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Asymmetrical BRICS?

The Third Brazil-Russia-India-China-South Africa (BRICS) Summit was held last week at Sanya of Hainan Island in China. India was expecting to get a big support from all other four member countries of the BRICS on key issues, but it seems that despite the high level talks including the lengthy summit level meeting with President Hu Jintao of the People’s Republic of China(PRC), we did not get much success.

One of the reasons of not achieving any major breakthrough during this summit was the asymmetry and heterogeneity of the five member nations. All the five nations have different aspirations and are economically, demographically and politically quite different in nature. While India is the biggest democracy in the world, China is the biggest autocracy; while China is the most populous country in the world; South African population is not even bigger than one of the average provinces of India or China; while India and China are major consumers of energy, Russia, Brazil and South Africa are incidentally on the other side of the table—major exporters of energy and lastly while Russia and China have been enjoying the membership of the coveted permanent UN Security Council since its inception, India, the largest democracy in the world, seems to have a long path to tread. Support from even other BRICS countries to India in this regard has not been forthcoming out-righ and that may have been because of the pressure from China, which wanted India to only “plays a bigger role in the UN while remaining eschewed from a permanent Chair”. Thus, despite India’s seeking Beijing’s support to its candidature for the UN role during the fifty minutes long Manmohan Singh-Hu Jintao meeting, there was not an iota of change from the Chinese side on this issue. The Sanya Declaration did not reflect justification to India’s case in clear terms.

Indian economy is pegged to grow in double-digit figures and might surpass Chinese economy in decades to come. Chinese want to play a much bigger role at the world stage and they are not interested in any other Asian countries, be it India or Japan, to have the same kind of power at the UN, which it blissfully enjoys. Of course, there are other reasons too. Sino-Japanese hostility is known to all of us. The Chinese common people and those who are in power there feel that India has illegitimately occupied major chunk of ‘their’ territory; and that as long as India does not relent from its position on the border issue, China is not going to offer the olive branch to India. If one reads any blog or opinion piece on India-China relations on the Chinese web sites, it can be seen that the common netizens because of ‘their mental brain-wash by the communist leadership’ deluge the comment box with plethora of writings on India, full of wishful thinking, hatred and abuse.

Chinese media is also very carefully watching reports appearing in the Indian press. Any article in the latter which suits to Chinese interests is immediately translated and published on the web-sites in the PRC and if Indian netizens talk about the ‘failure or corruption of their leaders’, even readers’ comments which cater to Chinese taste are immediately translated and published on China’s major blogs for further discussions and analysis.

During Manmohan-Hu talks, except for some progress on military co-operation and border management mechanism, the two sides achieved nothing concrete. Notably, India could not get any proper assurance from China on the ‘issue of stapled visas’. How long China wants to test our patience and why the Indian leadership cannot become stricter and adamant in their approach? If China wants to play Kashmir card, we have Tibet and Taiwan cards to play and we need to tell the Chinese leadership in very clear terms that any bonhomie with Pakistan on Kashmir issue will not be tolerated any more. Without adding any pressure and by relenting on military and border co-operation, India appears to have given the signal that it is prepared to close its eyes on two Chinese positions – proximity with Pakistan and support to Pakistan Occupied Kashmir. The Chinese communist leaders seem to give these positions more importance than what they do in the cases of improving Sino-Indian bilateral relations and resolving the major issues of common concern to the two sides.

Manmohan Singh was also unable to get any positive response from Chinese leadership on the huge and growing trade deficit between the two countries which is expanding year on year basis and has almost touched US$ 25 billion mark. The Chinese know how to do business with India and other countries; they understand well that in a democratic nation like India, the government does not control much the policies of corporate conglomerates (Which being the case in China) and that they can continue trading with Indian companies without intervention from the Indian central government and leadership.

The asymmetrical bricks in the wall of BRICS, Russia and India differ with China in the matter of security perceptions. Beijing has settled its major boundary issue with Moscow, but the former seems to be putting off the territorial problem with India on the backburner. India, Brazil and China also do not share a common view on liberalization and trade of agricultural products.

The entry of South Africa into the brand new block of the BRICS, would not have been possible without backing from China, which aims at protecting its business and diplomatic interests in Africa. Sino-African trade has crossed more than US$130 billion last year; however 90% of Chinese imports from African nations involve raw and primary material and 68% of African exports to China relate to oil and energy. Although Africa does not have a major problem of ‘trade imbalance’ with China, it certainly has ‘trade imbalance of substance and component of commodities’ with the latter. The PRC not only gets a large amount of raw material for its consumption but it is also hugely involved and engrossed in several business dealings with African nations. It also gets diplomatic support from African countries on major international issues and by inviting South Africa to BRICS, China may have wished to extend a symbolic sympathy to other African nations, otherwise apparently there appeared to be no need for Beijing to invite South Africa to an already heterogeneous group. Compared to other four countries whose economies are more than US$1.5 trillion each, the South African economy is quite small at less than US$ 400 billion. The Chinese economy has reached more than US$ 5 trillion mark.

The African National Congress (ANC) Youth League President Julius Malema has openly accused China of using South Africa to extract Africa’s wealth of mineral resources without offering anything in return and raised questions on the validity and utility of South African entry to the embittered BRICS. He has said, “People use us to get into Africa, take mineral resources raw as they are and leave South Africa or Africa. The Chinese are number one in doing that.” Malema further put the blame on China, saying, “We are literally not getting anything out of Chinese involvement. At least the colonisers utilised our people, although the working conditions were not better – but these ones, they don’t give you even labour, they just open up a Chinese town on their arrival.” Such criticisms notwithstanding, the South African leaders seem to realise that BRICS is not only about China and that talking business at the same platform with emerging economies like India, Brazil and Russia will certainly lift their country’s business and trade ambitions.

A need has arisen for all the BRICS nations to work together despite the group’s asymmetry and heterogeneity; they should not only care for their own sole ‘interests’ but also think about how to develope collectively. Only reaching a consensus among them on global issues like “Climate Change” may not be enough. The BRICS should go further and ensure real progress in promoting cooperation among the five countries in key areas like combating terrorism and energy development. The atmosphere created by the formation of BRICS  may also be conducive to solving  even India-China bilateral issues like New Delhi’s permanent membership in the UN Security Council and  China’s  position on  the issues of Kashmir and ‘stapled visas’.

(The writer Dr. Yukteshwar Kumar is Course Director of Chinese Stream at University of Bath, United Kingdom. e-mail:

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