K.C. Singh | China playing puppeteer as Brics expands, G-20 looms

The Asian Age.  | K.C. Singh

Opinion, Columnists

Crucially, the group’s most important economies are China and India, bitter adversaries that rarely cooperate on anything: Jim O' Neill

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping. (DC flle photo)

The Brics summit in Johannesburg, held from August 22 to 24, was much less significant less for the speeches of its five leaders than for the admission of six new members. For India, the pull-aside meeting of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping also requires some examination. China was the keenest to expand the group in order to have a platform to counter Western groups like the G-7 and to project its global vision. Russia, with a growing strategic convergence with China, especially since it invaded Ukraine in February 2022, supported this objective.

Jim O’Neill, a British economist working with Goldman Sachs, in 2001 saw a greater global role for four emerging economies -- Brazil, China, India and Russia. In 2009, these four formed the “Bric”. A year later, South Africa joined, sponsored by China, and “S” was appended. But since 2020, the group has faced headwinds, mainly due to their domestic developments and global geopolitical factors. First came the Covid-19 pandemic, mishandled by Brazil under former President Jair Bolsonaro, and then the Chinese military intrusion in Ladakh, across the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in 2020, and finally the Russian attack on Ukraine in February 2022 affected the cohesion in the group. The Ukraine war has pitted the Western nations, led by the United States, against Russia, slyly supported by China. India has remained neutral, though benefiting from discounted Russian oil, helping in turn Russia dodge the Western sanctions. Brazil under President Luiz Ignacio Lula da Silva has tried to play peacemaker by engaging both sides. South Africa has endangered its trade deal with the United States due to allegedly trading clandestinely with Russia.

But as Jim O’Neill has recently opined: “Crucially, the group’s most important economies are China and India, bitter adversaries that rarely cooperate on anything.” Though hyperbolic, the assessment is fundamentally accurate. At the Johannesburg summit, attention was riveted on its impact on China’s keenness to expand the group. India and Brazil were firm in resisting the platform’s hijacking by China and Russia for their anti-US agenda.

Two events distracted from the summit’s proceedings. One, India’s successful moon landing on its unexplored southern pole. Two, the death of Russian militia head Yevgeny Prigozhin in a mysterious plane crash. His well-armed group had earlier rebelled and tried to march on Moscow. Inexplicably, Chinese President Xi Jinping did not turn up for a Brics Forum function, his speech being read out by Russia’s commerce minister.

These distractions aside, the leaders’ speeches reflected their pet ideas. President Xi Jinping arrived a day earlier on an official visit to South Africa. He was in Africa after a five-year gap. He proclaimed that China and Africa needed to work together to address the “changes and chaos” in the world. He asked Brics to “oppose decoupling and supply-chain disruption”, and counter “economic coercion”. He desired new members to be admitted to “pool our strength, pool our wisdom to make global governance more just and equitable”. That his pronouncements flatly contradicted the Chinese conduct in the South China Sea by unilateral usurpation of the maritime domain did not dampen his rhetoric.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi highlighted India’s achievements and offered to share them globally. His slogan of “One Earth, One Family, One Future” was tied to India’s efforts to reduce the digital divide in Africa, India’s vaccine diplomacy to help fight against the Covid-19 pandemic and India’s performance as “first responder” to help countries of the “Global South”. He advocated a multipolar world in which climate change and food security were addressed. He also demanded a seat for the African Union at the G-20.

Mr Modi also sought global institutional reform and a multipolar world. While all five agree on reform of Bretton Woods financial institutions like the World Bank and the IMF, China and Russia, both permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, are ambivalent if not opposed to the other three seeking its expansion and their permanent membership.

The limelight in Johannesburg was clearly stolen by the sudden offer of membership to Argentina, Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Though the criteria for membership was promised, the expansion was opaquely done. Egypt and the UAE had earlier invested in the Brics-sponsored New Development Bank and perhaps qualified on that basis. But more appositely, their proximity to the United States balanced the inclusion of Iran, sponsored by China and Russia, which the US and Israel eye with suspicion. Argentina had the backing of Brazil, its major trading partner in Latin America. Ethiopia

qualified perhaps as it hosts the African Union, though the most populous and energy-producing African nation is Nigeria.

The question arises whether this expansion would help Brics to more effectively address its core objective of voicing the angst of the Global South. Historically, once the Non-Aligned Movement had become too huge to steer, at its ninth summit in 1989 in Belgrade a 15-nation sub-group was constituted to negotiate on issues of trade, finance and development. Christened the G-15, it had five members each from Latin America, Africa and Asia.

Over time, it just melted away. At its Jamaica summit in 1999, that Atal Behari Vajpayee attended as India’s PM, there was much anti-American venting, especially by Malaysian PM Mahathir Mohammed. This writer, then the external affairs ministry’s spokesman, was questioned by the accompanying media on what was the Indian PM’s role amidst such toxic anti-West rhetoric. The answer given: to play the bridging role. Bigger and more diverse is therefore not necessarily more functional.

A controversy has sprung over the Chinese claims that the Indian side had sought Prime Minister Modi’s meeting with President Xi. India is understandably keen to restore normalcy at the LAC as indeed broader India-China relations. India had leverage in stymieing Brics’ expansion. Therefore, once the expansion was agreed to, it could be logically argued that India would have got assurances from China on restoring normalcy.

The key to that is the PLA’s pullback from Depsang Plains and Demchok. The controversy over how the meeting was scheduled does not augur well for what the Indian foreign secretary described as instructions to officials to resolve the outstanding LAC issues quickly.

The New Delhi G-20 summit on September 8-10, to which President Xi is invited, presents a deadline. In bilateral dispute resolution, the negotiating position of that side is weakened which betrays time-pressure due to any real or imagined deadline. China may be exploiting India’s keenness to have the G-20 summit succeed. India, therefore, has less than a fortnight to fix the loose diplomatic “brics”.