How India led EAM Jaishankar treads a fine line between Quad and BRICS

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In a recent newspaper article, External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar rightly praised the Indian position on Quad, underlining the fact that New Delhi has not palmed away to other nations a veto on the nation’s choices. He did not mention it, but the reference possibly flows from the Indian position on the continuing Russo-Ukrainian war and the Indian decision to continue buying oil from Russia, against the US-led West’s desire for New Delhi.

Well said, yes, yet the question remains if New Delhi has decided and for good not to mend fences with China, which is what multiple Quad decisions impact adversely, especially when seen from Beijing. Whether it is the 12-nation Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity (IPEF) of US President Joe Biden — that too outside of the 15-member Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) — which India left in 2019, or the Quad decision against ‘illegal fishing’, where China is seen as the greatest violator, there is enough in the recent four-nation Tokyo Summit’s decisions to put Beijing on the defensive more than already.

Violating unilateral code

For now, seven of the 10-member ASEAN and New Zealand have signed into IPEF, along with the four Quad members. Indonesia, the largest of ASEAN member nations, has stayed away. Needless to say, more members would be roped in.

For India, there are added decisions, present and future, on climate change and de-carbonisation, which has sort of become a defining or re-defining moment on the global economic and/or investment platforms, supply-chain movements, etc. New Delhi would have to ensure that compliance with ‘global standards’ as set by the West already should not be made the yardstick for their corporates diverting job-creating industrial investments away from China.

There is a reason. In the past, on CTBT and the like, the West laid down the rules unilaterally, and then insisted that the rest of the world did not violate the same. It is another matter that those who violated their code were invariably co-opted after a binge of sanctions for a period.

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Pious words apart, India may have to independently evaluate the impact of other people’s road-map for climate change mitigation and decarbonisation, etc, to arrive at an optimum functionally acceptable yard-stick of its own. What India and China, between them were doing, pre-Quad, pre-Galwan, was to delay the imposition of western models and yardsticks on such issues of mutual concern at international fora, where sizes beyond economies counted.

Thanks also to Galwan, India is on the side of the give-more group, leaving China on the other side and as the sole violator. It is good politics and also good economics, the former for all Quad members and the latter for India even more, but that does not help New Delhi wish away China all along the 3,500-km border.

Economy as political weapon

Looking back, the much-riled former US president Donald Trump might have actually rolled out America’s 21st century weapon, in the place of the A-Bomb in the previous century. He was telling individual nations, friends and foes alike, as to what could hurt them if they crossed the US’ path. Everyone shouted him down, but his inherited threat of sanctions for America’s rivals, coupled with invented sets of penalties for allies, drew the red line for ‘em all.

Under successor Biden, the US has used economic sanctions as a political weapon against Russia more than any time in the past, against any other nation. The zeal with which the US and its alliance leaders and their diplomats flew around the world telling India and a few other fence-sitters on how it was good for the world to be rid of the Russian threat recalls to memory, the their determination to sign in nations for the US’ ‘Global War on Terrorism’ less than two decades ago.

Though China was on the US economic radar earlier, even when sanctions on Russia over Crimea were left for individual nations to enforce or not. Over Ukraine, the US and its allies have campaigned with individual nations, starting with India, and possibly excluding only China and North Korea, to comply.

Where they have failed to force India to sign on the dotted line, the US and the other two Quad members seem to be keen on firming up India on their side, on an issue where New Delhi’s choice are limited — indirectly targeting China, that is. Though both Quad and Indo-Pacific are marketed as non-discriminatory and non-interventionist, at least China has not bought the idea as anything but a way to counter its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), or to shackle its economic ambitions, political growth and military expansionism — all on the lines of the US and in competition to the US.

Different, Differentiated

Put together, the American Empire has struck twice, and prospective allies in Russia and China where it hurts them, or is perceived to do so until proved otherwise. All along, Washington has looked at continental Europe as ‘Europe and Russia’, thus drawing a distinction, which it did not erase post-Cold War.

Today, it is ‘Asia and China’, likewise. The coinage has a greater currency and validity in and for the US after their renaming their geopolitical strategy as Quad-based Indo-Pacific, but pegged on geo-economy, not geo-strategy or geo-politics. But in the 21st century milieu, where economy rules, it addresses political and military strategies of nations, in subtle and sophisticated ways than during the Cold War.

The US and the rest of the West have a near-common attitude to addressing their Russia and China problems. That is not true of India, which has a different and differentiated approach to the two nations. India has no issues or problems with Russia. On the contrary, New Delhi has a lot to thank Moscow for even during the Cold War era. It was more than compared to the post-Cold War present.

There can be no comparison between India’s Russia relations and that with China, all through since the 1962 war. Multiple attempts at reconciliation through decades of multiple party rule in India has not helped. Leave aside his multiple visits to China when he was Gujarat chief minister, Modi had two one-on-one summit talks with President Xi Jinping at Wuhan and Mahabalipuram. Summit diplomacy followed Doklam episode and ended with the Chennai Declaration.

BRICS expansion on cards

In a parallel development, BRICS foreign ministers, meeting virtually a week before the second in-person Quad Summit at Tokyo, ‘reached a consensus on expanding the multi-national organisation with Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, as founding-members, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman has announced since. According to reports, the Foreign Ministers of Argentina, Egypt, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Nigeria, Senegal and Thailand were also invited to attend.

Reports have also spoken about Argentina, Indonesia and Egypt as among the countries that had ‘previously indicated their interest in joining what is loosely identified as ‘BRICS Plus’. Incidentally, Bangladesh and the UAE joined the Shanghai-based BRICS-initiated New Development Bank (NDB) as new members last year, with Uruguay and Egypt cleared to join in, since.

Looking from a geopolitical perspective, India is still riding with China as a fellow-traveller and tour-organiser in BRICS-related initiatives and has been even more active in Quad-centric trade initiatives, where no one needs to tell anyone who is the boss. This is despite the ‘veto’ that EAM Jaishankar talked about.

The Indian engagement with Quad and Quad-centric initiatives has increased especially after the US clarified that it was ‘not a security alliance’ in February this year. The question is if the twine would meet, interact or cross each other’s paths in the coming months and years – and what would be the political consequences for India, China and India-China relations in terms of status quo or status quo ante or a new beginning!

The writer is a policy analyst and commentator, based in Chennai. Views expressed are personal.

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How India led EAM Jaishankar treads a fine line between Quad and BRICS
How India led EAM Jaishankar treads a fine line between Quad and BRICS
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