The Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa (BRICS) Grouping: Reflections
Amb Kanwal Sibal

On the eve of the BRICS summit in Goa on October 15/16 some reflections on the potential force and the inherent limitations of the grouping would be in order. BRICS as a concept does hold enormous potential to counter the enduring hegemony of the West over global affairs. A genuinely friendly and cooperative relationship between China and India alone can make a huge difference in the global balance between the West and the rest. The United States (US)-European Union (EU) grouping and North Atlantic Treaty Organisatiopn (NATO) as its military arm still dominate the global discourse on all international issues and largely determine the terms of discussions, even though power, especially economic, is shifting to Asia, particularly with China’s rise and India’s steady economic growth. Even a China-India entente, outside BRICS, could theoretically narrow the freedom that the trans-Atlantic powers have at present to shape the global agenda. We have seen how on major issues facing the international community, for western countries led by the US bringing China and India on board is a priority. Working together across the board, India and China could have considerable bargaining power. With the strength of Russia in particular and that of Brazil and South Africa added, the five BRICS countries would have the political muscle to play a major role in international governance currently marred by power-driven, ill-considered and self-serving policies of the trans-Atlantic alliance that seem to ignore their long term consequences.

The difference between the two sets of powers- US/EU/NATO and BRICS - is that on one side there is an alliance, primarily military, but also embracing political, economic and social values. On both sides of the Atlantic democracy, pluralism, media freedoms, judicial independence, entrepreneurship and the market economy strengthen unity of purpose and action. The international propagation of these shared values, backed aggressively by the tools of “soft power” and military power where considered necessary, forms the global agenda of the trans-Atlantic alliance. As against this, BRICS is neither a military alliance nor one based on shared values. China is authoritarian while India is democratic. Russia has much more democracy and is much less authoritarian than China, but its political, economic and social structures differ from those of India. Barring India, and to some extent Brazil, the other three countries lack soft power. The Soviet Union as an ideological state had immense soft power; Russia as a non-ideological state has lost most of it, though it still retains tremendous military power, though, beyond its nuclear and missile capabilities, not enough to match the US. China is building its military strength and has begun to pose a challenge to the US in the western Pacific. Brazil and South Africa have no strategic capabilities. The disparate nature of BRICS prevents cohesiveness of policies and actions except on a limited range of issues, primarily related to the reform of the global financial system and establishing new financial institutions that would spur that process.

The fault lines within BRICS that weaken the grouping cannot be ignored. Some of them impact directly on India’s interests. China is occupying our territory in the north, and even if we were to treat it as a fact on the ground that we cannot change, it lays additional claims on large parts of our territory in the east. China provokes periodic military incidents on the border, timed always to make a political point. It shows no real inclination to settle the border issue, and in the interim it opposes clarification of the Line of Actual Control. Even as it engages us on the economic front and cooperates with us on global issues of shared interest such as reform of the Bretton Woods institutions, climate change, the Doha Round and so on, China has not relented in building up Pakistan against us in diverse ways. It refuses to recognise us a nuclear weapon state, opposes our membership of the Nuclear Supply Group (NSG) on the ground that we have not signed the Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT), promotes rivalry between India and Pakistan for NSG membership and boosts Pakistan’s nuclear capability in violation of its international obligations. Its China-Pakistan Economic Corridor that passes through territory that is legally ours is a deliberate provocation, consistent with its policy of treating Pakistan Occupied Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) differently from J&K with us. This bolsters Pakistan’s position that the “dispute” in J&K pertains only to our part of Kashmir and not what Pakistan illegally occupies.

