BRICS, BIMSTEC, and Anti-Terrorism: What Did India Accomplish?

 
 

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Indian foreign policy establishment can be satisfied with the outcomes of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) Summit in Goa on October 15-16 and the BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation, comprising Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Nepal, and Bhutan) Outreach Summit discussions on October 16, 2016.

Initially the four-country BRIC grouping (South Africa was added as the fifth member at the Sanya Summit in China in 2011) was conceptualized as largely an economic entity, because of the vast territorial expanse as well as big populations and economic heft of these countries. However, over time other issues related to political, social, and cultural matters have also been added to the BRICS discussions. This is particularly true during India’s current chairmanship, when several innovative ideas were implemented for the first time, including a BRICS Trade Fair and a meeting of the national security advisers (NSAs) of the five countries.

The challenge of dealing with terrorism at the global level – and also isolating Pakistan, without naming it, for promoting terrorism – was taken up in right earnest by Modi in all his deliberations with visiting leaders in Goa. In this, Modi took up from where he had left off in Hangzhou, China at the G20 Summit on September 4-5 and Vientiane, Laos at the East Asia Summit on September 7-8.

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The Goa Declaration adopted by BRICS countries has tough language, stronger and more detailed than in any previous BRICS Summit document, on dealing with issues related to the global manifestation of terrorism. It obligates the international community to “adopt a comprehensive approach in combating terrorism… radicalization, recruitment, movement of terrorists including Foreign Terrorist Fighters, blocking sources of financing terrorism, including through organized crime by means of money-laundering, drug trafficking, criminal activities, dismantling terrorist bases…” The Declaration notes that “successfully combating terrorism requires a holistic approach.”

In addition to this generic statement on confronting the scourge of terrorism, two aspects are of particular significance for India. First, the Goa Declaration calls upon all countries “to work together to expedite the adoption of the Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism (CCIT) in the UN General Assembly without any further delay.” This is an issue that Modi has been emphasizing in all multilateral and regional fora over the last two years. The Declaration goes on to reiterate “the responsibility of all States to prevent terrorist actions from their territories.” This is similar to the commitment that India had obtained from Pakistan in January 2004, but which, during the intervening years, has been observed more in breach than in compliance.

The language in the BIMSTEC Leaders’ Retreat Outcomes Document on confronting global terrorism is sharper and more specific. It proclaims that “terrorism continues to remain the single most significant threat to peace and stability in our region.” Recognizing that, the BIMSTEC countries “reiterate our strong commitment to combat terrorism in all its forms and manifestations, and stress that there can be no justification for acts of terror on any grounds whatsoever. We condemn in the strongest terms the recent barbaric terror attacks in the region.”

The document continues in language that seems directly aimed at Pakistan, though the state is never mentioned: “We strongly believe that our fight against terrorism should not only seek to disrupt and eliminate terrorists, terror organisations and networks, but should also identify, hold accountable and take strong measures against States who encourage, support and finance terrorism, provide sanctuary to terrorists and terror groups, and falsely extol their virtues.”

The section on terrorism concludes with a pledge “to take concrete measures to step up cooperation and coordination among our law enforcement, intelligence and security organizations.”

Both the BRICS and BIMSTEC groupings underscored their determination to fight terrorism jointly and through cooperation among their intelligence agencies and law enforcement organizations.

Some critics and media have sought to pillory the Indian government for investing too much political capital on this issue when it was well known that China, and to an extent Russia, would not go along with any direct reference to Pakistan or cross-border terrorism. I do not think that the government was under any illusion that they would be able to achieve either of the above two references in the Goa Declaration. It is, however, always better to aim high and achieve as much as possible rather than be modest in one’s ambitions and accomplish even less.

It can be safely surmised that Indian negotiators would have hit the China wall on including any overt or covert reference to Pakistan. This has had an unintended beneficial result: it has shown up China’s double standards on this critical subject. Notwithstanding its new found assertiveness, China would also have realized that it is being exposed as a country that connives at the perpetration of terrorist attacks by its “all-weather” ally. Beijing might be forced to rethink its position and strategy on this issue. As Cyril Almeida mentioned in a recent report in Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper, China has started expressing concerns and doubts about Pakistan’s policy of promoting terrorism. “Specifically,” Almeida wrote, “while Chinese authorities have conveyed their willingness to keep putting on technical hold a UN ban on Jaish-i-Mohammad leader Masood Azhar, they have questioned the logic of doing so repeatedly.”

