If major summits are to be assessed by their tangible outcomes, it may be averred that at Goa, the texture and content of the bilaterals overwhelmed the more modest achievements of the BRICS summit.
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Given the domestic backdrop of the Uri terror attack and the Indian response, Prime Minister Narendra Modi focused consistently on the scourge of terrorism in a resolute manner. Without naming Pakistan, creative euphemisms were invoked including “mother-ship” and a “country that embraces and radiates the darkness of terrorism”.
While PM Modi exhorted his peers to join hands in dealing with terrorism, the final declaration was more general and predictable. The Indian preference for identifying state-sponsored terrorism and the perfidy of Pakistan did not find any mention. However, the declaration had a specific reference to the IS (Islamic State) and this could have been a Russian priority. Given the realpolitik compulsions which are at play among the three principal members of BRICS — Russia, India and China — semantic consensus on the issue of terrorism would perforce operate at the lowest common denominator and this was reflected in the final text.
China and its role in enabling Pakistan as a state sponsor of terrorism is the most complex strategic and security challenge for India. This is unlikely to change and no amount of haranguing in public is likely to bring about a change of Chinese policy. The strained tenor of the bilateral with Beijing could be discerned in Goa when President Xi Jinping dwelt on the need to find a “political solution” to “regional hotspots”. And the related reference to addressing “root causes” apropos terrorism resonates with the Pakistani formulation on Kashmir.
At Goa, the bilateral with Russia was far more positive and the Modi-Putin meeting saw a reiteration of the special relationship between Delhi and Moscow. However, the contour of the special relationship has been rearranged. Russia is alert to but not opposed to the India-USA partnership and expects that Delhi will accept the revival of Moscow’s engagement with Pakistan. The military emphasis in ties with Moscow came to the fore when India committed itself to acquiring over $11 billion worth of missiles, helicopters and warships. The fact that non-military India-Russia trade is below $10 billion is illustrative of the skewed nature of the relationship.
The less noticed but more significant bilateral that can provide valuable cues about sub-regional options is the Bangladesh-China summit meeting in Dhaka, which preceded the BRICS in Goa. President Xi visited Dhaka for a summit after 30 years. In the prevailing geo-economic dispensation and the imperatives of globalisation, China perceives Bangladesh as a viable partner in its own ambitious connectivity projects (one-belt one-road). Consequently, Xi’s visit has resulted in loans and aid worth over $20 billion to Bangladesh in keeping with the sizable fiscal support that Beijing has already promised Pakistan and Sri Lanka.
Can Chinese investment in major infrastructure projects like ports and roads enable tangible enhancement of regional connectivity in the Bay of Bengal? By extension, can India leverage this for its own economic agenda that includes the coastal states and the Indian North East ? This will call for a review by Delhi of its current China policy which is dominated by security-strategic issues that include the discomfiture with Beijing’s unswerving support to Pakistan, NSG membership et al. The reality that Delhi has to face is that India’s interlocutors — whether in BRICS or in SAARC — do not perceive China in a manner similar to India. Whether Delhi can engage with Beijing on trade and economic issues, while seeking to quarantine terrorism will be the litmus test for the political dexterity of the Modi-Xi combine and the future of the Asian century.