At the BRICS Forum in Shanghai

Eighteen days – 5 in Chennai, one in Bangalore, one in Delhi, 3 in Madurai, 2 in Munnar, 2 in Coimbatore and 4 in Shanghai. Back in Singapore on 14th July. Difficult to start somewhere. LIFO.

Close your eyes to Chinese signage in Shanghai and walk, it is a European city. Well-manicured lawns, tree-lined streets, cleaned regularly, high rises and international brands. Impressive. Forgot that they drive on the right side of the road and use American English! Last visit was in 2010 . So much for America’s declining power. Pudong airport itself was not particularly impressive for me. Changi is better. Pu-dong and Pu-shi simply refer to the western and eastern shores of the river Huangpu. My Indian friend who has been living there for seven years told me. He said that the local governments in big cities were mostly efficient and that one did not have to enter police stations with trepidation. The city was a sauna. My friend said it was so only in July and otherwise much pleasant. Daybreak occurred early enough but not as in European cities in summer. It was daylight at 5 AM.

On the road, Shanghai drivers stop for red light even during late evenings and in early mornings. But, they do not wait for pedestrians to finish crossing. Shanghai airport has provided enough counters to check passports and also security points to get passengers moving. It has already become a bottleneck in Mumbai airport. The passport control and security checks have long lines and waiting times there. I traveled from Coimbatore to Shanghai via Mumbai and Hong Kong. I had to beg every one in the line to let me move to the front of the queue as, otherwise, I would have missed my Cathay Pacific flight in Mumbai to Hong Kong.

I had gone there to attend the BRICS related round-table organised by the Shanghai Institute of International Studies and a public event organised by the local government of Shanghai with support from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Beijing. Two speeches and one panel discussion. Pushed my hosts to think of why America mattered and why China and Asia have committed the same mistakes that are making them predict the decline of the West. Some nodded in private. A newspaper report on my speech omitted those details. Some foreigners – consular officials of South American nations stationed in Shanghai – lauded the speech. May be, they were polite. My hosts were courteous and polite. I was representing the Gateway House in Mumbai. I am a Senior Adjunct Fellow for Geo-economic studies with them.

That I was a Singapore national of Indian origin gave me cover to drive home some unpleasant facts. They did not raise the Doklam standoff with me, except for one. In general, the feeling one got was that they were a bit overconfident now of their standing. No doubts were raised on ‘One Belt-One Road’ (OBOR) by anyone. Brazil was well represented at the round-table. They were feisty. That is all I can say. Good for them.

Did not realise that Google Mail and google could not be accessed. I am not on Twitter or Facebook. So, that did not bother me. But, in some places, Gmail mails downloaded. Don’t know how. Foreigners use their own Virtual Private Network (VPN) to overcome the official firewalls. But, apparently, it is a cat-and-mouse game with the authorities. The WiFi at the hotel was weak, however. Foreigners can own satellite dishes and watch foreign channels. Locals get to watch CCTV.

I did not get the impression that China was cooling off on BRICS. On the contrary, I think, they find uses for it. It provides them a platform to pursue bilateral power agendas under a multilateral cover. Then, they can always intimidate (or seduce) their relatively smaller powers within the BRICS group.

Samir Saran had said this about Russian attitude towards China:

Still, never in their wildest dreams would China’s leaders have imagined the servility Russia is now demonstrating.

A Russia that once killed the opportunity to integrate with Western Europe because Moscow was unwilling to play anything less than ‘big brother’ now seems willing to play second fiddle to the Chinese dragon. Such was the level of kowtowing to China’s ambitions and agenda that many at the track II meetings over the past couple of months remarked that Russia had officially replaced South Africa as China’s ‘B Team’ within BRICS.

One Russian proposition went so far as to suggest that the New Development Bank (NDB; a joint BRICS development bank but one which is strongly influenced by Beijing) must support and lend to the Chinese One Belt One Road initiative. This was reminiscent of the concentration of all financial flows in the past century serving to reinforce US power.

There is room for disagreement with the equivalence he draws between the financial flows to the USA and Russia’s proposal to have the NDB fund OBOR. But, this is not the occasion to debate that.

On the Doklam standoff between India and China involving Bhutan, Jeff Smith in ‘War on the Rocks’ has a very comprehensive piece. Worth reading. For Indian perspectives, I recommend Shyam Saran, Brahma Chellaney, Siddharth Singh and Nitin Pai. For Chinese perspective, you always have the ‘Global Times’.

Will write on the other fourteen days of this sojourn separately.


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