In the wake of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa (BRICS) summit and the Doklam controversy, it seems as though the real champion in South Asia is Beijing.
Even though Indian political leaders preen themselves on winning a public endorsement from China because of its stance on regional security and problematic border issues, China has the upper-hand in the region.
China will set diplomatic pace in South Asia and other countries including India – India, in turn, can only function in a reactive mode. They will be reduced to either applauding China or castigating it when the situation demands – depending entirely on how Chinese manoeuvres affect India's interest.
Also Read- Why China did not fight India at Doklam trijunction
As tensions built up over Doklam and then dissolved, the nationalistic Indian media reflected the mixed public opinion – filled with anger and elation in equal proportions. First, the Indian troop withdrew in the Himalayas, then came the joint BRICS declaration where China targeted Pakistan-based terror groups. In contrast, the response and behaviour of India’s foreign policy mandarins was far sober and cautious.
Ex-diplomat MK Bhadrakumar, who found India’s post-BRICS jubilation tragicomic, pointed out that there were good reasons for India pulling out its troops from Doklam, while China made no mention of any such move from their end. In response to India’s massing of troops and equipment, the Chinese too had not only made similar arrangements, they were even on the point of installing two advanced missiles targeting India – to effectively forestall any air action from them. Delhi, already red faced over the lowest quarterly GDP growth, well below 6% after the much-publicised demonetisation, felt this was not the best time to go broke – up against China.
India still ended up winning a stronger endorsement from China for its position on both issues (Doklam and regional security) which is more than what India had ever hoped for. But if the reaction in New Delhi was one of pleasant surprise, it was full of confusion and bewilderment in Pakistan. Now, here is the rub, the Chinese were quite confused too!
An Indian analyst said that the BRICS announcement on the challenge posed by regional terror outfits would lead to tensions between Beijing and Islamabad. Meanwhile, another foreign analyst was more blunt on the matter, and suggested that China had just thrown India “a bone to chew on” through condemning Pakistan at the BRICS summit. Perhaps the intention was to provide Delhi with something to save its face, after the Chinese made sure that it had not compromised any of its basic objectives in the Himalayas – no promise was made that road construction would not be continued, or that the Chinese troops would be pulled back.
Also Read- Modi, Xi agree Doklam-like row must not recur
A Chinese expert and academic, confessed his surprise over the BRICS declaration. Referring to China calling out “Pakistan-backed terror groups,” he said: “It seems like an odd decision.”
“It seems the policies of the inscrutable Chinese sometimes prove too complex even for the Chinese themselves,” a Kolkata-based analyst said.
“Since no detailed official explanation has been offered by the Chinese Foreign Ministry mandarins or in their official media, the only plausible conclusion is that Xi Jinping had good reasons to lay stress on regional harmony – even if it was only done to maintain the effective functioning of the BRICS grouping, where China remains the unquestioned leader. For this, it was necessary for him not to upset the other big elephant in the hall, India. Now he can face the coming Congress of the Chinese Communist party in a more self assured manner,” he added.
Most Delhi-based analysts had initially waxed eloquent remarks on how India “stared down China” after two months of a tense military deadlock at Doklam trijunction, an area of special strategic importance. It appeared that the Chinese move to postpone its road building project was a sweet success, while the BRICS declaration provided naming the ultimate icing on the cake. Their attitudes changed when more details were revealed later and the euphoria vanished.
For the record, the organisations that were called out much to Pakistan’s obvious chagrin and discomfort are the Jaish-e-Mohammad(JEM), the Laskar-e-Toiba(LET) and the Haqqani Network (HN).
However, wiser after the 1962 fiasco, sections within the Indian political/administrative establishment sounded a note of caution. The Army Chief Bipin Rawat feared that the situation where India could well face separate enemies “at two fronts” had not changed. The possibility of a relapse from China reverting to its earlier aggressive stance at Doklam could very well recur.
One media analyst noted that despite the apparent concessions made by China to India, Indian business circles had now become wary, worried especially over China’s aggressive rhetoric over Doklam. China was not really a friend of India, they felt. Some companies which had been actively exploring collaborations and other forms of engagement with their Chinese counterparts, were now re-examining their options.
The sharpest reaction on the matter, as expected, came from Pakistan. Foreign Affairs Minister Khawaja Asif minced no words in pulling up his leaders for not having delivered on promises to curb effectively the activities of terror groups, which had lowered the country’s international credibility and marred its image. Unless Pakistan really dealt effectively with the challenge posed by the terrorist organisations (non state actors, in Pakistani official parlance), it would continue to face diplomatic embarrassment and isolation, he warned.
Khawaja’s words were a total contrast of what one of his ministerial colleagues said. Rejecting the BRICS declaration, Minister K Dastgir said Pakistan had been striving to combat the forces of terror on its soil and had paid a high price already.
However, Pakistan’s most influential newspaper Dawn in a stinging editorial, did not endorse Dastgir’s stand. It noted that the BRICS declaration could not be casually ignored. “Pakistan’s domestic fight against militancy must be made smarter, harder and more purposeful,” it said.
The paper also attacked what it felt was Pakistan’s perfunctory approach towards eliminating “militancy” (the edit avoids the use of “terror” and “terrorism,” indicative of the domestic compulsions that even influential sections of Pakistani media must deal with). Such groups were often banned but there were no follow-up actions taken by the authorities to permanently close their offices or put an end to their activities. The (Pak) Government must take stronger action against the banned groups and put its own house in order.
While Indian observers felt that voices like that of the Dawn newspaper were welcome, it did not seem likely that in the context of past experiences, there would be major changes or a policy shift in Pakistan.
Western analyst Michael Kugelman, too, felt that nothing much would change and as for the BRICS declaration, it would be forgotten soon.