South Asian tensions seen dominating Indian BRICS summit

October 13, 2016 7:48 PM EDT

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi attends the ASEAN-India Summit in Vientiane, Laos September 8, 2016. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun

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By Douglas Busvine

NEW DELHI (Reuters) - India will take its drive to isolate Pakistan and rally the international community against cross-border militancy to a summit of emerging market powers this weekend, when it hosts BRICS nations in the western state of Goa.

For Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the gathering of leaders from Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa offers an opportunity to highlight the threat he sees to Indian security from recent frontier clashes with Pakistan.

But across the summit table at a resort hotel, Chinese President Xi Jinping is unlikely to have much interest in casting Beijing's alliance with Pakistan into doubt.

The final summit declaration is expected to repeat earlier condemnations of "terrorism in all its forms", say diplomats and analysts, but avoid leveling blame over tensions between the nuclear-armed South Asian rivals.

Such discussions will make security a dominant issue at the eighth annual summit of the group, even as leaders also address core themes such as the global economy, financial cooperation and mutual trade.

"We will be looking at the global economic and political situation, and obviously terrorism is a very important part of that," Amar Sinha, the Indian foreign ministry official responsible for the BRICS file, told a pre-summit briefing.


Where Modi and Xi may see eye to eye, at least privately, is in a shared desire for Islamabad to restrain Islamist militants who, in Beijing's view, pose a threat to China's plans to build a $46 billion trade corridor that runs through Pakistan to the Arabian Sea.

"Contrary to the public messaging in Islamabad, China is not the perpetual jolly partner when it comes to its relations with Pakistan," said Michael Kugelman, a senior program associate at the Wilson Center in Washington who focuses on South Asia.

"With China's investments and economic assets growing in Pakistan, it's only natural that it would worry. All militants, whether 'good' or 'bad' as characterized by Pakistan, threaten stability and by extension China's economic interests."

In addition to launching what it described as cross-border "surgical strikes" against suspected militants in Pakistan, in response to a Sept. 18 attack on an army base that killed 19 Indian soldiers, New Delhi has mounted a diplomatic offensive to isolate Islamabad.

Pakistan has denied any part in the attack on the Uri army base, near the de facto border that runs through the disputed territory of Kashmir. It also denies any "surgical strikes" took place, saying there was only border firing that is relatively common along the frontier.

Islamabad says India has exploited the incident to divert attention from its own security crackdown on protests sparked by the killing of a popular separatist militant leader.

More than 80 civilians have been killed and thousands wounded in India's part of Kashmir, and a widespread curfew has been imposed.


After the Uri attack, India quickly won expressions of support from the West and from Russia, whose President Vladimir Putin will also hold a bilateral summit with Modi in Goa.

China, for its part, has shown public restraint.

Zhao Gancheng, director of South Asia studies at the Shanghai Institute for International Studies, said that China and Pakistan were paying close attention to security threats to the trade corridor.

"If Pakistan's security situation does not improve, it will obstruct some of these projects - especially infrastructure ones," said Zhao. "In this sense, cooperation on counter-terrorism is very close."

India has already engineered the collapse of a South Asian regional summit to have been hosted by Pakistan, and the Goa gathering will also feature an outreach session to countries from the Bay of Bengal region that could emerge as an alternative focus of regional cooperation.


BRICS leaders will support plans agreed by their national security advisers to create three working groups to cooperate on cyber security, counter-terrorism and energy security, said Sinha, the Indian foreign ministry official.

But diplomats and analysts say that India's long-held ambition of joining the Nuclear Suppliers Group, a club of nuclear-trading nations, is unlikely to progress at Goa with China yet to soften its blocking stance.

And, despite concerns about militancy within Pakistan, China has rebuffed India's calls for the United Nations to designate Maulana Masood Azhar, leader of the Jaish-e-Mohammed group that India blames for recent cross-border attacks, as a terrorist.

China recently extended a so-called "hold" on the designation by a further three months.

That reflects an evolving rivalry between the world's two most populous nations in which, under Modi, India is seeking to close huge economic and military gaps and is shifting away from traditional non-alignment and seeking a closer partnership with the United States.

At the same time, China is expanding its economic and strategic reach into the Indian Ocean region, with Xi visiting Bangladesh on Friday en route to Goa where he is expected to sign loans worth $24 billion.

"Overall, it will be an awkward summit," said Shashank Joshi, a senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London.

He added that, for India, "diplomatic isolation of Pakistan will be the most important objective."

(Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in Beijing; Editing by Mike Collett-White)

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