Prime Minister Narendra Modi is scheduled to gather impressive flying miles in June and July. Next month, he flies to China’s eastern tip, just across the Yellow Sea from South Korea, for a summit of heads of Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) member countries. After logging this roundtrip of 8,000 km to China in June, PM Modi will make a gruelling visit to Johannesburg in July to participate in the BRICS heads of government summit.
But the diplomatic thunder among all of the Prime Minister’s peregrinations this summer will certainly be stolen by the Commonwealth Heads of Government summit beginning next week. All its elements are bound to tug at our heartstrings. The nostalgia of the Raj will sweep over us as the British will lay thick to make up for their post-Brexit isolation in Europe while PM Narendra Modi is expected to be in his elements as he serenades a responsive crowd of Indian expatriates in London.
The SCO and BRICS summits on the other hand will be a blip on this year’s diplomatic calendar. Qingdao and Johannesburg anyway are hardly metropolises we relate with. They will be remembered, if at all, for providing the setting for PM Modi’s bilaterals with the Chinese President and, possibly, the Pakistani PM. Admittedly, both the regional organisations sit lightly in the consciousness of India’s strategic elite. On occasions, especially when there is need to demonstrate greater closeness to the West, South Block has feigned frostiness towards them.
The times have changed and the Indian foreign policy ship is now facing the challenge of charting through unprecedented unpredictability in relations between major powers. In simple terms, all options have to be on the table and no permutation can be rejected at a time when a major power is a friend one moment and foe the other. Diplomatic ties with the West have been easier to build after the end of the Cold War. The ballast was provided by the common linkages of language, trade, immigration, commonality of interests among the elite and shared administrative systems during colonialism.
As India continues to lift itself from poverty, it cannot depend on these powers to help level the international playing field for the third world. BRICS has already erected an alternative to the World Bank and the IMF. The BRICS-owned New Development Bank (NDB) is today an object of wonder and envy among other developing peers. And it has already swung into action by providing a leg up to India’s “Act East” policy by meeting 80 per cent of the cost for a bridge over the Brahmaputra. Another major NDB project is to upgrade 1,500 km of major district roads in Madhya Pradesh.
The composition of BRICS – India, China and Russia from Eurasia, and Brazil and South Africa from two other continents – reflects today’s reality of wider diffusion of power in the international system. This even geopolitical spread of its members on the world map positions BRICS as an important springboard to persuade other countries to join hands to push for global financial reform as well as provide a concerted push back to efforts to marginalise the WTO. Now that BRICS has gone past the stage of pious promises, India needs to take the initiative in trimming its flab. BRICS has to shed a host of ancillary activities it had taken upon itself during the initial years and bring the focus on economy and finance even though China and Russia will be tempted to use the forum to settle political scores with the US.
The SCO meeting that precedes the BRICS summit will be where the India and Pakistani Premiers are certain to share the stage. But India had bought into the usefulness of SCO long back. Both India and Pakistan had long back signed up for its regional anti-terrorist structure (RATS). Though the mainstream media narrative is transfixed by the US heavy-lifting to keep in check the Indian bête noire Hafiz Saeed, the real threat may be incubating in what is known as the “Crescent of Instability”: the highlands of Central Asia, the mountains of Caucasus and Afghanistan whose fighters have fluidly moved from one
theatre of conflict to another.
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