The 9th annual BRICS summit, held from September 3-5 in Xiamen, China, made a huge contribution even before it started off. On August 28, just days prior to the summit, “expeditious disengagement of border personnel at the face-off site at Doklam” was announced by the Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India, and Hua Chunying, spokesperson of China’s Foreign Ministry, said that “in light of the changes on the ground” China will make “necessary adjustments and deployment.”
These announcements brought to an end the 73-day standoff between India and China, which could have easily escalated, given the simmering tension between both the countries on a range of issues, including China’s One Belt, One Road initiative (OBOR), China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, and India’s bid for membership of the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group, which China has been successfully torpedoing claiming that New Delhi is not a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. India did not send a delegation to attend the OBOR meet convened by China early this year.
The Doklam standoff, with China repeatedly issuing provocative statements, had severely strained an already stressed relationship between the two countries and it threatened to derail any meaningful progress at the BRICS summit. The fact that the Government of India announced on August 29, the very next day after announcing the disengagement, that Prime Minister Narendra Modi would be visiting China for the BRICS summit, made it amply clear that the ensuing summit had made it imperative to ease tensions. A summit amid the Doklam standoff would have been doomed and it could have hugely embarrassed Chinese President Xi Jinping, the host of the summit.
A key reason for India’s unhappiness has been China’s consistent support for Pakistan in various international forums on terrorism. In spite of the United States, Britain and France supporting India’s bid to declare Jaish-e-Mohammad’s chief Masood Azhar as a UN-designated terrorist, China has repeatedly blocked it. India also sees China’s huge economic investments in Pakistan, including in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir, being inimical to India’s interests.
In a huge achievement for India, China for the first time ever, during the BRICS summit signed a statement that needles Pakistan-based terrorist groups such as the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) and the Haqqani network. In fact, Xi, prior to the summit, had said that BRICS wasn’t the right forum to deliberate on terrorism yet the summit declaration devoted seven paragraphs to terrorism.
The Xiamen declaration signed by all the members of BRICS clearly expressed “concern on the security situation in the region and violence caused by the Taliban, ISIL/Daish, al-Qaida and its affiliates including Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement, Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, the Haqqani network, Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Mohammad, TTP and Hizb ut-Tahrir.” The statement also said that “we deplore all terrorist attacks worldwide, including attacks in BRICS countries, and condemn terrorism in all its forms and manifestations wherever committed and by whomsoever” and stated that “those responsible for committing, organising, or supporting terrorist acts must be held accountable.”
Thereafter, Geng Shuang, a spokesperson of the Chinese Foreign Ministry, clarified that by naming outfits like JeM and LeT, the BRICS countries have “shown their concerns to the violent activities raised by these organisations.”
Coming soon after US President Trump minced no words in criticising Pakistan for supporting terror groups from its soil, the Xiamen declaration could make things very uncomfortable for Pakistan. From India’s perspective, this support from China could further ease tensions and enable building a relationship that could yield big benefits for both sides.
Behind the Support
Though China has made attempts to reassure Pakistan after the BRICS summit, with its Foreign Minister Wang Yi stating that “when it comes to the issue of counter-terrorism, Pakistan has done its best with a clear conscience, in comparison, some countries need to give Pakistan the full credit that it deserves,” this is at best a balancing act. The Xiamen declaration possibly is a shift in Chinese strategy towards India and there are good reasons to believe it is so.
In the BRICS grouping of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, India is the second largest economic power, after China. The Brazilian economy is collapsing, South Africa is seeing a serious economic downturn and Russian economy is taking a hit owing to dipping oil and gas prices and Western sanctions.
So, there are only two economic powers that matter in the BRICS now – China and India, and if India does not play along, BRICS is as good as over, especially from the Chinese perspective, because China intends to develop BRICS as an organisation to counter influential western organisations such as Nato and G7.
China also needs to counter the growing alliance between India, the US, Japan and Vietnam. Such an alliance could seriously jeopardize China’s big plans to displace the US as the world’s biggest power as well as embolden its Asian neighbours.
Moreover, China needs to bring India around on its other initiatives. For instance, if India, the main power in the Indian Ocean, sticks to its stand of not participating in OBOR, it would lose all its sheen.
India is also a huge market for China. In 2015, Chinese imports to India were over worth $59 billion. Between January and July 2017, the bilateral trade volume between the two countries increased by 21.5% year-on-year to $47.52 billion.
If China’s spectacular growth continues as projected, it will have only one market – India. So, hostility with India hurts Chinese strategic and business interests. In such a scenario, developing BRICS into a platform to build and strengthen Indo-China relationship is smart policy.
Prime Minister Modi and Chinese President Xi had a one-on-one meeting on the second day of the summit. This was the first meeting between the two leaders after the Doklam standoff. After the meeting, Modi tweeted — “met President Xi Jinping. We held fruitful talks on bilateral relations between India and China.”
According to S Jaishankar, India’s Foreign Secretary, it “was a forward-looking conversation” that focused on “peace and tranquility on border areas.” He also shared that both sides agreed for “closer communication between the defence and security personnel of India and China.”
Geng Shuang, spokesperson of the Chinese Foreign Ministry, shared that in the meeting Xi stressed the need for “sound and stable” China-India relations while highlighting that China and
India are “each other’s important neighbour” and so must focus on “seeking common ground while shelving differences and uphold peace and tranquility in our border areas” to bring the relationship “on a right track,” under the “guidance of Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence.”
The fact that China officially referred to the ‘Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence’ or
Panchsheel Agreement, which the two countries had signed on April 29, 1954, as the overarching framework for taking the Indo-China relationship forward is a clear indicator of the change in Chinese strategy.