Tuesday, July 5, 2022

As Modi readies to talk to China and Russia virtually, realism rules

Prime Minister Narendra Modi will participate this week in the BRICS summit virtually hosted by China. This means he will share screen time with Chinese president Xi Jinping, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro and South Africa’s Cyril Ramaphosa. But the fact that an in-person summit is not being held is certainly an opportunity lost for a group that claims to amplify the dreams of the developing world.
If only China had withdrawn to its own side of the Line of Actual Control in Eastern Ladakh, where it has occupied territory for the last two years, Modi may have even taken that flight to Beijing. Reports say China was quite keen that Modi attend the BRICS summit — clearly it wasn’t keen enough, otherwise things at the LAC would have been different.
There was widespread speculation in both Delhi and Beijing that a breakthrough might be in the offing; just like the time in 2017 when China was hosting the BRICS meeting in Xiamen and Modi refused to go because Indian and Chinese troops were eyeball-to-eyeball at Doklam, Bhutan. But a compromise was reached after long negotiations and the PM caught that flight in time.
This time around, it’s a far more uncertain world. The pandemic has eased, but it’s not over, including in mainland China. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is still on. Beijing’s occupation of territory in Ladakh means that two of the five BRICS members are in violation of their own principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity.
External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar told his fellow BRICS ministers as much in May, when he pointed out that “BRICS has repeatedly affirmed respect for sovereign equality, territorial integrity and international law. We must live up to these commitments.”
And yet, Modi is participating in the virtual BRICS summit—15 rounds of talks later, the Chinese haven’t hinted at returning to the status quo ante. So why is the PM, just like National Security Advisor Ajit Doval—who participated in a BRICS NSA meeting on the second anniversary of the Galwan clashes in which 20 Indian soldiers died—still talking to China? The answer is more complicated.
Realism is driving Indian policy
The Modi government has decided that at least for the time being, it will play according to the classic definition of a “swing state”. This means that it will move in the direction of the country or grouping that satisfies its national interest the most.
This also means that India will get off the moral high ground and hold its nose if need be, in order to pursue its chosen goal. For example, India has demonstrated incredible realism by refusing to criticise Putin over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, because it knows on which side its barrel of oil is afloat.
Not criticising Putin doesn’t mean that India won’t play a strong suit at the Quad or the G-20, whose summit PM Modi will be attending next week in Germany. Remember that he recently returned from Tokyo, where he participated in an in-person meeting of the Quad, along with Joe Biden, Anthony Albanese (PM of Australia) and Fumio Kishida (PM of Japan).
India’s strong commitment to realism is obviously underlined by the fact that its economy is not up to speed; given this uncertain state of affairs at home, the fact that New Delhi is nevertheless determined to remain engaged with actors it is not particularly interested in breaking bread with – namely, China – signals a maturing, a coming of age.
Some say China’s territorial occupation in Ladakh is a sign of its displeasure at India’s growing proximity to the US. Apart from the fact that this is a terribly childish way of conducting diplomacy, it also signals China’s significant lack of understanding of a fellow Asian power, another ancient civilisation.
Be that as it may, it is unfortunate that Chinese intransigence in resolving the Ladakh standoff is coming in the way of Delhi improving its ties with Beijing and the other middling economies in BRICS.
India realises that no matter the difficulties, it must play a part at the BRICS high table. Being inside the lakshman rekha has several advantages, including a first-hand knowledge of how the others are functioning.
Moreover, the five BRICS nations together represent 40 per cent of the world’s population, 24 per cent of global GDP and 16 per cent of global trade—no doubt heavily skewed in China’s favour. There is no reason India should want to stay out.
Just the way the world works
Xi Jinping isn’t just interested in promoting his version of a global order, called the Global Security Initiative, but also wants to expand BRICS. In late May, the Chinese foreign ministry echoed Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov to say that Saudi Arabia and Argentina are deeply interested in joining the organisation.
This comes in the wake of the BRICS foreign ministers’ meeting in May, which was accompanied by a dialogue with emerging markets and developing countries called “BRICS Plus” initiative. The foreign ministers and top officials of Kazakhstan, Saudi Arabia, Argentina, Egypt, Nigeria, Senegal, the UAE, and Thailand all took part.
Only in December 2021, Egypt became the fourth member of the BRICS Bank—also called the New Development Bank—after the UAE, Senegal, and Bangladesh. So far, the Bank has disbursed $30 billion in 80 projects in its member countries.
So, what does India think about the expansion of BRICS? Does it believe that Xi Jinping wants to expand his influence so as to rival Quad? More importantly, should India care?
For the moment, India is keeping its views to itself. There is too much volatility, not just in global markets but also in diplomatic interests, and India doesn’t want to be caught on the wrong foot. So it continues to refuse to criticise Vladimir Putin, despite an irritated West starting to push India to choose—although New Delhi may have privately assured these Western governments that India remains on the side of democracies.
The Indian argument is as follows: Its economy is flailing as it comes off the pandemic coupled with the aftershocks of the Ukraine war. There is no need for it to further destabilise the lives of its own people by refusing to buy cheap, discounted oil and other energy products from Russia.
A Reuters report recently found that Indian importers are “lapping up” Russian coal, oil, and other energy products that have been shunned by European countries following the sanctions. Moreover, Russian companies are accepting payments in Indian rupees and UAE dirhams.
And so it goes, in India’s diplomatic circle of life. This week, Modi will virtually meet BRICS leaders, next week he will rub shoulders with leaders of Western economies. India is adjusting its foreign policy to keep pace with the ways of the world.
Jyoti Malhotra is a
senior consulting
editor at The Print.
She tweets @jomalhotra.
(As published in The Print)

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