Border row set aside as BRICS trade ministers vow to work together

Chinese minister hails Shanghai talks a ‘great success’ as foreign ministry again calls for India to withdraw troops from disputed border area

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 02 August, 2017, 10:40pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 02 August, 2017, 11:08pm

A gathering of trade ministers from the BRICS bloc of emerging market economies ended on Wednesday with a joint pledge to boost cooperation, as a protracted border row between China and India rumbled on.

At the Shanghai meeting – also attended by ministers from Brazil, Russia and South Africa – China’s Minister of Commerce Zhong Shan hailed the trade talks as a “great success”.

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But in Beijing, the foreign ministry again urged India to “unconditionally and immediately” withdraw its troops from Doklam, or Donglang as it is known in China – a remote plateau in the Himalayas that is also claimed by Bhutan.

Beijing and New Delhi have engaged in a war of words over a military stand-off in the area since June, yet the world’s two most populous nations continue to set aside deep-rooted suspicion and resentment as they seek to strengthen economic ties.

The two-day meeting is a key ministerial gathering ahead of the BRICS summit, which will be held in the southern city of Xiamen in September. Chinese President Xi Jinping is expected to host Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the summit.

At the meeting in Shanghai, attended by Indian trade minister Nirmala Sitharaman, ministers came up with a range of promises and guidelines to improve cooperation in service trade, e-commerce, intellectual property rights protection and investment promotion.

On the commerce ministry’s website, the transcript of a press conference held after the meeting showed only questions from Chinese media – none of them to do with the border dispute.

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But Wang Yiwei, a professor at Renmin University’s international studies school, said the border row could not be ignored.

“The China-India border tensions overshadowed the meeting, but they have to cooperate within the bloc,” Wang said. “This hostile environment does make it harder for them to make progress.”

Wang added that the dispute could make it difficult for other regional groupings such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, which India joined in June.

Meanwhile India has so far given China the cold shoulder over its sprawling belt and road scheme to revive ancient trading routes from Asia to Europe and Africa.

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The share of protectionism by BRICS members among the Group of 20 nations has fallen sharply this year, according to Simon Evenett, a professor with the University of St Gallen in Switzerland and an expert with monitoring agency the Global Trade Alert.

But he noted that the member nations “don’t fully coordinate their trade policies”.

China and India are the world’s two fastest-growing major economies, but trade turnover between them fell in 2016. China’s gross domestic product grew 6.7 per cent last year, while India’s expanded 7.1 per cent in the fiscal year to March.

Bilateral trade fell 1.7 per cent in 2016 from the previous year, according to official Indian data.

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India launched 12 unfair trade cases against China in the first half of this year – more than the 11 the US filed against Chinese imports, according to official data from China. Last month, India also began an anti-dumping investigation into Chinese solar cell products.

But China and India have good reason to find common ground within the BRICS bloc and beyond, said Huo Jianguo, former chief of a think tank under the commerce ministry. “BRICS will find it easier to make its voice heard as a group in global governance rather than as individual countries,” Huo said.