India's 'RIC' Back Story on the Way to Goa: Expectations and Challenges

Cover Story By Francis A. Kornegay, Jr

Sino-Indian tensions are emblematic of ever-present dynamics within the RIC dimension of BRICS. Contradictions exist between Russia and China as well, despite their strategic security partnership

As Brazil and South Africa experience major political and economic woes, could it be that BRICS increasingly is a forum of the RICs: Russia-India-China? Not an idle question, this. It should be seriously contemplated as the October 15-16 BRICS Summit looms in Goa.

Although there are signs, according to some observers, of stirrings of economic recovery, the parliamentary-instigated impeachment ‘coup’ within the Dilma Rousseff presidential coalition could extend to a corruption indictment against Rousseff’s mentor and former president, Ignacio Lula da Silva. It places Brazil in unchartered domestic political and regional geopolitical terrains. Lula, after all, was a leading founder of the original BRIC quartet and the new regionalism in Latin America and the Caribbean. Thus, the dubious symbolism here likely won’t go unnoticed.

South Africa’s economic fortunes are not only bleak at zero growth or below. Its rulers inexorably flirt with the country’s economy being downgraded to ‘junk’ status by international ratings agencies amid instability gripping the ruling party. It amounts to a 1994-2016 descent from the liberating ideological heights of ‘national democratic revolution’ to Africa’s all too familiarly debilitating form of misgovernance called ‘neopatrimonialism.’ On that score, for South Africa and Brazil, all one can venture at the moment is ‘stay tuned’ and ‘aluta continua’!

This predicament virtually puts paid to the trilateral promise of an India-Brazil-South Africa (IBSA) trilateral dialogue forum. IBSA always had the potential to function as a ‘caucus’ of strategic autonomy within and outside Sino-Russian dominance within BRICS.

This is for their individual and collective lack of strategic visioning in maintaining the vitality of IBSA. It could have served as a complementary global South platform to the manifestly ‘high politics’ of BRICS within the global economic club governance sanctum of a G20 under de facto ‘G2’ US-China chairmanship. So, where does that leave India as it prepares to host the 8th summit of BRICS? Will the Modi government and Indian private as well as public and think-tank sectors display an audacious ‘Yes We Can!’ level of strategic visioning in how they conceive of India shaping BRICS that failed them when it came to taking IBSA into its second decade in 2013?

This is where India belongs to, the ministerial ‘RIC’ forum, taking on timely relevance – not unlike the manner in which Russia’s Vladimir Putin found relevance in factoring in the agendas of his Eurasian Economic Union and the Sino-Russian led Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) into his hosting of the 7th BRICS Summit in Ufa in 2015. Putin was following in the foot-steps of South African President Jacob Zuma’s 2013 introduction into BRICS diplomacy of the ‘regional outreach.’ Some among India’s influential think-tanks, at the time, took umbrage at such encumbrance in spite of compelling regional integrationist implications of BRICS being the fulcrum of an alternative suborder to the west within the club governance system of the G20. Now, India has to follow suit as it prepares for Goa on the shores of the Indian Ocean.

The stakes for India could not be higher in terms of whether it can/will match China and Russia in elaborating its own geostrategic vision complementing China’s continental-maritime One Belt One Road (OBOR) ‘Silk Route’ geo-economic initiative and Russia’s Eurasian integration project within an SCO framework wherein India is now a full member instead of an observer. To be sure, these initiatives on the part of China and Russia are the stuff of geopolitical power projection. This is to be expected of great powers staking out their terrain within today’s multipolar strategic landscape. Still, whatever questions arise from their agendas and how they are being rolled out, one cannot deny their positive, proactive conveying of a sense of visionary multilateral regionalism on the part of Moscow and Beijing; this is as both endeavour at entrenching regional ‘facts on the ground’.

These dynamics should trend into an establishing of strategic east-west equilibrium with the American-led suborder comprising the EU and NATO in what could eventually culminate in some semblance of a power-sharing convergence of suborders in reconfiguring the global strategic landscape (though Putin is fixated on destabilising the US as well as Europe through the combined financing of left and rightwing fringe parties and pliable politicians coupled with a ‘weaponised’ information warfare alliance with Wikileaks). This new landscape would be cantered along the borderland nexus joining Eastern Europe, Russia and its Central Asian ‘near abroad’ as well as the Levant, reaching into the southwest Asian Hindu-Kush on New Delhi’s doorstep. What, then should India bring to the table in rounding out the RIC trilateral within BRICS in its multi-regional trans-Eurasian iteration? Perhaps, a multilateral Indian Ocean dimension? That is, one situated within an Indo-Pacific zone of peace and cooperation architecture as an interregional complement to the continental-maritime scope of China’s ‘Silk Route’.

As it is, India seems, from any number of observations, stuck perpetually in reactionary mode. This is in its ambivalence toward Beijing’s OBOR, likely feeding into a perennial threat perception regarding China’s intentions toward India, including what it sees as its neighbour’s competitive ‘string of pearls’ gambit in the Indian Ocean.

Sino-Indian tensions are emblematic of ever-present dynamics within the RIC dimension of BRICS. Contradictions exist between Russia and China as well, despite their strategic security partnership. This accounts for why BRICS will have difficulty emerging as anything more than a global economic governing semi-alliance evolving into an alternative sub-order to the western subsystem. It reflects the epitome of a minilateral platform of ‘cooperation,’ particularly at its RIC dimension of the triangular relationship managed at the foreign ministerial level. The three countries find it in their national security interest to forge close ties at the economic cooperation level while, in different degrees, retaining competitive agendas at the strategic level. Moscow’s strategic compulsives dictate that it forges its own regional economic community instead of relying on its second among equals status as head of the SCO. SCO has increasing become a China-dominated platform.

