Less than three weeks before a summit between BRICS powers — Brazil, Russian, India, China and South Africa — the two Asian members of the group are trying to close ranks and resolve their differences.
Yang Jiechi, the Chinese foreign minister, met with his Indian counterpart SM Krishna on March 2 in New Delhi, in a clear bid to reduce tensions between the two countries ahead of the March 28-29 summit.
India will host the BRICS summit for the first time since the bloc’s original meeting in the Russian city of Yekaterinburg in 2009 during the global financial crisis. The fourth summit will focus on managing the still-festering global economic downturn. And each of the participating states will be keen for a successful summit.
On the agenda for the emerging countries is a renewed pitch for reforming the global governance architecture. On the sidelines of a G20 meeting of finance ministers in Mexico City on February 26, BRICS finance ministers agreed to set up a multilateral bank that would be funded exclusively by the five countries, with a view to finance development projects in their states.
Emerging countries complain that the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, which are always led by an American and a European respectively, neglect some of the needs and perspectives of developing and emerging economies. A BRICS bank would fill the gap, the finance ministers said.
The BRICS economies long ago outweighed the US and Europe. The World Bank said in 2011 that the BRICS accounted for 53% of global GDP growth between 2007 and 2010, at a tune of of US$7.2 trillion. US growth during this period, at US$592 billion, was a sixth of the BRICS GDP growth of $3.8 trillion.
In a March 2 meeting with Manmohan Singh, the Indian prime minister, Chinese foreign minister Yang said that the BRICS summit should send a signal of ‘win-win’ cooperation and unity among its members, especially China and India, who will work for world economic growth and their people’s well-being.
He further stated that China is ready to support India to ensure the success of the BRICS summit and would like to use this opportunity to “further enhance coordination and cooperation with India on international and regional affairs and promote regional and global peace and prosperity”.
Clearly, both sides made the right noises during the two-day bilateral meeting. Experts believe that many small steps are needed to address a range of seemingly intractable differences between the two powers.
To this end, India and China — who are not only regional rivals but nuclear-armed neighbours — agreed at the March 2 meeting to hold a dialogue on maritime cooperation, including joint operations against pirates and sharing seabed research technology.
The agreement follows sharp exchanges in October last year, after India’s state-owned oil company Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC) announced plans to explore for resources near Vietnam, in the disputed South China Sea. China claims exclusive territorial rights over the those waters and sees any exploration by other powers as an encroachment on China’s sphere of action.
For its part, India has raised similar concerns. In November, the China Ocean Mineral Resources Research and Development Association acquired exclusive rights to explore 10,000 square kilometres of seabed in the southwest Indian Ocean, near the coast of Africa — far from China. India’s Directorate of Naval Intelligence feels that a Chinese firm in the Indian Ocean could have strategic security implications.
The maritime cooperation proposal was an attempt at a new start for the two countries. But it is not just on the high seas that China and India disagree over territory.
The mountaineous Sino-Indian border is perhaps the single biggest stumbling block to improving bilateral relations. A recent visit by AK Antony, India’s defence minister, to the northeastern Indian border state of Arunachal Pradesh, provoked a chilling message from Beijing to not “complicate” matters. China lays claim over the state by describing it as a part of south Tibet.
The visit included an aerial demonstration of India’s top-of-the-line fighter jets, the Russian-made Sukhoi-30s, which were stationed just outside Arunachal Pradesh last year to counter the Chinese threat.
Responding in equal measure, Antony called China’s comments “most unfortunate” and “really objectionable”.
India not only rejects China’s claim on Arunachal Pradesh but also challenges China’s occupation of a vast stretch of snow-covered plateau in the Kashmir region. India’s army has deployed roughly 36,000 additional troops near Arunachal Pradesh and plans to raise two more mountain divisions, while its air force has been upgrading landing strips throughout the Himalayas.
Though a full-blown war between India and China is unforeseeable, a small border skirmish cannot be ruled out unless the two sides arrest the slide in relations.
A start in that direction was made when, at the March 1 meeting in New Delhi, the foreign ministers announced the new “Working Mechanism for
Consultation and Coordination on India-China Border Affairs”, with an initial meeting scheduled for the middle of March in Beijing.
But resolving border disputes will inevitably require the two countries to deal with their problems over Tibet. Yang and Krisha, during their meeting, discussed the ever-present possibility that Tibetan protestors — a source of anxiety for the Chinese — could steal the BRICS summit limelight by staging a demonstation in New Delhi.
And as if on cue, 14 Tibetan exiles materialised outside the venue where the foreign ministers were meeting, protesting what they called China’s “occupation” of the Himalayan nation. Yang, the Chinese foreign minister, can only expect more of the same for the upcoming BRICS summit.
Holding Tibetan flags, the activists, including women, were draped in green and yellow ‘Free Tibet’ jackets and held placards condemning China. They also shouted the demand, “No border talks without a free Tibet”, in reference to longstanding border disputes between the two countries.
India, for its part, reiterated its commitment to promoting a vibrant society that embraces freedom of expression while expressing disapproval of demonstrations against foreign dignitaries — a balancing act between espousing its own principles and cultivating better relations with the Chinese.
India’s continued cordial relations with Tibet’s exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, and the presence of the Tibetan ‘government-in-exile’ in the north Indian state of Himachal Pradesh, are two of India’s main irritants for China.
China cancelled high-level border talks late last year after India declined to withdraw permission for an international Buddhist conference planned around the same time. The Dalai Lama is also the world’s leading Buddhist figure.
Maritime cooperation is well and good. A new round of border talks is encouraging. But India and China will want to ensure that their wider interests are ensured ahead of the BRICS summit. By squaring away some of their differences, the summit has less chance of being derailed by squabbles in what is arguably the most important bilateral relationship in the bloc. Longstanding disputes give them each plenty of chances to stumble so they must tread carefully.