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.

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From Akshayapatra to Begging Bowl

The second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic has forced India to accept foreign aid – including from the Chinese Red Cross[1] – for the first time in 16 years. For Indians of a certain persuasion, there is a particular shame in the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led Indian government having to seek foreign aid. For their worldview comprises a mix of various resentments against the perceived outsider – Muslims, Westerners/Christian missionaries, Chinese/atheists. Indeed, the strength of articulation of the vishwaguru trope lies precisely in this reality and the need to have something that is apparently of India’s ‘own’ to offer. 

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China’s Vaccine Diplomacy and India

China recently made it mandatory for people coming from India and 19 other nations to received Chinese-manufactured COVID-19 vaccines if they wanted to enter the country.[1] The problem is, of course, that there are no Chinese vaccines available in India and nor are they likely to be given that India is a major producer of vaccines itself. It is tempting to call the Chinese decision a thoughtless act and one of wanton malice towards the thousands of Indians – students, professionals, family members – waiting to return to China, over a year after many left the country to visit their homes for the long Chinese New Year holidays.

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