Wednesday, April 13, 2011

PM's China Visit: BRICS and the Bilateral Dynamics

Here's the link to an article of mine on the PM's visit to China, published by ORF. Indian Prime Minister has left for China for the third BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and now South Africa) Summit, but one of the key questions is as to what such coalitions mean for India-China bilateral relations.

For the full article, click here.

Besides the BRICS Summit in Sanya, on Hainan Island, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Chinese President Hu Jintao are scheduled to hold separate bilateral meetings, discuss a range of issues from economic to political and strategic issues. However, the Chinese officials have clarified to the Indian side that only multilateral issues and trade (establishing a strategic economic dialogue at the BRICS level is one item on the agenda) be discussed and that bilateral controversial issues are off the table during the Summit meeting.

At the multilateral level, the BRICS grouping is expected to discuss the international situation in the economic, financial, political and security domain. Obviously Libya is an important issue for all the BRICS countries. Except for South Africa that voted in favour of the UN Security Council Resolution 1973, the other four countries - India, China, Brazil and Russia - had abstained from voting sending vague and ambiguous signals to Libya and the rest of the international community. However, it should be noted that the Libya vote was not the result of any collective decision taken by the BRICS. It was driven primarily by each country's individual foreign policy orientations than a common BRICS position. While China has justified its abstention by arguing that it does not interfere in another country's internal affairs, the Indian position has not been very clear. Some reports have argued that the open-ended nature of the Allied action is what got New Delhi worried. However, India's stand on the issue of use of military power against civilian population is contradictory. India stands aside while another government is using military power against unarmed civilians, even though India observes strict limitation on the use of military force in domestic rebellions. This contradiction will create problems to its standing in the coming years on the issue of UN's R2P (Responsibility to Protect) principle and willingness to take on greater responsibility in global affairs commensurate with its growing stature.

What does BRICS really mean? The fact that Goldman Sachs identified Brazil, Russia, India and China as the fastest growing economies and coined the term BRIC does not mean anything and cannot become effective glue to stitch the group together as a cohesive unit. The grouping has by and large remained a forum that has debated or taken positions on what may be termed as "soft" issues such as climate change, trade issues and so on. The lack of strategic content in the grouping has impeded the growth and development of BRICS as a forum that can effect significant changes in global politics.

Even on the climate change issue, there has been no common position. Russia's stance on climate change has been significantly different from that of India and China's. Despite the fact that China has become the largest emitter of green house gas, India has found it convenient to go under the Beijing shadow although India has taken important steps to curb green house gas emissions, thereby compromising India's position in the climate change debate. However, India and China coming together and taking common positions has often been cited as major breakthroughs in India-China relations.

How far is this claim valid? It can be argued that while the two countries may have cooperated at the multilateral fora, India-China bilateral relations have also witnessed worsening of the ties partly because of China's less than supportive role at the multilateral fora when it came to strategic issues affecting India (China's role at the NSG and its efforts to sabotage an ADB loan for India are examples).

From the Chinese side, it supports India when they perceive a potential benefit in improving ties, which by and large have remained in the economic arena or improving its own image as it holds major events. The two recent instances have been when China issued regular stamped visas to one singer who was travelling to China for performing at the closing ceremony of the Asian Games; and when four journalists hailing from J&K travelling with PM for the BRICS Summit, because they did not want the visa issue to become a dampener on either of the two occasions held by China on its soil.

For Beijing, the West (including the US and Europe) is no more the market for their products. Asia is the future market and in Asia, India provides the largest market for the Chinese products and services. This explains the Chinese rationale in emphasising economics as the biggest agenda in the bilateral ties (evident during Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao's visit to India with a 400-member economic delegation).

India is all for strengthening ties with China, including in the economic arena. The bilateral trade had touched nearly $62 bn in 2010 and the two countries are expected to take this to $100 bn by 2015, which is not an unrealistic target. However, India has to address a few issues even in this area, which is otherwise booming. While the trade touched $62 billion, China's exports had gone beyond $40 bn, further increasing the trade imbalance between the two. Another issue for India has been the lack of access to the Chinese markets for Indian products particularly in three sectors - agriculture, IT and pharmaceuticals.

Lastly, what is that India achieves through BRIC/S that it cannot or has not achieved through bilateral means?

Global governance is one issue through which India-China relations may be tested. Is China willing to live with an India that is more assertive and influential in Asian and global affairs? China has so far not exhibited such support as it deals with India. Its changing policy on Jammu & Kashmir (manifested through the issuance of stapled visas; circulation of internal documents in China indicating the deletion of 1500 square kilometres from LAC on the Ladakh sector) questioning the territorial integrity of India; its South Asia policy aimed at circumscribing India's manoeuvrability even within South Asia (China-Pakistan defence and nuclear weapons collaboration, China-Nepal, -Sri Lanka defence ties, and more recently utilising economic aid as an effective tool in furthering the Chinese interests are few examples) are some of the underlying issues that trouble India-China relations.

Three of the four BRIC countries are active and credible nuclear and space powers, yet the group has not managed to initiate a dialogue on non-proliferation or outer space issues. The lack of strategic depth and mutual trust among these countries come as major impediments in making this bloc a strategic one - one with teeth that can challenge the current policies on these issues or one that can institute a new mechanism to avert the dangers of proliferation or weaponization of outer space.

Each of the five BRICS countries has their own strengths in the S&T arena. While this area should have been an ideal candidate for strengthening cooperation among these five countries, the group has not been able to exploit this strength for a variety of reasons.

Therefore, India has to be realistic enough to understand that heightened engagement between India and China in BRICS or any other multilateral fora has serious limitations - limitations imposed by the underlying Chinese objective of keeping India bogged down in South Asia as a regional power.