PM Modi at BRICS: Playing Chess with China on Trade & Terrorism


Even as the Doklam standoff continues, India shouldn’t commit the mistake of skipping the BRICS summit.
Even as the Doklam standoff continues, India shouldn’t commit the mistake of skipping the BRICS summit.(Photo: Rhythum Seth/The Quint)

PM Modi at BRICS: Playing Chess with China on Trade & Terrorism

Sometimes it is difficult to decide whether multilateral summits, such as that of BRICS that has just concluded in Brasilia, are important in themselves, or because of the opportunities they offer the leaders of individual countries to stay connected to each other.

The summit was held amidst the lengthening shadows of the Sino-US trade war which is pulling down global growth.

Clearly, the latter was seen in the connect between Prime Minister Modi and China’s President Xi Jinping.  According to reports, Modi remarked to Xi that “I’m glad to meet you once again. When I look back, we had met for the first time in Brazil itself ( for the Fortaleza summit in 2014) .”

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Chinese President Xi Jinping, in Mamallapuram on Friday, 11 October.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Chinese President Xi Jinping, in Mamallapuram on Friday, 11 October.
(Photo: PTI)

Recalling the Chennai meeting, Modi said that “our meeting in Chennai gave our journey a new direction and new energy.” Waxing eloquent he also said “The journey of unknown people has today turned into close friendship”, noting the repeated meetings they have had in many forums, bilaterals and summits.

Also Read : BRICS urged to back Modi's call for global meet on terrorism

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Talking Trade and Investment, Again...and Again

There was an immediate context to their conversation which is taking place a month after their second informal summit in Mamallapuram, and weeks after India decided not to join the RCEP. That context relates to the Sino-Indian economic relations which is featured by a growing trade imbalance between the two countries and fears that Indian industry could be swamped by Chinese goods in the event India joined the RCEP.

It’s not surprising, as a PMO tweet noted, that the two leaders discussed trade and investment. This is a problem area in the relationship which they sought to address in Mamallapuram by creating a high level mechanism on trade and economy to address the issues between the two countries. The Indian side is represented in the mechanism by Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman and the Chinese side by Vice Premier Hu Chunhua, who is also a member of the Chinese Communist Party Politburo.

Another important signal was that the two leaders sent from Brasilia is to note that the Special Representatives would be meeting again soon to discuss issues related to the border question. This is an important signal and it is important that they do not take their eye off this ball as it has the potential of seriously disrupting their game.

India’s Focus on Combating Terrorism

Modi’s message, delivered in the speech at the plenary on Thursday, was that terrorism was the “biggest threat” to development, peace and prosperity. This is in keeping with his remarks at other summits in recent years, but at variance with the fact that there has been no major terrorist attack in the country since he came to power. Terrorism has been a convenient stick to beat Pakistan with, but it doesn’t really resonate in a summit of BRICS countries. Given India’s push it is not surprising that terrorism and its financing were prominently listed in the Brasilia Declaration adopted after the summit.

During the meeting of BRICS National Security Advisers last month, India’s NSA Ajit Doval had put forward a proposal to host BRICS workshop on digital forensics.

The PM had bilaterals other than with XI—with President Jair Bolsonaro who was host of the BRICS meet and who has accepted the invitation to be the chief guest of the 2020 Republic Day function.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with President Jair Bolsonaro
Prime Minister Narendra Modi with President Jair Bolsonaro
(Photo: AP)

He met President Putin of Russia, his fourth meeting with him this year. After the path-breaking meeting in Vladivostok  earlier this year. Both sides are making efforts to step up their sub-par economic relationship which needs to move beyond defence to areas like energy, connectivity and infrastructure. And he also met President Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa, a country with enormous potential for India.

Why is BRICS Important?

It is more difficult to assess the value of BRICS as a combine. Certainly, given its membership—Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa—it is an important economic bloc and a key voice of the developing world on issues relating to the WTO or climate change. Significantly, all BRICS members are also in the G-20. Meetings between the leaders and officials take up issues relating to trade, finance, health education, technology and Information Technology. In recent years security has also figured and it is not surprising that Brazil and India have been pushing to have counter-terrorism also part of its agenda.

BRICS is serious business, as brought out by the annexure to the Brasilia Declaration that lists the 116 meetings that have been held in the year-long Brazilian presidency. These ranged from the two summits to 16 ministerials and nearly 70 senior officials and sectoral meetings on issues ranging from national security to science and technology, agriculture, energy, labour and employment, customs protocols and so on.

India can put across its policy of multi-alignment by balancing ties with Russia and China, along with those with the US.

The theme of this year’s summit, “Economic Growth for an Innovative Future” had sought to address the importance of not just promoting manufacturing but innovation, using science and technology such as digital  and smart manufacturing techniques to aid BRICS countries can join the ranks of developed countries. The summit was held amidst the lengthening shadows of the Sino-US trade war which is pulling down global growth. And one of the major goals of the BRICS is to promote Intra-BRICS trade to offset this challenge.

India’s Long Strides in Putting Its Agenda Forward at BRICS

For India, membership of BRICS signifies its growing role in global affairs and provides it the ability to shape the global agenda. At the same time, it also provides a platform where India can put across its policy of multi-alignment by balancing ties with Russia and China, along with those with the US. One such area is counter-terrorism, something close to the heart of the Modi government. This was manifested by the creation of a BRICS Joint Working Group on Counter Terrorism in 2016 when India was chair of BRICS.

In a briefing before the Brasilia summit,  T S Tirumurti, the Secretary (ER) noted that while trade, Intra-BRICS cooperation and economic relations had been moving ahead, there was  an important development where the joint working group on terrorism had created five sub-working groups in terrorist financing, use of internet by terrorists, countering radicalization, the issue of foreign terrorist fighters and capacity building. During the meeting of BRICS National Security Advisers last month, India’s NSA Ajit Doval had put forward a proposal to host BRICS workshop on digital forensics.

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

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