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BRICS: Building Bridges or Widening Barriers?- Interview with Cmde. R. S. Vasan IN (Retd.)

Updated: Feb 21, 2023

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Article No. 67/2018

Cmde. R. S. Vasan IN (Retd.), Director, Chennai Centre for China Studies (C3S), represented C3S at a Roundtable Meeting ‘BRICS Building Bridge’, which was jointly organized by BRICS Generation and the Indo Russian Chamber of Commerce Chennai, at the Russian Centre of Science and Culture, Chennai, on December 3 2018. Cmde. Vasan provided perspectives at the event, on the economic and strategic dimensions related to the future outlook of BRICS. The following are his responses to questions posed subsequent to the event.

Q1. Isn’t India walking a tight rope? On one hand, it has border issues with China, deepening ties with Japan and USA and is being seen as the counter-weight to Chinese influence in South-east Asia, while on the other hand there is the Wuhan summit, BRICS and other such collaborations with China. In the face of rising hostility between the US and China, what do you think would happen to Indian diplomacy in the near future?

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India does not have much of an option except to continue to walk a tight rope as it strives to carve a place for itself in the comity of nations. It is due to the unsettling nature of China’s intent and actions that India has to create enough leverage by dealing with Beijing and also dealing with China’s friends and adversaries. It is here that our policy of strategic autonomy will hold the key. India will continue to cooperate with U.S.A and Japan but will not join any military misadventure in the South China Sea (SCS). India will endorse the call for respecting the concept of freedom of navigation and overflight in SCS, but will not militarily join U.S.A. India has also made it clear that China’s rejection of the award by the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in The Hague is not in consonance with norms of responsible behaviour of an aspiring superpower.  The world has noted that in a similar case where a major portion of the disputed Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) was awarded to Bangladesh, India accepted the decision. India, therefore, is now respected as a law-abiding nation that respects international institutions and verdicts of international tribunals.

The Wuhan Summit was important for both India and China to try and manage differences post Doklam, which brought out many lessons on both sides. Not that China will concede ground, but it has paved the way for a certain degree of Confidence Building Measures (CBMs). But the CBM itself has been held hostage to the long-standing border dispute. It behoves both nations to work towards early settlement of these outstanding disputes.

Economically, China is under pressure from the Trump administration with the ongoing trade warfare though the G-20 Summit offered some respite for about three months since both sides have called a temporary truce.China coming under pressure from U.S.A, perhaps opens up some doors for bringing down our own trade deficits. It is an opportunity for India which is also disadvantaged by its own trade deficit, as far as the trade war is concerned. Organizations such as BRICS, despite some reservations by analysts, holds promise in such situations by providing different platforms from which to engage.

Since it is given that neighbours cannot be chosen, India and China have to engage each other using all forums to resolve outstanding disputes and come to a working mode that helps both nations. This has become difficult as China has not supported the legitimate request of India to join the Nuclear Suppliers Group, has not endorsed the call for declaring Masood Azhar’s outfit a terrorist organization despite all other nations agreeing to this prescription of the mastermind of terror attacks in India. China has also indicated a reluctance to support India’s membership in the United Nations Security Council. Of course, the trade deficit disadvantageous to India cannot be ignored.

As for South-East Asia, there is a natural desire amongst the grouping’s nations to balance their relations with the two Asian powers, India and China. India’s Act East policy is all about enhancing the range and scope of engagement based on historical and cultural relations. Even members of the ASEAN are keen to expand engagement with India to ensure that they do not end up with all their eggs in one basket. India will need to play a benign role based on its soft power and also play to its strength in engaging with the economies to its east.

Q2. While BRICS does provide an alternative viewpoint to the unilateralism of the U.S and the West, doesn’t such a powerful collaboration also create a higher possibility of further hostility and conflict between the west and these 5 member nations?

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The focus of such a grouping is to enhance trade, commerce, connectivity and bring greater prosperity to the people of this block who constitute more than 40 per cent of the global population. The location of these power hubs in Asia, South America and Africa serves the purpose of engaging with their respective neighbours and collectively providing the best options for countries in the region. The New Development Bank (NDB) was conceived with this very purpose of providing funding for Least Developed Countries (LDC’s) across continents who need funds for infrastructure and development. BRICS collectively can facilitate this process of development and progress without getting entangled in political-security complications. For countries who have not been fully successful in obtaining loans from International Monetary Fund (IMF) for whatever reasons, the combined pooled money at NDB of $ USD 100 billion comes to their rescue. The competitive nature of such investments and funding from the NDB will also influence the ways in which IMF conducts its business.

