India’s massive BRICS-BIMSTEC Diplomatic Outreach

The massive diplomatic blitzkrieg at Goa should indeed find a special place in annals of Indian foreign policy for the audaciously bringing out a collaborative commitment on fighting terrorism. Donning the chairmanship of BRICS, India hosted the leaders at Goa on Oct 15th-16th and deftly utilized the platform to expand cooperation with regional partners by extending invitation to BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation) members. Having firmed up relations with the West through the Link West Policy, Prime Minister Modi during the current strategic diplomatic engagement strengthened the neighborhood first to its east and act east policy by reaching out to BIMSTEC partners. One of the corner stones of Modi’s foreign policy program has been his keen interest in engaging with Bay of Bengal littoral states. With the eventual collapse of SAARC regional engagement owing to Pakistan’s intransigence, India began to explore new vistas for regional cooperation. The lacunae created by absence of cooperation among SAARC nations, propelled leaders in the South Asian region to promote alternative forum to strengthen regionalism. The viable alternative format, BIMSTEC was the immediate choice. BIMSTEC created two decades ago with a mission of integrating two Regions-South Asia (Bhutan, Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Sri Lanka) and South East Asia (Thailand and Myanmar) remained incapacitated due to lack of steering leadership initiative. With China making inroads into various South Asian countries for gaining access to Bay of Bengal and Indian Ocean, the idea of sub regional cooperation began to gain more momentum. Regional cooperation with Bay of Bengal as a vehicle has been on the top of mind for NDA regime for quite some time. With Sri Lanka and Bangladesh evincing similar interest, Modi infused a fresh breath of air into the moribund regional economic cooperation forum-BIMSTEC. In an effort to revive and revitalize the concept of regionalism for improved economic cooperation, Modi expanded the summit meet of BRICS to give a push to regional aspirations. India’s renewed push for regional connectivity is in part driven by the burgeoning Chinese aggressiveness of roping in four South Asian countries (India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Myanmar) for its One Belt One Road (OBOR).

India hosted BRICS at a time when the South Asian geopolitics are in flux. After the Uri attacks, New Delhi pulled out all strings to isolate Pakistan in the region. With neighbors Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka and Bhutan firmly supporting India’s position on cross-border terrorism perpetrated by Pakistan the process of regional isolation was complete. Simultaneously, India’s relations with China too nose-dived. Downward spiraling of Indo-Chinese relations in the recent past has been a consequence of several interrelated events. With India affirmatively pushing for Pakistan’s isolation and firming up battle against terrorism, China vetoed India’s efforts at UN of imposing sanctions against JeM chief, Masood Azhar on technical grounds, stalled India’s NSG membership. In a more recent development, China blocked a tributary of Brahmaputra Xinbuqu, originating in Tibet and flowing into India citing construction of the most expensive Lalho hydro-electric power. Further India’s objection to CPEC project passing through POK and Gilgit Baltistan region and complete sealing on 3,323-km long western border with Pakistan irked China. Simultaneously, Russia’s decision of going ahead with joint military exercises with Pakistan for the first time despite India’s opposition post Uri attacks raised serious concerns about the long standing Indo-Russian relations. India can ill afford to ignore any fractures in relations with China (immediate neighbor with historical antipathy) and Russia (partner in India’s technological pursuits). Modi efficaciously utilized BRICS summit to energize and resurrect relations with these countries.

The origin of BRICS is interesting. Jim O Neill, an investment analyst at Goldman Sachs in 2001 in his econometric analyses projected that counties India, Brazil, Russia and China with their potential for growth would collectively occupy a greater economic space. He suitably coined the acronym BRIC and his prospective analyses paved the way for the formation of the unique geopolitical group for economic cooperation. Subsequently, foreign ministers of these four countries met along the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in 2006 officiating the formation of the group. The first BRIC summit was held in Yekaterinburg, Russia in 2009. Key focus of the group was on ameliorating global economic situation and reforming of financial institutions. By 2010 South Africa expressed willingness to be part the group and with its formal admission, BRICS in its present form has emerged. Since its inception, BRICS with its limited significance accumulated decent amounts of accolades and criticisms. Clearly, one of the defining features of BRICS has been an effort to establish institutes that are more friendly and accommodative to emerging countries in the post American order. Group basically relied on “non-interference, equality and mutual benefit” in conducting bilateral relations. India strengthened the vision of BRICS which was scoffed by the West as a scrambled alphabetical geopolitical grouping with no common agenda binding the forum. In the last summit held at New Delhi in 2012, India sowed the seeds for New Development Bank and Contingency Reserve Arrangement. Subsequently, China and Russia who were keen on fostering multilateral institutions to counteract the dominant western influence spearheaded the formation of New Development Bank (NDB). The bank head quartered in Shanghai has started lending with India receiving the $300 million loan for green-fields project. Soon the first regional office will be opened in Johannesburg, South Africa. As of now BRICS comprises of 43% of World Population, accounts for 30% of global GDP and 17% of global trade. But over a period of time, the economic clout of the group began to erode with Russia and Brazil slipping off the economic growth trajectory and China bracing lingering slowdown and South African economy contracting. Among these countries, India emerged as the lone bright spot posting over 7% annual growth.

