Lessons from Brics 2016: Old friends are good, but China is keen to contain India

If one cuts past the specific agreements, the Brics summit in Goa reveals three basic geo-strategic facts. The third is the most significant, but the first and second are more obvious.

Most obvious is the fact that the post-Cold War churning in geopolitics is still underway. In that light, the highlight of the summit was that India sought to restore its tried-and-tested relationship with Russia, from which it had moved decidedly away after the Soviet Union collapsed.

That was a mistake. It is all good that Prime Minister Narendra Modi is moving closer to President Vladimir Putin. It’s not just that they are arguably the two most identifiable strong men on the world stage. There are long-term strategic interests. The Soviet Union had supported India since its independence. And after China tested a nuclear weapon in 1964, it identified India as a lodestar of its foreign policy. In the more-than-half-century since then, these three countries and the US have emerged as the four most important in the world.

 Lessons from Brics 2016: Old friends are good, but China is keen to contain India

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Chinese President Xi Jinping before the start of the Brics Summit in Goa. PTI

Only Brazil, Japan, Indonesia and Pakistan compare in population size, but not in military might. Some had speculated soon after (and before) the Soviet Union collapsed that the European Union could emerge as a world power — an economic counterweight to the US. But the EU has teetered on the edge of collapse for some time now.

Hyphenation remains

The second fact about current geopolitics to emerge in the backdrop of the Brics summit is that south Asia is a major key to the relationship between the four big world powers. Despite India’s best efforts to 'de-hyphenate' India and Pakistan, the two countries’ relations have influenced the way India, Russia and China have warily circled each other, like hefty kabaddi players.

Indian strategists must get used to the fact that the Partition created platforms on India’s flanks that can be manipulated to destabilise the subcontinent — unless India goes the extra mile to strengthen subcontinental ties, as the visionary former Prime Minister Vajpayee sought to do at Saarc’s Islamabad summit in 2004.

The fact is that Russia’s recent military exercises with Pakistan were at least partly responsible for India reaching out to its old ally; 'an old friend is worth two new ones', Prime Minister Modi told his joint press conference with Putin in Goa.

To seek close strategic relationships with the US and Russia simultaneously at a time when something close to Cold War tensions have developed between them over Syria is, let us say, bold. But it is well worth doing. In fact, the face-off over Syria is all the more reason why neither would want to antagonise India.

Pakistan has become even more pivotal to Sino-Indian relations than to India-Russia or Indo-US ties. China’s blocking of India’s attempt to add Masood Azhar to the UN’s list of terrorists highlights the extent to which it backs Pakistan. Its blocking of India’s membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group too stems from Pakistan’s desire to be included alongside.

Whatever satisfaction Indian strategists derive from Moscow and other world powers, it would be unwise to underestimate the threat potentially posed by Beijing

The future is here

The third geopolitical fact that has emerged is less obvious. In fact, some might dispute it. And that fact is that China already sees India as its chief rival. Most geopolitical analysts still see China and the US as the world’s main competitors. But most also agree that China and India are likely to be the world’s big powers in a few decades. China’s strategic moves make it clear that its chief objective is to hobble India.

It’s as if two catch-up races were being run in tandem — only the one in the lead in each race is trying to block the one running behind it with a sort of ring of fire. While US moves to hem in China (in the South China Sea, for example) have had limited success, China is moving even more vigorously to encircle India in south Asia. The fate of the Chinese economy in the near future will have an impact on India’s future.

Whether or not Saarc moves forward, and how potential alternatives to Saarc develop, is a major part of China’s game of encirclement. China has invested a range of resources in the subcontinent.

The big surprise of the Brics meet came a day before it began — when China committed a whopping $28 billion to Bangladesh during Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit there on Friday, en route to Goa. Just a couple of weeks ago, Bangladesh had taken the lead to have the Saarc summit in Pakistan postponed, following the attack at Uri. The new Chinese alliance is likely to weaken Bangladesh’s coordination with India against Pakistan. We will have to wait and see how much more damage that Chinese investment might cause India.

Other than China’s attempt to throw a ring of fire around India, it is much harder to explain such massive investment in Bangladesh than it is to explain China’s $46 billion commitment to Pakistan. For, the latter investment is earmarked for the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Likely to become China’s major trade route to the world, the CPEC is of great advantage to China. Surely Bangladesh’s gas reserves could not be worth that much.

Of course CPEC causes Sino-Indian conflict far more directly than China’s investments elsewhere: the trade corridor passes through parts of the state of Jammu and Kashmir under Pakistan’s control — which India claims juridically. Chinese troops have been in those parts of the state for some time for the security of the highway, railway and other CPEC projects.

Whatever satisfaction Indian strategists derive from Moscow and other world powers, it would be unwise to underestimate the threat potentially posed by Beijing.

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Updated Date: Oct 16, 2016 16:47:24 IST