The BRICS Summit Declaration of 2018 carefully endorsed the role of UN and also advocated conflict resolution in consonance with UN charter. So whether it is Middle East and North Africa (MENA), be it Palestine or Syria or Africa, the summit declarations have ensured that they do not infringe on the charter of global institutions. Yet, any possible action by a group, namely BRICS, that has two Veto empowered nations makes it a force to reckon with. There were glimpses of this grouping coming to the fore during the UN resolution 1973, with respect to action against Libya. So there could be some security overtones in the way this group may respond to global situations.

Q3. While all the 5 BRICS nations are large in terms of resources, land mass and populace, does the singular dominant power of an aggressive China make this organization unilateral slightly unilateral in nature?

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China remains the elephant in the room. Though the major share for the NDB reserves has come from China, the NBD’s decisions are governed by the norms of financial institutions and there would be a consensus in the way funding issues would be addressed. China has realized that its aggressive funding along the Maritime Silk Road (MSR) has not been entirely successful as the destination countries along the MSR are realizing that it is a “Win-Win” only for the Chinese companies as they not only bring in the capital, but also bring their own men, material and expertise which does not allow the local population to derive employment benefits as the profits continue to go back to China. Hambantota in Sri Lanka has served as a cautionary example of how a small nation can be subjugated and strangled by such huge investment loans that cannot be paid back or even serviced. In the case of Sri Lanka, the inability to pay back the loans resulted in handing over of the port for a period of 99 years. So while China is economically a leader, in terms of its practices it has not endeared itself to countries in Asia and Africa. Within India, it does remind us of the East India Company which came in through the trade routes but subjugated India to colonial rule. The smaller countries are now cautious in dealing with China which is now using its economy as a political and strategic tool. This provides an opportunity for other countries to step in with benign funding at lower interest rates and better repayment terms. The Asia Africa Growth Corridor (AAGC) is one such initiative that has allowed India and Japan to pool money and resources to provide benign alternatives to MSR.

India which has a declared policy of Neighborhood First, has to work at many levels to ensure that China’s poaching in India’s traditional spheres of engagement and influence is not allowed. The case of Maldives is a classic example of how India lost out on a proven long-term friend in Maldives. The fact that the internal process in Maldives has brought back the relations on even keel is a good sign. But India will have to be proactive now in its neighbourhood to see that its long-term interests are protected. SAGAR (Security and Growth for All in the Region) and various connectivity projects should serve the immediate and long-term needs of engaging with neighbours and contributing to their growth.

Q4. Won’t highly pressing sectors such as environmental conservation and people-to-people exchanges be overshadowed by the traditionally dominant sectors such as security and economics in BRICS? Does BRICS avoid this?

BRICS’ Investment Towards Renewables Targets 2015

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With the pulling out of USA from the climate change dialogue, the onus on sustaining the momentum falls on the members of BRICS who can contribute to this cause and work together. Here there are no differences and there is a desire to work on environmental conservation and also to promote people to people contact. However,  the people to people exchange has really not taken off as desired due to various reasons including geography and language barriers.  If BRICS has to succeed in its ambitions, it can not be done unless there are people to people exchanges.

The BRICS Summit Declaration of 2018 has many references to security dimensions, but none of them is in the context of traditional security. The emphasis is on the context of human security, energy security, food security and the like. The fact that BRICS is not a military alliance like NATO holds the key to keeping hostility at bay from other blocks.

On the economic front, as highlighted earlier, the BRICS block of nations has its own strengths and weaknesses. The challenge is to bring out the best from each nation to collectively complement the need of nations across continents and to lead them to prosperity and progress. The dynamics of traditional security challenges would be driven by local conditions and processes that are already in motion. So whether it is Africa or Asia, the proven ways of using dialogue and not resorting to the use of force to resolve outstanding issues have been endorsed by the members. The repeated references to the role of United Nations and using the resolutions and charters in the Summit Declaration of July 2018 makes it very clear that the bloc does not have security agenda, like that of NATO. At times, BRICS has been compared to the European Union (E.U) despite the geographic locations of the five members. The E.U has carried out a SWOT analysis of BRICS to establish if it would be a viable competitor purely on economic terms and whether such increased economic clout would result in strategic military influences in the future.

(The views expressed in this article are of the author and do not reflect those of C3S.)

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