The 15th BRICS Summit was held in Johannesburg, South Africa on 22-24 August in which Prime Minister Narendra Modi participated. Chinese President Xi Jinping did so too. More than the summit’s proceedings, the Indian strategic community’s attention was riveted to a possible meeting between these two leaders.
This was because of the continuing India-China tensions along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in the Western Sector. While some of the issues which had emerged on account of Chinese transgressions of the LAC in 2020 have been resolved, the position which existed in 2020 prior to the Chinese actions has not been restored.
This is so despite 19 rounds of military talks at the level of Corps Commanders and political and diplomatic exchanges including at ministerial levels.
Disparity in Foreign Statements
Modi and Xi Jinping had an interaction on 23 August in Johannesburg. In an official comment, the Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson said that the initiative for what it termed as a "talk” came from Modi. Indian spokespersons have not made an 'on-the-record’ comment on this Chinese claim. Certainly, it was not necessary for the Chinese spokesperson to mention this point.
The Indian and Chinese readouts of the Modi-Xi Jinping interaction are not similar. Both reiterate existing national positions on the LAC situation.
Thus, Foreign Secretary Vinay Mohan Kwatra told media persons in Johannesburg “In a conversation with President Xi Jinping of China, the PM highlighted India’s concerns on the unresolved issues along the LAC in the western sector of the India-China border areas”.
This is part of India’s position that normalcy cannot be restored to the bilateral relationship unless border issues caused by China’s actions in 2020 are resolved.
On Border Issues
The Chinese spokesperson mentioned that Xi Jinping had told Modi that an "improvement in India-China relations serves the common interests of the two countries and peoples”.
As for the border issues, Xi noted “The two sides should bear in mind the overall interests of their bilateral relations and handle properly the border issue so as to jointly safeguard peace and tranquility in the border region." In saying this, Xi reiterated the standard Chinese position.
Most significantly, while Kwatra said that the leaders would direct their “relevant officials to intensify efforts at expedition disengagement and de-escalation", the Chinese statement is silent on this point.
This and the reiteration of the known positions of both countries at the highest levels is not an indication that the border problems would be resolved anytime soon.
And, now to the summit, for it also revealed Xi Jinping’s ambitions. These are best put in perspective by going to the beginning of the BRICS.
How Sino-US Rivalry Impacts BRICS
The international landscape has changed almost entirely since the time the idea of a BRICs grouping was conceived by a New York investment banker in 2001 to its first summit in 2009 and the recently concluded 15th BRICS Summit in South Africa.
In 2009, leave alone 2001, the Sino-US rivalry which is currently the overarching factor of global geopolitics and geo-economics was not even on the horizon. Now, all countries and groups are impacted by it. BRICS is no exception.
China joined Brazil, Russia, India, and South Africa in the BRICS Summit’s Johannesburg Declaration. The declaration seeks an equal global order which protects the interests of all states.
Through its fine words, China may wish to project that it is an emerging country whose interests coincide with other emerging economies and the countries of the Global South. However, such a mask cannot really obscure present international realities and China’s own aggressive approaches.
China Scores Over BRICS' Expansion
The fact is that under President Xi Jinping, China has long given up Deng Xiaoping’s advice of remaining low key and focusing on comprehensive development, including in the military and strategic spheres.
For many years now, Xi Jinping has had demonstrated a consistent determination to, if not replace the US as the world’s pre-eminent power, then to be considered as its co-equal. For this purpose, it needs to have its way in groups of which it is a member.
It is no secret that it wanted an expansion of BRICS and achieved its purpose.
The inclusion of six new members – Argentina, Ethiopia, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Iran, and the United Arab Emirates was no doubt agreed to by other countries. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, too, welcomed the addition of new members.
He said “…India has always fully supported the expansion of BRICS membership. India has always believed that the inclusion of new members will strengthen BRICS as an organisation and provide new impetus to our collective endeavours. This step will further strengthen the faith of many countries of the world in the multipolar world order. I am pleased that our teams have come to an agreement on the guiding principles, standards, criteria, and procedures for expansion."
Modi went on to say that BRICS "expansion” and "modernisation” sends a signal for the reforms of institutions of global governance. There is no doubt that the institutions of global governance which were created in the 20th century after the Second World War do not reflect contemporary realities.
That has been India’s case for decades and Modi was correct in pointing out the need to reform them. The issue is whether this step to expand BRICS will help in doing so. This question needs a realistic analysis.
BRICs originally had four members – Russia, China, Brazil and India. South Africa joined the group in 2010. Of the original four while Brazil and India, along with Japan and Germany in (G4) were demanding to become permanent members of the UN Security Council, Russia and China had really, whatever they may have said in bilateral India-Russia and India-China joint statements, no interest in changing the composition of the current Council.
That position has not changed. Of the new members, Argentina and Egypt actively oppose the G4 on the issue of UNSC expansion while the other four are unlikely to put themselves out on this issue in favour of India and Brazil.
South Africa considers itself as a natural African candidate for a permanent membership of the UNSC but does not wish to break ranks with other African countries. In sum, it is unlikely that the BRICS expansion will lead to a push for UNSC reform.
Can China Become an Economic Counterweight to the US?
The global institutions for economic governance consist of what are called the Bretton Woods institutions. These continue to be under the sway of the US and its allies.
After the global financial crisis of 2008 which was brought about by the US mismanagement of its financial sector, there was a demand for a more effective voice for other countries within these institutions. On the backfoot then, the US signaled that it would relax its hold. That has not sufficiently happened.
Meanwhile, the Chinese economy has hugely grown so have those of other BRICS members especially India – though nowhere close to that of China.
Hence, China would want an expanded BRICS to continue to pressure the US on relaxing its hold on the Bretton Woods institutions even as it will seek to strengthen the BRICS institutions for financially assisting countries of the Global South.
China will also push for steps to weaken the hold of the US Dollar as the reserve currency and move to other arrangements for international trade and commerce and financial arrangements. In all this, there is a coincidence of India’s interests with China but only to a degree.
The World Stands Divided Over Multilateralism
India’s desire for a 'multipolar world' – even if this term was not used then – goes back to the early years of independence. Essentially, it means that the world should not be dominated by one or two powers who would be setting the rules of world order.
It is a demand that rules-making for international governance should have the participation of many important states, including India, and that these rules should take the interests of the Global South into account too.
The Johannesburg Declaration reiterated BRICS' “commitment to inclusive multilateralism”. The Chinese conduct under Xi Jinping clearly shows that it has no interest in multilateralism as it shows scant respect for the decisions of international institutions if its interests are at stake.
The Declaration mentioned BRICS' opposition to “unilateral coercive measures” – a clear reference to the US and its allies’ sanctions against Russia – but there is little that even an expanded BRICS can do to prevent this.
The Johannesburg Declaration committed BRICS to strengthen its three pillars: political and security, economic and financial, and cultural and people-to-people. These objectives are fine but it is already a disparate group and its expansion will only add to that. It will also come increasingly under China’s influence. India’s challenge will be to contain that process which will not be easy despite the progress the country is making.
(The writer is a former Secretary [West], Ministry of External Affairs. He can be reached @VivekKatju. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)