As the dust settles down after the high-profile Brics Summit and its outreach meeting with Bimstec leaders, it is time to take a look at what India gained from the gathering of leaders.
Terrorism dominated the summit in Goa. From the media coverage, especially television, it seemed that the sole issue on the agenda for the Goa meetings was terrorism. More specifically – cross-border terrorism – a catchphrase for Pakistan-sponsored terrorism. In the heightened sentiment after the attack at the Uri army base and the retaliatory surgical strikes together with the government’s campaign to isolate Pakistan, it was natural that the issue of terrorism would draw the most attention in India.
Did India manage to put Pakistan in a spot during the summit with the emphasis on terrorism? Prime Minister Narendra Modi minced no words in referring to Pakistan as the 'mothership of terrorism'. But the outcome of the Goa summit did not come up to India’s expectations. The Goa Declaration did not reflect India’s position.
While the summit declaration called for action against all UN designated terrorist organisations, it named only the Islamic State and the Al-Nusra. The two organisations threaten Chinese and Russian interests in Afghanistan and Syria. But there was no mention of Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammad. The only indirect allusion to cross-border terrorism came in the leaders agreeing on the “responsibility of all states to prevent terrorist actions from their territories”.
In his separate bilateral meetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping, Modi spoke about cross-border terrorism. But the Chinese President, in his address at the summit, spoke of the need for “political solutions” to “regional hotspots” – a likely hint to the situation in Kashmir. Later, a Chinese spokesperson said that Pakistan had suffered and made sacrifices in the war against terrorism. Putin did not mention terrorism in his address at the plenary session at all.
The high-pitched Indian effort during the Goa summit brought out the fact that none of the other countries shared the same views on Pakistan. Combating terrorism is an important issue for India, but to inflate its significance in India’s foreign policy priorities meant that India lost the chance to put its stamp on the larger economic integration agenda of Brics. It did this without achieving its purpose of isolating Pakistan.
Brics was set up in 2006 as a group comprising Russia, China, Brazil and India – all large, fast growing economies. South Africa joined in four years later. Brics has a strong agenda on trade, economic development and building institutions. But Modi’s prime economic concerns were lost in the hub-bub on terrorism.
This brings us to the other question of whether there was a possibility that India could turn the heat on Pakistan at the Brics summit. China is a close ally, all weather friend of Pakistan and is ready to defend Pakistan’s interests. Russia is an old friend of India, but it has been cultivating its ties with Islamabad, including holding joint military exercises. Moscow can be expected to back India when its strategic interests are concerned, but it will not gratuitously alienate other countries in the process. Terrorism does not have the same salience for Brazil and South Africa. In these circumstances, it was a misjudgment to expect the Indian stance to prevail.
Bimstec includes Bangladesh, which has faced horrific terror strikes. It was more forthright in its condemnation of terrorism, describing it as the single most significant threat to peace and stability in the region. It said that the fight against terrorism should identify, hold accountable and take strong measures against states that encourage, support and finance terrorism and provide sanctuary to terrorists. “There should be no glorification of terrorists as martyrs,” said the Bimstec statement.
The Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (Bimstec) was set up in 1997 with Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand, India and Sri Lanka, with Nepal and Bhutan joining it later. The regional body has languished through the years, having held only three meetings. India has now given it a boost by including it in the Brics outreach meeting. As Saarc remains mired in Pakistan’s reluctance to cooperate with India, India has clearly elevated the significance of the Bay of Bengal grouping. It has signaled its intention to rejuvenate the moribund organisation for greater economic engagement.
Saarc has become non-functional; none of the initiatives of the past couple of years have made any progress. The Saarc summit stands postponed. Whether Bimstec can take over the place Saarc has held, is an open question. But India lost out by giving the impression that it had a single issue agenda for the Brics summit.