the ISI and the jehadis lest they turn against it and create trouble in Xinjiang and Chinese interest in Pakistan. There are reportedly more than ten thousand Chinese in Pakistan that ten thousand Chinese in Pakistan working in various projects. More will come as work on the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) progresses.
At the same time, China is not very comfortable in extending the technical hold on listing JEM leader Masood Azhar at the UN ad infinitum. While they have assured Pakistan they would continue with their position for some more time, they have reportedly asked for the “logic”. To lift their hold on Azhar, they will look for a bargain with the international community and a face saver. Further isolation of the Dalai Lama in the international stage could be a bargaining point.
What China is most concerned about is the Islamic state moving closer to their borders in Pakistan and Afghanistan. The Daesh has already marked its presence here with defectors from several jihadi tanzims having joined it. There are many permutations and combinations the Daesh may explore in this geographical area. China and its interests may not be safe.
Although not directly connected with the BRICS summit, the BIMSTEC Leaders Retreat Outcome Document 2016 (Goa, Oct 17) was much stronger in language in condemning terrorism in the region. It said, “we condemn in the strongest terms the recent barbaric terror attacks in the region. We strongly believe that our fight against terrorism should not only seek to disrupt and eliminate terrorists, terror organisations and networks, but should also identify, hold accountable and take strong measures against states who encourage, support and finance terrorism, provide sanctuary to terrorists and terror groups, and falsely extol their virtues”.
No names were taken. But nothing was left to the imagination. The target was obvious – Pakistan. The variation from the BRICS statement was clear. How the BRICS moves forward at the next session in China needs to be watched. Terrorism is one subject that will find a place. India would have to approach that with greater finesse.
*The writer is a New Delhi based strategic analyst. He can be reached at e-mail [email protected]