While on terrorism there is now a growing international consensus that it is a menace to be fought collectively, and China subscribes to formulations that reject terrorism in all its forms and manifestations and any distinction between good and bad terrorists and so on, when it comes to India China is complicit with Pakistan in preventing Pakistan based terrorists acting against India from being designated as international terrorists by the relevant UN Security Council committee. While being fully aware of India’s sensitivities in this regard and the legitimacy of our case, China has repeatedly blocked the designation of Jaish-e-Muhammed chief Masood Azhar as a terrorist by the UN. It has also shielded Lashkar-e-Taiba’s Lakhvi earlier. It seeks to treat India’s problem with terrorism within the ambit of India-Pakistan differences that requires a dialogue between them for its resolution, rather than a case requiring international attention. While the Fortaleza Declaration of the BRICS summit in Brazil in 2014 supported the finalisation of a UN Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism, the Ufa Declaration of 2015 makes no mention of it. This despite the fact that our government has been actively campaigning for it at diplomatic levels. Obviously, the China-Pakistan factor intervened. In fact, the paras on terrorism in the Ufa declaration speak of the situation in Syria, Afghanistan and Africa but India’s problem with terrorism is passed under silence.

On our candidature for permanent membership of the United Nation Security Council, whereas France and United Kingdom support our candidature unambiguously, the US has conceded our eligibility as and when Security Council expansion is decided, and Russia gives support at the bilateral level, within BRICS we are not able to get the requisite support. Clearly the China factor is at play again. The formulation in BRICS summit statements to the effect that “China and Russia reiterate the importance they attach to the status and role of Brazil, India and South Africa in international affairs and support their aspiration to play a greater role in the UN” is unsatisfactory, if not patronising. South Africa has not declared its candidature as India and Brazil have done and mentioning it in the formulation seems a diplomatic ruse for avoiding giving India and Brazil clear support.

When the BRIC grouping was first announced the individual countries were forging ahead economically and were recognised as emerging economies that would play an increasingly important role in the globalised economy. Today the image of the majority of BRICS countries has taken a battering. The Russian economy is in serious trouble as a result of the steep fall in oil prices. The ruble has got heavily devalued. US and EU sanctions have added to Russia’s financial difficulties. The Russia economy has not undergone the needed structural reforms. Brazil under President Lula was riding the crest of economic expansion but since then the economy has slumped and the country is in political disarray. South Africa, relatively a much smaller economy compared to the other four, is in political and economic difficulty too. China’s economic stature as the second largest economy and the world’s biggest exporting country remains formidable but its economy too is slowing down, with excess capacity and massive indebtedness clouding the country’s economic outlook. Coupled with wide spread anti-globalisation sentiments across the western world, the challenges before the BRICS countries will not ease.

India is a relative bright spot in the global economy and within BRICS, but it needs massive investments in infrastructure and major technology transfers to build its economy to the levels it aspires. In short, BRICS countries cannot rely upon each other to build a mutually supportive economic framework within which they can grow. As it is, the biggest economic partner of China is the US, which is the case with India too. This places a limit on the concept of “south-south cooperation” that BRICS countries subscribe to. Russia-China trade and economic ties have expanded greatly but the latest figures show a decline. India’s trade ties with China are stuck around $ 70 billion, with the trade deficit close to $ 50 billion, which is unsustainable. Political distrust between India and China is hampering Chinese investments in India. The $ 20 billion investment figure indicated during President Xi’s last visit to India has remained on paper. India-Russia economic ties are stagnant despite efforts on both sides to promote business to business ties. Actually, bilateral trade in 2015 amounted to a mere US$ 7.83 billion, which is a decline of 17.74% over 2014. India-Russia political and military ties remain strong but Russia’s military overtures to Pakistan is introducing a troubling element in our longstanding ties of confidence with that country. The motives behind the sale of offensive military equipment to Pakistan and conducting military exercises with the armed forces of a country responsible for inflicting casualties on Russian forces in Afghanistan is not clear. If these overtures had been made in the context of a visible change of Pakistani policies towards India and signs of abandoning its use of terrorism as an instrument of state policy, it might have made some sense. But with the Taliban increasingly active in Afghanistan and occurring just after the Uri attack the purpose and timing of the exercises is difficult to comprehend. Whether the gain accruing to Russia from these supportive gestures towards Pakistan is worth the loss of confidence in Russia’s evolving approach to the Indian sub-continent is something the Russian government has to assess. The India-Russia annual summit at Goa just before the BRICS summit should provide an opportunity to clarify matters.

