BRICs and G-2
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When you are on top of a heap, you get a better perspective than when you are at its bottom. That is what probably separates China and India at this week's talk-fest in Yekaterinburg. India has gone to Yekaterinburg because of its abiding sense of obligation to Russia. The Chinese, in contrast, are in the Urals to enjoy a free political ride. China has two reasons to encourage Russia's anti-Western bravado. If someone has to bash the Americans, why not get the Russians to do it? The harder the Russians go at America, Beijing knows, the greater its own leverage with Washington.
This, indeed, is an old story. Russia's confrontation with the West helped China get better terms from the British imperialists in the nineteenth century and the hegemonic Americans in the twentieth. The twenty-first century, however, is different with China ranked higher than Russia. The Obama administration has confirmed the new global pecking order when it declared that managing its bilateral relationship with China is the most important foreign policy priority. The idea of 'Group of Two' — America and China — jointly managing the world has steadily gained ground since Barack Obama took charge of Washington.
Russia might have thousands of nuclear weapons and could yet blow up and the world in an instant. But it is not Russia's rusty nuke arsenal that keeps Americans awake at night. It is China's ability to threaten mutually assured financial destruction that makes the Anglo-Saxons nervous. It is no secret that only the Chinese have the clout to negotiate with the Americans on global financial system. Why should any one expect Beijing to dilute its own power by sharing it with the rest of the BRICs?
The Han and the Slavs
If BRICs is Russia's baby, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation is the only international forum that has been founded by China. Beijing's objective was simple — to stabilise its distant western frontiers by engaging the Central Asian neighbours.
For China, Russia was a useful partner in Eurasia. Neither of them wants an expansion of US influence in inner Asia. Nor do Beijing and Moscow take kindly to Washington's half-baked efforts at promoting democratic revolutions on their borders. Like all else in world politics, the recent convergence of the Han and Slav interests in Eurasia is not permanent.
As China becomes stronger than Russia, Moscow will necessarily have to rethink its ties to Beijing and Washington.As it serenades the disparate bunch from SCO and BRICs in Yekaterinburg this week, Russia is gearing up to receive President Obama in Moscow next month. Obama's promise to 'reset' relations with Russia has boosted Moscow's hopes for a renewed partnership with Washington. It is not for nothing that Russia's national symbol is an eagle with two heads — one looking east and the other looking west.
Tragedy or farce?
If the BRICs and SCO are Russian and Chinese bargaining chips with America, what is India doing at Yekaterinburg? India has traveled down this road before when it deluded itself about Asian unity in the early years after independence and ignored the gathering crisis with China.
Within a decade Delhi was locked in a debilitating conflict with Beijing. Delhi faces similar challenges with Beijing today. These include the stalled boundary talks, deepening distrust on Tibet, and the gathering sense of mutual geopolitical encirclement.
If India sweeps these difficult bilateral issues under the carpet and indulges in soaring multilateral rhetoric with China, Beijing will administer a painful reality check sooner than later.Those in the South Block who remember the tragic results from the delusions of Asian unity in the 1950s, one hopes, do recognise that the chatter in Yekaterinburg on Eurasian solidarity is little more than that.
The writer is a professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.