Veiled references by Modi in his statements to the idea that China has been shielding Pakistan-based terrorists, have raised the prime minister’s image for plain-speak. For instance at the BRICS plenary session he stated, “Selective approaches to terrorist individuals and organizations will not only be futile but also counter-productive. There must be no distinction based on artificial and self-serving grounds. Criminality should be the only basis for punitive action against the individuals and organizations responsible for carrying out terrorist acts.”

In regional and international fora like BRICS and BIMSTEC, no reference will be made to any particular country in the concluding statement. Only specific policy aspects and issues are included in the final document. The call for specific references to the Uri attack, the naming of Pakistan, and mention of cross-border terrorism seems to have come more from the media than from experts and analysts who are well-versed in the mechanics and dynamics of these issues.

It also needs to be recognized that in a negotiation one is always required to make compromises. It is said that the best result of a negotiation is one in which all sides go back equally dissatisfied and unhappy. India can be content that major issues of interest to it like CCIT, the necessity of denying support to terrorism from any territory, and a tangential reference to the Uri attack are included in the final texts.

In addition to the formal declarations, two aspects are particularly noteworthy in the statements made by the leaders of Russia and China at the plenary session of BRICS.

First, there was no reference at all to the issue of terrorism in the statement by President Vladimir Putin. Russia is afflicted by this menace and has been confronting it for several decades. Moreover Russia knows that India attaches immense importance to this issue, as would have been evident from Modi’s statements in bilateral as well as multilateral discussions. India would have expected Russia to be supportive of and sensitive to its fundamental concern. So why this glaring omission? Some thought needs to be given to this by India’s policymakers. As the bard would have said, “This was the most unkindest cut of all.”

Was the omission made under Chinese guidance or advice? If so, this raises several more vital questions which need to be elaborated and discussed further. It is highly unlikely that Russia avoided the topic of terrorism because it has started equating India with Pakistan. Russia will also need to reflect upon both the substantive aspects as well as optics of the “special and privileged strategic partnership” between India and Russia.

Second, while Chinese President Xi Jinping did mention terrorism in his plenary address, he lumped it with other international challenges like natural disasters, infectious diseases, and climate change and even put terrorism at the end of this list. No surprise here – it was not expected that China would be particularly sensitive to India’s concerns on this or other issues. In addition, Xi also referred to finding “political solutions” for “regional hotspots” and also dealing with the “symptoms and core issues” of problems confronting the global community. The language used is familiar. The formulation of “core issue” is always employed by Pakistan to describe Kashmir.

A representative of India’s Ministry of External Affairs dismissed this linkage and said that Xi’s remark did not have any connection to the issue of terrorism. It will however be useful to go deeper into this choice of words – China was parroting Pakistan’s formulation or did Xi mean something different?

India’s experience at the Goa Summit starkly brings forth the point that there is a limit up to which Pakistan can be isolated on the international stage. Possibly that limit has been reached. While continuing to maintain pressure on Pakistan to change its ways, India needs to move forward and start engaging proactively with its other neighbors and strategic partners like the United States, Japan, Russia, and states in Europe and Africa. It is also necessary to start focusing on India’s strengths and rapidly expanding economy in its international discourse, as Delhi should avoid being bracketed and hyphenated with Pakistan all over again.

Moreover there is no substitute or alternative to enhancing and augmenting India’s national comprehensive strength in political, strategic, economic, and military matters. India needs to be continuously vigilant on its borders, strengthen its intelligence and counterterror capacities domestically, and focus on economic growth. Only then will it be able to command the world’s respect and support in its fight against the menace of terrorism.

Overall India can feel reasonably content and satisfied with the results of BRICS and BIMSTEC Summits and final shape of the two declarations, given the natural constraints of any such document.

Ashok Sajjanhar is a career diplomat who has served as Ambassador of India to Kazakhstan, Sweden and Latvia, as also as Secretary/Principal Executive Officer of the National Foundation for Communal Harmony, an autonomous organization with the Ministry of Home Affairs. He has held several significant positions in Indian embassies in Washington, Moscow, Brussels, Geneva, Bangkok, Tehran and Dhaka.

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