In­dia’s clever use of the Brics card in Dokalam

Mint ST - - VIEWS -

The very in­sti­tu­tions that have fa­cil­i­tated China’s promi­nence can be po­ten­tially used to con­strain its be­hav­iour and shape its choices

For al­most two and a half months, In­dian and Chi­nese troops found them­selves in a stand­off in the Dokalam plateau in Bhutan—the worst cri­sis be­tween the two coun­tries in three decades. That stand-off ended on Mon­day. While both sides seem to have found ac­cept­able face­savers, it is clear that In­dia stands vin­di­cated: the sta­tus quo in the Dokalam plateau has been re­stored. Chi­nese bull­doz­ers have now re­treated from the dis­puted sliver of land (In­dia’s core ask) even though In­dia moved its troops out first (thus meet­ing a key Chi­nese de­mand). What is ex­ceed­ingly in­ter­est­ing about how the cri­sis ended was its tim­ing—a week be­fore China hosts the an­nual Brics (in­volv­ing Brazil, Rus­sia, In­dia, China and South Africa) sum­mit in the coastal city of Xi­a­men.

To be sure, the up­com­ing meet (which would have, by cus­tom, in­cluded a bi­lat­eral meet­ing be­tween Chi­nese Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping and In­dian Prime Min­is­ter Naren­dra Modi) is not the sole rea­son why China agreed to, what in ef­fect is, a climb­down. For ex­am­ple, the lo­cal bal­ance of forces and the ter­rain would have put In­dia ahead of China in any lim­ited mil­i­tary con­flict in the Doka La tri­junc­tion area, thus re­mov­ing Chi­nese in­cen­tives to forcibly dis­lodge In­dian troops. A con­se­quent mil­i­tary de­ba­cle would have proved very ex­pen­sive for Xi ahead of the autumn congress of the Chi­nese Com­mu­nist Party. But at the end, it was Chi­nese im­per­a­tive to host a suc­cess­ful sum­mit in Xi­a­men that may have pro­vided the req­ui­site push to end the face-off in Dokalam.

Since be­com­ing pres­i­dent in 2013, Xi has, in his quest to re­store China as a cen­tral power in the in­ter­na­tional sys­tem, re­lied on eco­nomic and mil­i­tary co­er­cion, and quasi-lib­eral rhetoric around sol­i­dar­ity with great and small pow­ers alike. From the lat­ter has flowed a new Chi­nese diplo­matic lex­i­con: of “a new type of great power re­la­tions,” “win-win prag­matic co­op­er­a­tion,” and, most re­cently, “ma­jor-coun­try diplo­macy with Chi­nese char­ac­ter­is­tics”. This rhetoric has sought to couch China’s geopo­lit­i­cal am­bi­tions in be­nign and ac­cept­able terms. A uni­fy­ing fea­ture of Chi­nese diplo­matese un­der Xi has been an em­pha­sis on sovereignty and eq­uity even when Chi­nese for­eign-pol­icy prac­tice has ig­nored these pre­cepts.

En­ter Brics. Even though the group­ing pre­dates Xi’s as­cen­dance to power, he has pro­moted it as a tem­plate for co­op­er­a­tion be­tween emerg­ing pow­ers. As such, Brics has been a key proofof-con­cept that China is will­ing to play a greater role in global gov­er­nance—and that it will not re­main a peren­nial shirker in the in­ter­na­tional sys­tem. China’s mem­ber­ship in Brics has con­cretely pro­moted its in­ter­ests in mul­ti­ple ways. The Brics push to re­form in­ter­na­tional fi­nan­cial in­sti­tu­tions has led to greater ac­com­mo­da­tion of China in the In­ter­na­tional Mon­e­tary Fund, for ex­am­ple. Brics’ nascent norm-mak­ing around West­phalian sovereignty and eq­ui­tabil­ity in the in­ter­na­tional or­der has been a use­ful in­stru­ment for Bei­jing to fight the agenda-set­ting mo­nop­oly of At­lantic pow­ers. Above all, Brics has fur­thered the cause of a mul­ti­po­lar world—the lead­ing trope in re­cent Chi­nese for­eign pol­icy—more than any other in­sti­tu­tion that China has had stakes in.

West­ern an­a­lysts—when not dis­mis­sive of the group­ing as a glo­ri­fied talk shop with very little in­ter­nal co­her­ence—have har­boured a nag­ging sus­pi­cion that Brics seeks to pro­mote an il­lib­eral world or­der. A sav­ing grace for the group­ing in coun­ter­ing this per­cep­tion has been In­dia’s mem­ber­ship. Euro-at­lantic pow­ers re­al­ize that as a de-facto mem­ber of the po­lit­i­cal West, In­dia’s deep-seated pref­er­ence for the sta­tus quo, its close re­la­tion­ship with the US, and com­mit­ment to a lib­eral global or­der is what pre­vents Brics from be­com­ing an anti-west­ern coali­tion led by Rus­sian mus­cle and Chi­nese money.

Was Modi to boy­cott the Xi­a­men sum­mit, it would have been the end of Brics as we know it and re­duced the group­ing to a mot­ley of ex­pan­sion­ist pow­ers (Rus­sia and China) and peren­nial bas­ket cases (Brazil and South Africa). As Xi seeks to fash­ion him­self as the cham­pion of glob­al­iza­tion in the era of Don­ald Trump—wit­ness his Davos speech this Jan­uary—this would have been ter­ri­ble press. Be­yond the is­sue of op­tics: the Chi­nese have ag­gres­sively pushed for ex­pand­ing Brics to in­clude other up­com­ing economies in the run-up to the Xi­a­men sum­mit, per­haps as a way to in­ter­face a “Brics Plus” group­ing with Xi’s sig­na­ture Belt and Road Ini­tia­tive (BRI). Was Modi to skip the sum­mit, this propo­si­tion would have been dead on ar­rival.

If sev­eral news re­ports are to be trusted, New Delhi shrewdly cal­cu­lated this and ac­cord­ingly played the boy­cott card. What added po­tence to this threat was its cred­i­bil­ity: wit­ness how In­dia sat out the Belt and Road Ini­tia­tive mega-fo­rum ear­lier this year—the only ma­jor coun­try to do so. Bei­jing would have also been cog­nizant of how Saarc es­sen­tially col­lapsed when New Delhi re­fused to par­tic­i­pate in the an­nual sum­mit in Is­lam­abad last year.

At the end of the day, the sur­pris­ing thing is not that Delhi played this card. It is that Bei­jing could not fore­see this as a dis­tinct pos­si­bil­ity when it em­barked on a pro­longed stand-off with In­dia aided by its shrill state-con­trolled me­dia. De­spite China’s brag­gado­cio, through the stand­off in Dokalam, it has come across as a par­venu in the in­ter­na­tional sys­tem. It has failed to ab­sorb an el­e­men­tary in­sight that the very in­sti­tu­tions that have fa­cil­i­tated its promi­nence can be po­ten­tially used to con­strain its be­hav­iour and shape its choices.

Through the stand-off, China has come across as a par­venu in the in­ter­na­tional sys­tem

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