Other differences of importance between BRICS countries also affect its impact in global affairs. India has serious reservations about China’s One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative. Its land dimension constitutes outflanking India strategically. Its maritime dimension prepares for the ingress of China’s navy in the Indian Ocean in due course, with Gwadar to serve as an eventual naval base for China. Russia supports the OBOR initiative. China’s defiance of international law in the South China Sea and its belligerence on territorial issues there raises concerns in India because of unsettled territorial issues between the two countries. Russia, however, is extending political support to China on the South China Sea dispute, accompanied recently by joint naval exercises in this area. While India’s improving ties with the US are independent of its ties with Russia, the sharp deterioration of US-Russia relations makes the task of strengthening the strategic entente amongst BRICS on issues confronting the international community that much more difficult. While Russian foreign policy experts convey that Russia’s move towards the East is now a durable policy choice in view of US/EU rejection of Russia’s European vocation, it is moot whether the strategic aim of Russia to have a relationship with Europe independent of the US has been definitively abandoned and whether the underlying incompatibilities between Russia and China and China’s ascendancy over Russia as a power will not place limits on how far Russia and China will make common cause against western hegemony, knowing that the more that hegemony is contested, the more it will benefit China.

All this is not to say that BRICS does not serve any useful purpose. After all, many of the problems we face in getting the BRICS countries to support our vital interests we face in our relations with the US too, and yet we see merit in expanding our ties with that country. It is useful to have a platform for non-western countries spanning various continents to express their views on international issues and seek more balanced solutions to problems. It is important to democratise international governance and promote consensus building. We have common interest with BRICS countries to ensure that the traditional principles for conducting international relations such as non-interference in the internal affairs of countries and respect for national sovereignty, are adhered to and that international issues should be addressed through multilateral processes anchored in the United Nations rather than through coalitions of the willing outside a UN mandate. We also oppose the geopolitical use of the concepts of democracy and human rights to destabilise legitimate regimes and double standards in their application. We too want the international financial institutions to be reformed to reflect the shift of global economic power towards Asia, seeking in particular a redistribution of IMF quotas. The BRICS initiated New Development Bank and the Multilateral Contingency Reserve Arrangement are important achievements as they reflect newly developed financial capacities of non-western countries to promote development projects and offer lending when needed. The objective of promoting the use of national currencies in intra BRICS trade will give more financial autonomy to member countries. The use of the dollar by the US as weapon to impose financial sanctions on countries is a troubling reality. Our BRICs membership helps us also to maintain a balance in our foreign policy and retain our strategic autonomy. Our traditional relationship with Russia, the need to engage China despite our differences and strengthen ties with Brazil- a member of the Group of four countries seeking permanent membership of the UN Security Council- are objectives served by our BRICS membership.

Even if BRICS retains a degree of importance for us, activities under its rubric have got inflated beyond measure. A more realistic view has to be taken about the value of these activities. We do not have such broad based engagement with the US, Europe, ASEAN or SAARC. We have invited BIMSTEC countries for special outreach in our capacity as the current chair of BRICS, but the BIMSTEC agenda too is nowhere near that of BRICS in terms of its scope. It covers energy, customs issues, e-commerce, narcotics, competition polices, outer space, foreign policy, West Asian situation, think-tanks, education, youth affairs, ICTs, economic and trade issues, trade unions, inter-bank cooperation, culture, labour and employment, population, agriculture, science and technology and innovation, telecommunications, disaster management, anti-corruption, media, legal cooperation, industrial issues, meeting of heads of tax authorities and of national statistics, social protection systems, meeting of senior officials in charge of international development assistance, BRICS Global Universities Summit, meeting of heads of migration authorities, industrial safety regulation, dialogue on peacekeeping, BRICS Council of Regions and so on. BRICS has academic, business, parliamentary, financial, young diplomats and young scientists’ forums. This has little to do with the substance of the inter-se country relationship within BRICS. Only an intensive, growing relationship which is bringing the BRICS countries together in a host of areas and is materially shaping their policies and their overall relationship would justify the actual hyped-up agenda. These intensive exchanges are not being translated into a real rapprochement between the five BRICS countries.

BRICS as a forum has value but over-valuing it would be a mistake.

(The author is a former Foreign Secretary and Dean, VIF)

Published Date: 14th October 2016, Image Source:
(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Vivekananda International Foundation)

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