China is in a deepening quandary over certain international commitments this year that can cast a shadow on President Xi Jinping’s efforts to rectify his country’s image in the eyes of the international community even as he tried to secure a third term of power at the party Congress in October.
These commitments have the potential to expose China’s ‘friendly’ relations with Russia at a time when President Vladimir Putin appears to shun reason as he continues to attack Ukraine. The growing importance of India to the international community in general, and to the US and Europe in particular, is another cause for worry.
President Xi will have to face Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the BRICS Summit in June. The Chinese are saved the embarrassment of having to host the Indian head of government in Beijing even as New Delhi accuses them of illegally holding on to Indian territory. Modi will be attending the meeting virtually.
Still, when the BRICS nations discuss the Russia-Ukraine conflict, all eyes, especially of India, will be on China. For, the China-Ladakh incursion is too similar to the Russia-Ukraine situation in the sense that both amount to blatant disrespect for the sovereignty of the countries they intrude into.
Secondly, the BRICS nations would want to hear from Russia – a member of the organisation – on when the conflict might end. New Delhi has already reminded Moscow of the ‘New Delhi Declaration’ of BRICS.
Paragraph 22 of the New Delhi declaration adopted on 9 September 2021, states: “We express our concern at the continuing conflicts and violence in different parts of the world. We endorse the position taken by our Foreign Ministers at their last meeting on the situation in Africa, the Middle East and North Africa, the Palestinian-Israeli issue, the Syrian Arab Republic, Yemen, Afghanistan, Korean Peninsula, the Iran nuclear issue and Myanmar. We reaffirm our commitment to the principles of non-interference in the internal affairs of States and reiterate that all conflicts must be resolved by peaceful means and through political and diplomatic efforts in line with international law, in particular the UN Charter. We underscore the inadmissibility of the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any State, or in any other manner inconsistent with the purposes and principles of the United Nations.” Diplomats told this newspaper that “Russian President Vladimir Putin has also been reminded of the New Delhi declaration of the BRICS”.
As the BRICS chair, China will be in a tricky position. Will it defend Russia or question the Ukraine invasion? The New Delhi Declaration is as valid for China as it is for Russia. And there will not be enough wriggling room as all the leaders would be physically or virtually present. As it is, China is aware it is the only BRICS member that has not yet spoken to Russia to resolve the dispute through dialogue and diplomacy. The other BRICS nations are regularly in touch with one another on the Ukraine issue – this is something that China knows and can do nothing about other than grin and bear it when the deliberations focus on Ukraine at the June Summit.
The second issue has to do with the standoff in eastern Ladakh and China’s refusal to leave the Indian territory. Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi is said to have explored the possibility of an in-person BRICS Summit when he met his Indian counterpart S Jaishankar on March 25. But India politely refused to attend it in-person. That is seen as a tacit reminder of China’s adamance over vacating Ladakh. The other reminder was Prime Minister Modi not meeting Wang.
The third issue has to do with QUAD. Prime Minister Modi who will attend BRICS only virtually, has decided to travel to Tokyo for the May 24 meeting of the QUAD members – the US, Australia and Japan. The west would lose no opportunity to remind India, South Africa and Brazil to keep their relations with Russia to the minimum, but the larger message of the QUAD will be aimed at China and the issue of free and secure Indo-Pacific.
The developed economies of the West will also be convening the G-7 Summit a few days before BRICS Summit. There is a possibility of India being invited as an observer. The Indian Prime Minister is interacting with the new governments in Germany and France by visiting Berlin and Paris in person. All these meetings only underline India’s importance to the West where the Indo-Pacific is concerned. The western countries are going to the extent of ignoring the twin facts of India refusing to openly condemn Russia and importing discounted oil from Russia because they need India on their side when dealing with Asia. They realise that India is the only country which has at present taken a firm stand against China. India will be attending BRICS in this context that will not be lost on China.
As if this is not enough, there is pressure on China from Europe as well. NATO secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg a few days ago called on Beijing to “clearly condemn” Russia’s war in Ukraine. “China should join the rest of the world in condemning, strongly, the brutal invasion of Ukraine by Russia. China has an obligation as a member of the UN Security Council to actually support and uphold international law, and the Russian invasion of Ukraine is a blatant violation of international law.” China continues to insist that it is a neutral party even though the communist propaganda wing and the state media continue to justify the Russian invasion.
China cannot deny the fact that there is pressure on it, in the form of the caution from the United States that any country trying to relieve the pressure of western sanctions on Russia will also face those sanctions.