The meeting between President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the 9th BRICS Summit in Xiamen, China, is a welcome sign that the leaders of Asia’s two principal powers see the importance of building a durable security architecture for their increasingly fraught relationship. For weeks before the summit, the world was transfixed by the spectacle of troops of two nuclear-weapons states facing off on the Doklam plateau. The issue, however, is far wider than Doklam. Ever since the 2013 Daulat Beg Oldi crisis, tensions along the China-India frontier have become ever more frequent and intense — and taken longer to resolve. Leaders, though happy to harvest political capital from resurgent nationalism in both countries, know they cannot afford for these crisis to erupt into conflict. The hard work of giving content to high-level understanding, of course, begins now. The BRICS declaration on terrorism, naming the Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Muhammad along with China-focussed East Turkestan Islamic Movement and Central Asia-oriented Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, reiterates agreements arrived at during the Heart of Asia summit in 2016. It is, however, an acknowledgment of the fact that Asia’s powers, their differences aside, face common threats which can form the basis for a common understanding.
Both President Xi and Prime Minister Modi also know the stakes are high: Their countries’ border disputes distract from business of true global consequence, which is making their countries affluent. Even if commentators in their own countries have been too polite to call them out, world leaders are beginning to wonder if the bright, shiny clothes the BRICS economies promised to show off actually exist. India’s economic growth has slowed to painful levels; rising poverty levels and capital flight have hit Russia hard; experts fear China’s failure to tackle bad debt could trigger a serious crisis. Inside BRICS itself, there are serious differences of opinion, on everything ranging from tariffs to intellectual property rights, that member-states have been unable to resolve. Though the grouping has built some institutions, like the BRICS Bank, its members have been unable to agree on a real road-map for reforming the global economy.
Even on issues where BRICS members share common interests, like ensuring stability in West Asia, its members have been able to do little tangible to further their common interests. China and India have a great deal to gain from cooperation — and even more to lose if they allow their strategic aims to be derailed by ultimately petty feuds. President Xi and Prime Minister Modi both know this. To translate this knowledge into policy will be, perhaps, the most important test by which history will judge their leadership.