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BRICS Summit: Amid Possible Expansionist Ambition, India-China Deadlock Sustains

The Johannesburg meeting comes after reports suggest that the Chinese have refused to budge on Ladakh.

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External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar has been quoted as describing India’s current global engagements as being aimed at "bringing India to the world and the world to India".

It is as a part of this policy that Prime Minister Narendra Modi will now be stepping out to attend the 15th head of state and government summit of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) grouping on the 22-23 August in Johannesburg on 21 August, Monday. President Xi Jinping of China has also confirmed that he will be attending the meeting in person.

Ukraine Crisis & the Global South’s Outreach

The BRICS meeting of major emerging economies, along with the G20, is an effort by the Global South to project itself to the rest of the world.

Over 40 countries, including Argentina, Iran, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt are among the countries looking to join BRICS. There is no agreement among the current members on the expansion of the organisation which was actually christened as such by Goldman Sachs economist Jim O’Neill in 2001 to refer to the fast-growing emerging economies of Brazil, India, and China (BRIC), the “S” for South Africa was added later.

This is a very contested period with economic crises, trade wars, and real wars going on. The Global South appears somewhat detached from the happenings in Ukraine and even though it has its own problems to deal with, it wants to play peacemaker and suggest ways of overcoming the faultlines.

The event is also special as it is expected to hold a substantive discussion on expansion in the membership of BRICS that both Russia and China are campaigning for.

NDB & the Expansion Question

As is well known, BRICS is not a free trade bloc, but it does coordinate policy moves, and more important from the point of view of candidate countries is its political approach to the developed world.

However with the creation of the BRICS or New Development Bank set up in 2015, BRICS has an instrument that can help boost local currency fundraising and lending.

But officials have denied that there will be any discussions of a common BRICS currency.

The NDB, headquartered in Beijing, is a success and since 2021 Bangladesh, UAE, and Egypt have joined it Uruguay is in the process of joining it, while several countries including Saudi Arabia have expressed interest in doing so.

On the last day of the summit, the meeting will focus on talks with the leaders from other countries. Invitations have been extended to 67 countries in Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean. The special focus will be on BRICS and Africa which is the theme of the meeting. BRICS partners were keen on exploring the opportunities to benefit from the African Continental Free Trade Area.

Is Putin’s Absence From BRICS Coincidental?

India is taking a lead in shaping the issues in view of the fact that it is currently the chair of the G20 and will host a mega-event in New Delhi in September. In this context, it is significant that Prime Minister Modi had a telephonic conversation with Iranian Prime Minister Ebrahim Raisi last week. Iran is in the front of the queue of countries wanting to join BRICS and the two leaders are believed to have discussed bilateral relations and Iran’s possible membership.

However, speculations were rife that Modi's in-person participation at the summit would be unlikely but proving them false, he confirmed his presence to South African President Cyril Ramaphosa at the beginning of this month itself. Interestingly, this was preceded by Russian President Vladimir Putin cancelling his visit to Johannesburg for the same event.

It wouldn't be unnatural to assume that these two issues were connected. Putin’s attendance would definitely have detracted from the purpose for which this event had been organised in the first place.

It may be recalled that South Africa had to clarify that it would not act on an International Criminal Court (ICC) warrant against Putin for alleged war crimes in Ukraine, but even so, Putin decided to side-step the event.

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India and China: The Ladakh Flashpoint

Reports suggest that the two militaries have had a follow-up meeting suggesting that a deal could be to open the path for an official and substantive bilateral between Modi and Xi in Johannesburg, the first since the informal Chennai summit of 2019.

Whether or not Modi will have a bilateral meeting with President Xi Jinping of China is not clear.

This is especially so after the embarrassment that the MEA suffered in having to acknowledge that the conversation between Xi and Modi at the sidelines of the G20 summit in Bali last year was not, as visuals and reports suggested, 'a casual encounter'.

Last month following his meeting with National Security Adviser Ajit Doval, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi spoke of the two leaders having reached a "consensus” to restore bilateral ties". At the end of last year, President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Modi reached an important consensus on stabilising China-India relations in Bali,” said the Chinese MFA statement.

Late last month, the MEA confirmed that the two had discussed bilateral ties in their Bali meeting. Now, the Johannesburg meeting comes after reports suggest that the Chinese have refused to budge on Ladakh in the meeting of senior military commanders—their 19th—which took place in a marathon over two days on 13-14 August.

The reason behind the deadlock is India’s persisting demand that the Chinese lift their blockade of the Y Junction in Depsang and Charding-Ninglung Nala junction near Demchok.

So far, the Chinese have lifted the blockades established in 2020 at four places—Pangong Tso, Kugrang Valley, Gogra which has led to no-patrol zones in the three areas, as well as in Galwan.

But they have been refusing to budge thus far.

(The writer is a Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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