At BRICS 2016, Modi Missed an Opportunity for Eurasian Integration

Rather than focusing on Pakistan and issues with China, India would have done well to look towards matters of strategic importance, such as OBOR and the Eurasian Economic Union.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with BRICS leader Brazil President Michel Temer, South Africa President Jacob Zuma, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping pose for a group photo at the BRICS informal dinner in Benaulim, Goa on Saturday, October 15. Credit: PTI

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with (L-R) South African President Jacob Zuma, Chinese President Xi Jinping, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Brazilian President Michel Temer pose for a group photo at the BRICS informal dinner in Benaulim, Goa on Saturday, October 15. Credit: PTI

The recently concluded Goa BRICS summit has provided some important lessons in foreign policy that should be carefully evaluated by Indian policymakers. The final meeting and the series of events leading up to it were well managed. However, the real test is to assess concrete foreign policy gains made at the summit.

To a large extent, the BRICS summit was overshadowed by the 17th India-Russia summit that had concrete deliverables in terms of huge defence and energy deals. However, Russian statements made at the bilateral summit must not be confused with the multilateral outcomes. Both had a different history, different context and different expectations.

The BRICS summit had a huge agenda, which included strong sustainable growth, climate change, sustainable development goals, global governance, trade, investment and of course international terrorism. India focusing entirely on terrorism (read Pakistan) was a serious error in judgment. This has disappointed many Indians as the Goa declaration has not gone much beyond the Fortaleza and Ufa declarations on international terrorism. However, to expect any different outcome was a sign of immaturity.

The media also focused too much on the outcome of India-China bilateral meeting as if major bilateral issues like the China-Pakistan nexus and India’s membership in the Nuclear Suppliers Group could have been resolved in Goa. When this did not happen, China was portrayed as an adversary rather than a serious partner in the BRICS agenda.

Rather than emphasising these issues, the real focus should have been on China’s One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative. Except for India, most SAARC, BIMSTEC and Central Asian nations have a positive understanding about the OBOR. Thus far, New Delhi has shown reservations over the OBOR mainly because of China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. China, however, is keen to engage New Delhi as Indian involvement will make many infrastructure projects more economically viable. If China could invest $50 billion in Pakistan and $24 billion in Bangladesh, it can easily invest hundreds of billions in India, particularly when it has a more than $50 billion annual trade surplus with India.

At the India-Russia summit, Prime Minister Narendra Modi argued for “fast tracking India’s association with Eurasian Economic Union (EEU)”. But we must not forget that Moscow and Beijing have also agreed to create linkages between the EEU and the OBOR. Similarly, the joint statement also discussed the ‘Energy Bridge’ and ‘hydrocarbon energy pipeline’ between India and Russia. This pipeline can possibly take only two routes – it can come either via China or the Central Asia-Afghanistan-Pakistan route. Since these large projects involve Russia, China and India – the principle BRICS members – the Goa meeting was an excellent platform to discuss these possibilities. Since these activities are closer to the Russian and Chinese pet projects, one expected a more positive outcomes. On its part, India could propose linkages between the International North South Trade Corridor, being built primarily by Russia, India and Iran, and OBOR project. In this context, the Chabahar and Gwadar ports could become complementary rather than competing ports. Iran would be happy to further facilitate these linkages.

Perhaps it was because of Pakistan that India did not invite other SAARC members to the BRICS summit. However, India and Pakistan will soon be participating in many meetings as new members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). If our understanding of Beijing was so negative, then it is difficult to understand why we applied for a membership in the China-dominated SCO.

There are also some arguments that in the changing geopolitical realities, groupings like BRICS and SCO do not serve Indian objectives. Further, to neutralise the economic asymmetry with China, India must forge stronger ties with other powers (read the US). This kind of simplistic understanding, however, may not fully capture thet evolving Asian economic and security architectures in which both China and India are bound to contribute significantly.

Gulshan Sachdeva is professor at the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University.