Moscow and Beijing could never see eye-to-eye on an SCO development bank. Russia wanted its already existing Eurasian development bank to serve this purpose, whereas China wanted a new bank altogether. For a while, it looked as though establishing the BRICS New Development Bank might serve the purposes of both Moscow and Beijing until along came China’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank as a development financing accompaniment to its OBOR trans-Eurasian agenda reaching into the European Union and including Africa as well as Central Asia. Meanwhile, India and Russia have maintained the closest of relations in the military procurement and development field. Yet, the polarised security posture between India and China sees India, under PM Modi, forging an ever closer strategic security alliance with the US This reflects a convergence of Indo-American security interests as Washington. The Obama administration has elaborated its rebalancing ‘pivot’ to the Asia-Pacific as a counter-balancing ‘soft containment’ gambit against Beijing’s South China Sea neo-tributarianism.

Among other things, the US-Indian strategic convergence involves a disaggregating of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s ‘Quadrilateral’ in a series of bilateral naval exercises and collaborations between the US, Japan and Australia as well as India. Meanwhile, India has just reinforced its strategic security alignment with Washington through the bilateral Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA). This has prompted Asia Times Online commentator, MK Bhadrakumar, to proclaim India and the US as ‘logistical allies’ with dialectical implications for a further elaborating of the Sino-Pakistan security nexus. Its aim – encircling India in a manner accentuating New Delhi’s regional strategic compulsives on the Indian Ocean as its only escape-hatch from a cleft-stick of containment within its South Asian neighbourhood. Now, the fact that both India and Pakistan are now full SCO members, while neither Russia nor China found it in their interest to force a negotiated reconciliatory detente between New Delhi and Islamabad speaks volumes concerning the lack of any real cohesion within an emerging trans-Eurasian bloc intended to contain, if not roll-back, America’s strategic footprint in Central Asia.

Indeed, a failure of leveraging on this front may well reflect limits to a perceived Beijing-Moscow axis of conviviality. However, it also reflects China’s continued fixation on keeping India and Pakistan at one another’s throats, risky though this seems given Beijing’s security concerns over threats to its interests in Afghanistan and the stability of Xinjiang, its ‘Silk Route’ gateway province into Central Asia. Nevertheless, on the interregional economic integration front, an eventually interactive trans-Eurasian convergence between Russia’s economic union and its co-leadership with China of an expanding SCO seems set to move ahead; and this, irrespective of the ever constricting triangle of tension between China, Pakistan and India in the absence of any offsetting geo-strategically leveraging gambit forthcoming from Delhi within the RIC forum of triangular ambivalence between India, Russia and China.

New Delhi’s idea of ‘regional outreach’ for the BRICS Summit in Goa is emblematic of constraints it places on itself to its own strategic disadvantage in the interlinked geopolitics of the Eurasian-Indian Ocean continental-maritime domain. With the aim of isolating Pakistan, India is inviting regional countries under the rubric of the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) – Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Bhutan and Nepal – instead of the more substantial regional economic community, which it prefers marginalising: the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC). Currently, SAARC’s chairmanship has rotated to Islamabad.

This time around, however, Delhi is suppose to be ‘the host with the most,’ not Beijing. Consequently, Delhi’s nationalistic lack of vision may not be ignored in terms of India building credibility on the issue of UN Security Council reform. All of these issues are interconnected.

Within a RIC-BRICS calculus, given how centrally strategic the Indian Ocean is to India, New Delhi could ultimately break this debilitating cycle of tensions between itself, China and Pakistan in a display of co-optive multilateralism. Why might it not translate repetitive resolutions and declarations espousing a ‘zone of peace’ in the Indian Ocean into a real mechanism? It could do what Brazil did in 1986 under an UNGA resolution. Brazil, as the major regional power in the southern Atlantic, took the initiative in establishing the Zone of Peace and Cooperation in the South Atlantic (ZPCSA) as an interregional community of South American and African member states with a cooperation agenda, inclusive of:

• Economic and commercial cooperation;

• Promote trade and investment;

• Scientific and technical cooperation;

• Initiatives of a political and diplomatic nature;

• Environmental protection;

• Conflict resolution;

• Mechanism for member states to coordinate on a number of fronts.

There is no reason why India could not mount a similar initiative for the Indo-Pacific by forging a quadrilateral among itself, Indonesia (which is developing its own ‘maritime axis’ regional strategy), Australia and South Africa to consider how the Brazilian ZPCSA initiative might be adapted to the considerably more complex Indian and Pacific Ocean environments. Unlike ZPCSA, China and all other extra-regional powers such as the US and Japan would have to become members as well as Pakistan. With India at the helm, New Delhi would assume the proactive initiative in shaping a multilateral peace and cooperation agenda more to its liking and national interests. This might contribute to de-polarising the interregional security environment and, in the process, give substance to India’s aspirational regional great power status, complementing the Eurasian projects of Russia and China to the benefit of the BRICS-RIC nexus.

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Diplomatist Magazine was launched in October of 1996 as the signature magazine of L.B. Associates (Pvt) Ltd, a contract publishing house based in Noida, a satellite town of New Delhi, India, the National Capital.