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BRICS: Can China and India overcome differences at summit?

Wesley Rahn | Murali Krishnan in New Delhi | Yuchen Li in Taipei
August 24, 2023

During this week's BRICS summit, China is leading calls for expansion of the grouping's membership and influence. However, a major rift remains between Beijing and New Delhi.

Xi Jinping and Narendra Modi in 2017
The leaders of China and India have not met bilaterally since 2020Image: Kenzaburo Fukuhara/AP Photo/picture alliance

As the BRICS grouping discusses its future at a three-day summit in Johannesburg this week, much depends on how well the two BRICS economic powerhouses, India and China, can get along.

BRICS — comprised of Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa — is seen by many analysts as attempting to forge an alternative global order, especially with regard to the Global South.

China in recent years has pushed for such an alternative, deriding sanctions and the "long-arm jurisdiction" of the United States, all while building up its global "Belt and Road" infrastructure investment scheme aimed at developing countries.

India has tried to remain neutral, positioning itself to the West as a bulwark against Chinese military expansion as a member of the "Quad" grouping, while at the same time maintaining trade ties with Russia and refusing to condemn the invasion of Ukraine.

It remains to be seen whether Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi will have a bilateral meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping on the margins of the summit. 

In statements released during the summit Wednesday, both leaders said they support the expansion of BRICS. Xi said that BRICS aims to "pool wisdom to make global governance more fair and reasonable."

What does BRICS want?

India and China's long-running border dispute

However, a major sore point in Indo-Chinese relations remains an ongoing standoff at the countries' de facto border, the Line of Actual Control (LAC), in the Himalayas, which analysts say is indicative of a larger rivalry. 

The standoff began in May 2020 and a month later, Indian and Chinese soldiers got into a hand-to-hand brawl in the Galwan Valley that left 20 dead, the majority of which were Indian soldiers.

Modi and Xi have not held formal bilateral talks since the standoff began.

A "potential bilateral interaction between Modi and Xi will be the most eagerly watched geopolitical event of the BRICS summit. India has made it clear that de-escalation and disengagement on the LAC is critical to normalization of bilateral relations," Ajay Bisaria, a former Indian diplomat, told DW.

Despite many rounds of negotiations and engagement at multiple levels, the military tensions continue. India has said there can be no normal ties if China breaches border agreements. Both sides are building infrastructure in the area.

Alka Acharya, the honorary director of the Institute of Chinese Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, told DW that without progress in talks on the border dispute, a Modi-Xi meeting at the BRICS summit would remain a moot point. 

"Clearly neither side pushed it, given that the meeting was not going to produce any headline worthy outcomes," she said.

"The ground reality in this case will determine the political initiatives, instead of the other way around," she added.

What's behind China's border disputes

China's unilateral ambition

While China pushes a narrative of using BRICS as a counterweight to the US and G7, other members have been more subdued.

During a social media broadcast, Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva said BRICS did not seek to be a "counterpoint to the G7, G20 or the United States."

"We will not be drawn into a contest between global powers," South African President Cyril Ramaphosa also stated in a televised State of the Nation address earlier this week.

Chong Ja-Ian, a nonresident scholar at Carnegie China, told DW that each BRICS member "has its own interests to consider."

"The degree to which they are willing and able to put this aside in favor of common BRICS interests remains untested," he said.

Chong added that closer ties with India could help "relieve some of the pressure" faced by Beijing.

As long as China perceives itself to be "contained, encircled, and suppressed by the United States," it will continue to use BRICS as "a channel" to address these concerns, he said.

Xi during the plenary session in 2023
Xi told the summit BRICS aims to 'make global governance more fair and reasonable'Image: Gianluigi Guercia/Reuters

However, several analysts said China is seeking to use the BRICS grouping as a vehicle to actively advance its own geopolitical ambitions.

Guntram Wolff, CEO of the German Council on Foreign Relations, told Germany's ZDF public broadcaster that China "clearly wants to be the leading nation," and "wants to rally the Global South around it" with the goal of exerting influence and reshaping the global order.

Jayadeva Ranade, president of the Centre for China Analysis and Strategy in New Delhi, told DW that China's strategic objective is to "become the pre-eminent power in Asia."

"This means ensuring that India acquiesces to Chinese overlordship," added Ranade, who served on India's national security advisory board. "There is virtually no likelihood of our settling differences in a meeting or two. At most, these will mean a tactical pause in China's ambitions."

BRICS: Emerging counterweight in a multipolar world

When is the next chance?

If no Modi-Xi meeting comes out of the BRICS summit, the next chance for talks would be at a G20 leaders' summit chaired by Modi in New Delhi next month. 

Former Indian diplomat Bisaria said Xi's reception at the G20 summit could well be determined by progress on the border dispute.

"China will need to give reasonable assurances to India on the matter, accompanied by moves on the border that can give India confidence about Chinese intentions," he said.

Amitabh Mattoo, a professor of international relations at Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University, told DW that Xi would be missing an opportunity at BRICS by not meeting with Modi.

"The summit's theme revolves around cooperation and institutional development, but that clearly has escaped the Chinese," Mattoo said.

Edited by: Shamil Shams

Wesley Rahn Editor and reporter focusing on geopolitics and Asia
Murali Krishnan
Murali Krishnan Journalist based in New Delhi, focusing on Indian politics, society and business@mkrish11