To Be or Not to Be? BRICS and India’s Confused Signalling on China

At the 6th JP Morgan “India Investor Summit” in mid-September, Foreign Minister Dr S. Jaishankar stated that India-China relations “can only be based on ‘three mutuals’- mutual respect, mutual sensitivity and mutual interests”. The implication is that China is seriously working against or at least constraining India’s strategic interests. If so, New Delhi’s continued engagement with China through such forums as BRICS is a puzzling facet of Indian foreign policy, even acknowledging India’s need to be seen as exercising ‘strategic autonomy’. If the Indian government expects the rest of the world to take its arguments about Chinese bad behaviour seriously, then there is a case to be made for New Delhi cutting down on such mixed signals as its participation in the BRICS summits represent.

Rhetoric Masks Reality

Unlike say the G-20, BRICS is a small grouping that throws up in sharper relief both a particularly anti-West political orientation, which India itself does not quite have, as well as China’s outsized global role and influence, which is surely not what New Delhi intends. Indeed, BRICS could very well be done away with given that India already has a strong bilateral relationship with Russia and has engaged with Brazil and South Africa in a separate forum, IBSA, with an explicitly pro-democracy agenda.

But at the 15th BRICS Summit hosted by India in early September, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi praised BRICS institutions such as the New Development Bank, the Contingency Reserve Arrangement and the Energy Research Cooperation Platform as “very strong” and said that “there is much we can be proud of”. Now, even if one were to interpret his wish that BRICS be “even more result oriented in the next 15 years” as a subtle dig about its lack of results in reality, the fact is that whatever BRICS’ achievements, they ultimately pale in comparison to the multiple conflicts between India and China – along their disputed boundary, over the persistent Indian trade deficit with China and because of China’s nuclear arming of Pakistan. 

Meanwhile, in the BRICS Joint Statement on Strengthening and Reforming the Multilateral System, the Foreign Ministers “espoused their shared values of peace, freedom and rule of law, respect for human rights and democracy”. The intellectual and political gymnastics necessary to believe that China (or Russia) is committed to rule of law, human rights and democracy in the same way that India is are mind boggling. The Indian Foreign Minister also blithely signed on to language that stressed “the imperative of refraining from any coercive measures not based on international law and the UN Charter” without stopping to consider how Russia’s invasion of Crimea and China’s occupation of features in the South China Sea have each blatantly contravened international law and the UN Charter. And while expecting “the international community to reform and strengthen policy responses of WHO to fight the COVID-19 pandemic”, it is worth asking if the Indian delegation questioned their Chinese counterparts about their country’s role in blocking timely access and accurate information to the WHO around the time of origin of the novel coronavirus in the central Chinese city of Wuhan. A joint WHO-China report on the coronavirusdid not criticise Beijing for any lapses that it had by this time actually admitted to its own people.

If these are perhaps issues that India can ignore as someone else’s headache, even in matters of direct and prominent national concern, New Delhi has not able to get the BRICS summits to acknowledge its interests. Even when India has held the presidency, BRICS summits have been unable to name even a single terrorist group of concern to India — such as the Taliban or any number of Pakistan-based groups. China has repeatedly blocked or dragged out Indian attempts to get Pakistan-based terrorists sanctioned under the UN’s 1267 Committee and yet the 15th BRICS Declaration dutifully talks about “reject[ing] double standards in countering terrorism”. Similarly, endorsement for India’s candidature as a permanent member of the UN Security Council has never been forthcoming from Beijing. This being the case, precisely what reform of the multilateral system is BRICS going to drive? 

In short, China effectively blocks India in any multilateral forum where the two participate together and forces India to bend to the lowest standards possible in terms of democracy and accountability — which is to say to China’s standards — in the interests of achieving an ‘outcome’. The Indian foreign ministry appears to fetishize negotiations and parleys over sustainable or worthwhile results.

China is not Fooled

If New Delhi means to engage in rhetoric as a way of lulling the Chinese into complacency, then surely this is a failed strategy as should have been evident after the Doklam stand-off between the two countries in 2017, or at least after Chinese transgressions and the killing of Indian soldiers in eastern Ladakh last year? It should also be evident from the Chinese vituperation on the Quad that India’s involvement is seen as a case of New Delhi have thrown in its lot with the US against China. Against this hard-nosed Chinese assessment, the Indian government’s persistence in engaging in minilaterals such as BRICS or the Russia-India-China trilateral is merely an opportunity for Beijing to muddy the waters with doublespeak and only ends up confusing India’s international messaging on China. 

Is China a strategic adversary or not? If India can parley with China and reach long-winded and grand declarations and joint statements at BRICS summits, is the situation on the disputed boundary with China really as bad as the Indians claim it to be? Under the circumstances, third countries with no skin in the game but possessing a crucial vote in the UN General Assembly or asked to make a choice might be forgiven for not taking India seriously when it complains about China. 

Originally published as Jabin T. Jacob, ‘India and the BRICS: Confused Signalling on China’, 9DashLine, 6 October 2021.

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Jabin T. Jacob

China analysis from an Indian perspective

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