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India at the BRICS summit-Exercise of Strategic Autonomy in difficult circumstances

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By Kanwal Sibal
New Delhi, June 25: The June 23-24 BRICS summit sends many messages about how India is coping with the global changes that are taking place, at the center of which is the rise of China, the sharp deterioration of US-China ties, the building up of US-Russia confrontation even before the eruption of the Ukraine crisis, but which has now assumed the character of a proxy war by US-led NATO against Russia with consequences that have not been played out fully yet.

The sanctions imposed by the West and Japan on Russia have disrupted the global economy, caused a spike in oil prices, shortages of food and fertilisers, and fueled inflation, which have badly strained the economies of the developing countries, with a blowback on the western economies too. The situation in Afghanistan continues to be parlous. The hopes for progress on restoring the Iran nuclear deal are also being belied.

On top of it, India-China tensions on the border following China’s aggression in Ladakh have not been fully abated, with troops on both sides still massed and some “friction points’ still eluding a resolution.

India has made it clear that relations between the two countries cannot become normal if the situation on the border remains abnormal. India’s China challenge, that it shares with the US, Japan and Australia, has led to a visible strengthening of the Quad framework, with India now describing the Quad as a force for “global good”.

India has shown diplomatic dexterity so far in refusing to take sides in the Ukraine conflict despite US pressure and maintaining the channels of communication with China open despite China’s aggressive posture on the border. With the US treating both Russia and China as adversaries, India is adopting an approach towards all the three countries that best suits its national interest. Friendly ties with Russia have to be preserved and adversarial ties with China have to be managed independent of the US, with which ties have also to be expanded in mutual interest.

No partner country of ours should have a veto on our ties with a third country, just as we do not seek a veto, or can exercise one, on relations that the US, Russia or China choose to have with any country. Our participation in the BRICS summit reflects our desire to maintain our strategic autonomy even in difficult circumstances.

It increases our political, economic and security space. To be in a position to engage with all countries increases India’s value to all of them, as none can take it for granted. Of course, we have to make sure that in the context of the sharp deterioration of Russia’s and China’s ties with the US the BRICS platform does not become one for targeting US policies in general.

The joint statement issued on the occasion of the summit does that precisely. Its focus is on issues on which there is consensus, with each country also able to insert parts of its international agenda without becoming controversial. As is inevitable it contains high sounding platitudes and assertions that are not always borne out by reality.

That the BRICS spirit features mutual respect and understanding, equality, solidarity, openness, inclusiveness, and consensus, and that BRICS countries have strengthened mutual trust and closer people to people cooperation is not reflected on the ground. In India-China relations for example this is not the case, or as regards Russia, people to people cooperation have lagged. To say that despite the Covid-19 epidemic the BRICS countries have jointly enhanced peace and security also flies in the face of the fact that the Chinese aggression against India occurred when the epidemic was still raging in India.

Again, to claim a commitment to multilateralism through upholding international law and an international system in which sovereign states cooperate to maintain peace and security sounds ironical in view of China’s unwillingness to restore the status quo ante in Ladakh.

Seeking to make the instruments of global governance more inclusive and representative does not also square with China’s opposition to India’s permanent membership of the Security Council, on which the formulation that “China and Russia reiterated the importance they attach to the status and role of Brazil, India and South Africa in international affairs and supported their aspiration to play a greater role in the UN”, which besides its patronising tone dilutes Russia’s own position of fully supporting bilaterally India’s candidature.

The formulations in the Putin-Xi joint statement of February 4, 2022 in Beijing on the vision of the two countries on democracy and human rights have been obviously watered down in the BRICS version which nonetheless rightly speaks of the “necessity to promote, protect and fulfil human rights in a non-selective, non-politicised and constructive manner and without double standards”.

The need to respect democracy and human rights “on the level of global governance as well as at the national level”, can be construed as a reminder to the West. Interestingly, the pet Chinese formulation of building “a community of shared future for humanity” has been modified in the joint statement, no doubt at India’s instance, to “build a brighter shared future for the “international community” based not on “win-win” development but “on mutually beneficial cooperation”.

In the context of restoring the G7 to its core position on the management of the international financial system at the cost of the G 20 from which voices in the West have sought Russia’s expulsion, the BRICS countries have reiterated their support for “G20s leading role in global economic governance” and have underlined that it “shall remain intact”. The WTO members are called upon to avoid unilateral and protectionist measures and the top priority and urgency to launch the selection process of the Appellate Body membership to restore the two-tier multilateral dispute settlement mechanism, is a message addressed to the US. A call has been made for the timely completion of the 15th General Quota Review by December 15, 2023.

The joint statement dwells long on Covid related issues, with a recognition of the importance in the WTO on relevant IP waiver proposals, as well as capacity building especially in developing countries, but the language is not particularly emphatic.

On safeguarding peace and security, the BRICS countries commit themselves to “respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all states”, and skirts the sensitivities on the Ukraine situation by “recalling our national positions” expressed in the UNSC and UNGA. Talks between Russia and Ukraine are supported. Concerns about the humanitarian situation “in and around Ukraine” are expressed, as well as support for the efforts of the UNSG, UN Agencies and ICRC. All in all, a difficult issue has been dealt with smoothly.

On Afghanistan, India has been successful in inserting its concerns about Afghan territory not being used to “threaten or attack any country or to shelter or train terrorists, or to plan to finance terrorist acts” etc., which also meets Chinese and Russian concerns. A separate robust paragraph figures in the joint statement on terrorism, clearly at India’s instance, which includes a reference to cross border movement of terrorists and safe havens etc. has been included. India’s long-pending proposal for a UN Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism has been ritually supported. On disarmament issues the standard Russian concerns find a place in the joint statement as before. Many paragraphs are devoted to ICT-security issues, which are of importance to India in view of the rapid digitization of our economy.

Rather piquantly when India is seeking to attract supply chains away from China to India, the joint statement talks of BRICS Initiative on Enhancing Cooperation on Supply Chains and encourages cooperation among BRICS countries to enhance the interconnectivity of supply chains. The decision to establish the BRICS Think Tank Network for Finance is welcomed. There is agreement to oppose green trade barriers and insistence that all climate change, biodiversity measures must be designed and implemented in full conformity with WTO agreements.

The proposal for the institutionalising of the BRICS Civil Society Organisations Forum is simply acknowledged.

On the BRICS expansion process which China is pushing very actively no consensus could be reached, with the need stressed to clarify the guiding principles, standards, criteria and procedures through the channel of Sherpas. This will be a contentious issue. China wants the inclusion of Argentina, Egypt, Thailand, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, Senegal, and the UAE. India, Brazil and Russia for the present are reticent but it is expected that China will persevere. The objective behind this move is to assert China’s leadership in a group long dominated by Russia and erode Russia and India’s role.

(The content is being carried under an arrangement with indianarrative.com)

–indianarrative

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