THE VERY different media reactions to the fifth Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa (BRICS) summit in China and India underscore the continuing gap in their worldview. In India, the media barely noticed the summit — after all, it was taking place in Durban, South Africa, not in New Delhi, so what was the point? Needless to say, no Indian newspaper published the full text of the declaration put out at the end of the summit.
Nearly all of our media’s attention was focussed on the bilateral meeting that was to take place on its sidelines between Manmohan Singh and the new Chinese President Xi Jinping. Before the meeting, the only subject that interested the reporters was the possible repercussion of China’s project to build three dams on the Brahmaputra upon the supply of water to India and Bangladesh. After the meeting, the media took its cue from the external affairs ministry and highlighted Xi’s reiteration of his country’s desire to settle the border issue amicably.
The Chinese media’s coverage could not have been more different. First, the full English text was distributed not only by State-run news agency Xinhua, but published in full by the country’s largest circulated newspaper People’s Daily. In its commentary, it focussed squarely on BRICS’ potential to “develop into a global force able to tackle a range of political and economic issues”. This assessment was supported by almost a dozen reports on various aspects of the conference, all of which focussed on the economic challenges that the developing countries faced in a world where, patently, economic power was slipping out of the hands of the West. Xi’s meeting with Singh was reported only once. The report concentrated upon the need to resolve border issues speedily in the interests of developing greater longterm strategic cooperation. It did not even mention the dams on the Brahmaputra!
So is Xi a carbon copy of former president Hu Jintao as far as India is concerned? Not quite. A close look at his statements shows a significant difference. In his meeting with Singh in New Delhi last year, Hu had urged “both sides to push forward border talks in the spirit of peace, friendship, equal consultation, mutual respect and mutual understanding”. Xi has added one phrase to this: the two sides should do so “as early as possible”.
Some commentators have seen in his statement only a continuation of Hu’s five-point policy towards India. But in diplomacy, it is usually the things that are left unsaid that matter the most. On this occasion, however, Xi has broken this convention and given voice to China’s sense of urgency.
His reasons for doing so are clear: China wants India to participate actively in the creation of a new, post-Cold War, international order that is based upon respect for the sovereignty of, and equality between nations. Although India and China have very similar views on what this post-Westphalian international architecture should be, the unresolved border dispute between them has been a longstanding roadblock to active cooperation on international issues. Xi wants it removed.
A report in People’s Daily made clear with a commendable lack of ambiguity what Xi has in mind: “He also voiced the hope that 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”.
In other words, China would like India to avoid becoming a part of the military and diplomatic architecture that the West is designing to contain its rise in East Asia.
Behind this lies a subtle shift in China’s perception of India that New Delhi must no doubt be aware of. This is from distrustful peace to potential partnership. The source of the distrust is — and indeed always has been — India’s decision to give shelter to the Dalai Lama and the latitude it has subsequently given him to run what is, in all but name, a shadow government in Dharamsala. Therefore, Beijing has been using the border dispute as a pressure point to dissuade India from crossing a variety of red lines in this regard.
The shift that Xi has signalled is that China no longer suspects that India might have ulterior motives in Tibet. Therefore, China does not feel it necessary to keep the border dispute alive. Xi’s willingness to reassure Singh that the three dams on the Brahmaputra are run-of-the-river dams that will not impede the flow of water in the river also underlines this shift in perception, for had China continued to distrust India’s motives it would have regarded Singh’s raising of the Brahmaputra project as an unwarranted infringement of its sovereignty.
THE GREATER strategic cooperation that China seeks goes beyond staying out of western attempts to containment. An equally important goal, in which India can help, is the containment of western attempts to restructure the international order on the lines of a US-European empire. Paradoxically this endeavour, which should have ended with former US president Geroge W Bush, has gained a new lease on life during the tenure of President Barack Obama, and is now being pursued with a vast new array of military and economic weapons, ranging from drones, satellite-based intelligence and missile attacks on military facilities, to unilateral economic sanctions that are designed to strangle entire societies without any international legal sanction.
The threat that China and, for that matter Russia, perceive in this trend is obvious, so Xi’s keenness to resolve the border issue should not be hard to understand. Both countries know that in today’s highly interdependent world, the answer to a US-European alliance is not a counter-alliance that takes us back to the Cold War. It is the formation of a community that proposes an alternative global political architecture and has the means and the will to create it. BRICS can fit this bill.