The theme of the BRICS-BIMSTEC summit at Goa with a theme of Building Responsive, Inclusive and Collective Solutions ended on a high note. The 109 para Goa Declaration envisaged to create new institutions and agencies bringing about greater cohesion and strategic traction to the group. Aside various initiatives, the 8th BRICS summit shall be reckoned for India’s sure footedness, incontrovertible diplomatic acumen in convincing all partners to talk tough on terrorism. While the focus of the BRICS summit and its outcomes were along the expected lines. But the way India single-handedly cornered Pakistan for harboring terror havens is commendable. Throughout the summit, Modi unequivocally condemned actions of Pakistan and spared no efforts to accomplish the agenda of isolation of the regional adversary. Modi in his address at Goa said “tragically its (terrorism) mothership is a country in India’s neighborhood. We agreed that those who support, nurture, shelter and sponsor forces of violence and terror are as much a threat to us as terrorists themselves” While India couldn’t incorporate references to cross-border terrorism due to Chinese resistance but agreement is reached over holistic approach in fighting terrorism including “dismantling of terrorist bases”. Modi was successful in bringing about unanimity among the BRICS countries in fighting terrorism.

Besides, cogently denouncing the terrorism, Goa Declaration expressed concerns over the persisting security challenges in Afghanistan, security, Middle East and North Africa. Pitched for expansion of the UN Security Council and supported permanent membership status to Brazil, India and South Africa. Other significant outcomes of the summit meet included- agreement on setting up a credit rating agency for emerging countries, BRICS Innovation Fund, BRICS Railway Research Network and BRICS sports council. BRICS countries signed three pacts for establishment of Agriculture Research Platform, Mutual Cooperation between Diplomatic Agencies and regulation on customs cooperation committee of the BRICS. Summit has proposed to setup a think tank to New Development Bank under the name of BRICS Economic Research Council. Members countries agreed to scale-up intra BRICS economic relationship, promote digital economy and start-up culture.  By and large the summit infused new energy into the grouping of the emerging countries that has immense potential to revitalize the slowing World economy and rewrite the rules of fluctuating global order.

However, Indian strategists maintained that Indian agenda of isolating Pakistan was undercut by China at the multilateral summit in Indian soil. Indeed, while BIMSTEC unequivocally condemned cross-border terrorism, India’s attempts to name Pakistani terror outfits in the declaration were impeded by insurmountable China wall. Alternatively, the terror outfits designated by the UN -ISIL and Jabhat Al-Nusra both threats to China and Russia were referred in the declaration. China, with its dubious propositions stalled India’s efforts to name and shame Pakistan’s terror operatives on a multilateral grouping, reiterating that the legendary Nehruvian paradigm of Hindi-Chini bhai bhai is a delusion. Indian strategic experts opined that while Russia wasn’t averse to Indian keenness of proscribing Pakistani militant groups in Goa declaration, it simply buckled under Chinese opposition. With US and Europe gearing to impose fresh set of sanctions on Russia and Syria for cease fire violations, Moscow will be forced into Beijing’s embrace though rather disapprovingly.

BIMSTEC document too finds no mention of the militant outfits. But the member countries called for stern action against states providing safe havens to terror groups and denounced glorification of terrorists.

It must be admitted that till now Pakistan territory was considered as a strategic asset by super powers who supported, financed its roots of terror. Till the turn of the century and even little later, Pakistan was a close chum of the US. Sino-Pakistan relations which initially thrived on the oxygen of anti-Indian agenda reached a hilt with Pakistan turning into a Chinese colony. Hence anticipating China’s support on cross-border terrorism might be whimsical. As a matter of fact, consecutive Indian political regimes remained smug and never made any concerted efforts to globally expose the nefarious activities of Pakistan. India just started making right kind of noises under Modi now and began making right calls in right direction. At this juncture, it must be recalled that Modi’s unrelenting efforts in garnering international support for adoption of Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism (CCIT) received a major thumbs up from all the countries. CCIT can effectively be utilized as a strategic tool to nail Pakistan for its clandestine activities. Hence the massive diplomatic outreach maneuver of Modi is highly commendable.

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