PFormer minister Narendra Modi will take part in the BRICS summit hosted virtually by China this week. This means he will share screen time with Chinese President Xi Jinping, Russian Vladimir Putin, Brazilian Jair Bolsonaro and South African Cyril Ramaphosa. But the failure of an in-person summit is certainly a lost opportunity for a group that claims to amplify the dreams of the developing world.
If only China had withdrawn to its side of the Line of Effective Control in eastern Ladakh, where it has held territory for two years, Modi might even have taken that flight to Beijing. Reports say China was keen for Modi to attend the BRICS summit – it clearly wasn’t enthusiastic enough, otherwise things at LAC would have been different.
There was much speculation in Delhi and Beijing that a breakthrough might be in sight; just like in 2017, when China hosted the BRICS meeting in Xiamen and Modi refused to go because Indian and Chinese troops were eye to eye in Doklam, Bhutan. But a compromise was reached after long negotiations and the Prime Minister took this flight in time.
This time around, it’s a much more uncertain world. The pandemic has eased, but it’s not over, including in mainland China. The invasion of Ukraine by Russia is still relevant. Beijing’s occupation of Ladakh territory means that two of the five BRICS members are violating their own principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity.
External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar told his fellow BRICS ministers in May, when he pointed out that “BRICS have repeatedly affirmed respect for sovereign equality, territorial integrity and of international law. We must live up to these commitments.
And yet Modi is attending the virtual BRICS summit – 15 rounds of talks later, the Chinese have not hinted at a return to the status quo ante. So why is the prime minister, like national security adviser Ajit Doval – who attended a BRICS NSA meeting on the second anniversary of the Galwan clashes in which 20 Indian soldiers died – speaking- still in China? The answer is more complicated.
Also read: Keeping Indo-China relations on ‘right track’, says Chinese envoy, pushes for ‘win-win mentality’
Realism is the engine of Indian politics
The Modi government has decided that at least for now it will play by the classic definition of a ‘swing state’. This means that he will move in the direction of the country or grouping which most satisfies his national interest.
It also means that India will step down from the moral high ground and hold its nose if need be, in order to pursue the goal it has set for itself. For example, India has shown incredible realism in refusing to criticize Putin on the Russian invasion of Ukraine, because it knows which way its oil barrel floats.
Not criticizing Putin doesn’t mean India won’t play a strong role in the Quad or the G-20, whose PM Modi summit will be attending next week in Germany. Recall that he recently returned from Tokyo, where he participated in an in-person meeting of the Quad, alongside Joe Biden, Anthony Albanese (PM of Australia) and Fumio Kishida (PM of Japan).
India’s firm commitment to realism is evidently underscored by the fact that its economy falls short; given this uncertain situation in his country, the fact that New Delhi is nevertheless determined to remain engaged with players with whom it is not particularly interested in breaking bread – namely China – signals a maturation, a maturity.
Some say China’s territorial occupation of Ladakh is a sign of its dissatisfaction with India’s growing closeness to the United States. Besides being a terribly childish way to conduct diplomacy, it also signals China’s significant lack of understanding of another Asian power, another ancient civilization.
Either way, it is unfortunate that Chinese intransigence in resolving the impasse in Ladakh is preventing Delhi from improving its ties with Beijing and other intermediate BRICS economies.
India realizes that whatever the difficulties, it must play a role at the BRICS high table. To be inside the lakshman rekha has several advantages, including first-hand knowledge of how others operate.
Moreover, the five BRICS countries together account for 40% of the world’s population, 24% of world GDP and 16% of world trade, no doubt heavily biased in favor of China. There is no reason for India to want to stay out.
Also read: India and China have reached ‘agreement’ on Ladakh disengagement but no timetable, says Jaishankar
Just the way the world works
Xi Jinping is not only interested in promoting his version of a world order, called the Global Security Initiative, but also wants to expand the BRICS. In late May, the Chinese Foreign Ministry echoed Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in saying that Saudi Arabia and Argentina were deeply interested in joining the organization.
This follows the meeting of BRICS foreign ministers in May, which was accompanied by a dialogue with emerging markets and developing countries called the “BRICS Plus” initiative. Foreign ministers and senior officials from Kazakhstan, Saudi Arabia, Argentina, Egypt, Nigeria, Senegal, United Arab Emirates and Thailand all attended.
It was only in December 2021 that Egypt became the fourth member of the BRICS Bank – also called New Development Bank – after the United Arab Emirates, Senegal and Bangladesh. So far, the Bank has disbursed $30 billion in 80 projects in its member countries.
So what does India think of the BRICS expansion? Does she believe that Xi Jinping wants to expand his influence to compete with Quad? More importantly, should India care?
For now, India is keeping its sights to itself. There is too much volatility, not only in global markets but also in diplomatic interests, and India does not want to be taken on the wrong foot. So he continues to refuse to criticize Vladimir Putin, despite an irritated West beginning to push India to choose – even though New Delhi may have privately assured these Western governments that India remains on the side of the democracies.
The Indian argument is this: its economy is struggling as it emerges from the pandemic coupled with the aftershocks of the war in Ukraine. He need not further destabilize the lives of his own people by refusing to buy cheap and discounted oil and other energy products from Russia.
A Reuters A report recently revealed that Indian importers are “lapping up” Russian coal, oil and other energy products that have been shunned by European countries as a result of the sanctions. Additionally, Russian companies accept payment in Indian Rupees and UAE Dirhams.
And so on, in India’s diplomatic circle. This week, Modi will meet BRICS leaders virtually, next week he will rub shoulders with leaders of Western economies. India is adapting its foreign policy to keep pace with the world.
Jyoti Malhotra is a consulting editor at ThePrint. She tweets @jomalhotra. Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant)