Low-key outcome as Singh meets Xi on BRICS sidelines

April 1, 2013

(The views expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not represent those of Reuters)

The BRICS summit in Durban last week, which brought the leaders of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa together, is best recalled for the rich visual imagery that Russian President Vladimir Putin invoked. Putin suggested that the five countries were like the lion, elephant, buffalo, leopard and rhinoceros. Notwithstanding the normative vision for the developing world that was outlined by the leaders, the subtext is a logical extension of this animal metaphor.

The BRICS as a collective have inherent divergences and contradictions that outweigh their shared interests and hence the suggestion that these five disparate ‘animals’ could either harmoniously graze or fruitfully hunt together is a politico-strategic oxymoron. However, it may be averred that the BRICS contains within it an important bilateral strand that can shape the contours of the uneasy Asian and by extension global strategic environment of the next two decades: the relationship between Beijing and New Delhi.

It was significant that Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, a summit veteran, met with new Chinese President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the Durban summit. The outcome of this first meeting was low-key with both leaders reiterating familiar positions and on occasion echoing each other.

Despite their complex and unresolved territorial and border dispute that saw the two countries engaging in  a brief war in October 1962 where India was ‘taught a lesson’, the two sides have maintained peace and tranquility since the early 1990s on the yet to be demarcated line of actual control. Strategic restraint has not been devoid of tactical provocation and issues such as stapled visas and troop intrusions periodically hit the media and cyberspace with visible nationalistic fervour.

After his interaction with Xi, Singh said: “It was our first meeting and both of us agreed that we would continue to maintain the strong tradition of frequent high-level exchanges between our two countries to further strengthen our relationship. We also agreed that high level visits will be exchanged this year between India and China. I look forward to the opportunity of an early meeting with the new Prime Minister of China as well.”

On his part, Xi noted that “the world needs the common development of China and India and can provide sufficient room for the two neighbors’ development.”

This formulation that the world can accommodate the rise of both India and China was initially made by Singh during his first tenure as prime minister and endorsed by then Chinese premier Wen Jiabao. Thus, it was reassuring for both Asian giants to reiterate their commitment to this shared conviction.

Chinese media reported the outcome of the Xi – Singh meeting and two areas warrant notice.

On the border issue, Xi said China and India should improve and make good use of the mechanism of special representatives to strive for a fair, rational solution framework acceptable to both sides as soon as possible. He added that the two sides should continue to safeguard peace in their border areas and prevent the issue from affecting bilateral relations.

Both nations have followed this axiom – of not letting the border issue constrain economic relations. India has significantly increased its bilateral trade with China over the last decade and is now looking at $100 billion as an annual target.

India reiterated its assurance regarding Tibet, a source of deep anxiety for Beijing, and this was invariably reported faithfully in all Chinese media reports. From the Indian side, assurances were sought regarding Chinese projects on rivers the two nations shared and that Indian lower riparian interests would not be adversely affected. Moving towards a joint overseeing mechanism would be a useful confidence building measure and hopefully this will be pursued.

One phrase that always finds mention in official Chinese articulation is “core interest” and Xi Jinping hoped “the two countries would respect each other’s core interests and major concerns, deepen mutual strategic trust, strengthen coordination and cooperation on international affairs, and safeguard peace and stability in the region and the world at large.”

This may be the most complex formulation to realise as far as India is concerned. The tangible indicators of national economic, technological and military indicators are currently stacked in China’s favour. India has accepted the status quo of being the subaltern Asian giant and is focused on improving the socio-economic conditions of its impoverished millions.

While New Delhi is ready to assuage Beijing’s concerns about the Chinese core interest, be it Tibet or the relationship with the United States, the converse is not as forthcoming or sincere.

One of India’s major concerns is the nature of the deep and opaque China-Pakistan nuclear and missile cooperation. This strategic cooperation that has no precedent in recent history will remain a major constraint in India-China bilateral ties and its resolution or lack thereof can either make or stall the Asian century, harmonious development and related rise of  both China and India.

The next meeting between Xi and Singh should address this issue in a constructively candid manner.

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