Whither BRICS?
Amb Skand Ranjan Tayal

President Vladimir Putin had invited the leaders of Brazil, India and China to Yekaterinburg in June 2009 as the four large emerging economies had felt the need to express their views jointly after participating in the first summit level meeting of G-20 in Washington in November 2008.

The Yekaterinburg Joint Statement clearly implied that the four countries would act as a pressure group within G-20 at the Pittsburg Summit in September 2009 where the G-7 countries were to come with a common agenda and priorities. The brief one page joint statement advocated reform of international financial institutions and supported a ‘more democratic and just multi-polar world based on the rule of international law---’.

Since 2009 the world has changed fundamentally. Among the BRICS members, China has outpaced the rest in economic growth, is the second largest economy and does not need BRICS to pursue its own economic agenda. Russia is facing sanctions and international isolation after its ‘Special Operation’ in Ukraine in February 2022. Brazil and South Africa are facing strong economic headwinds. Only India is on course to be the third largest economy in the world by the end of this decade.

After facing the pandemic, the world is nervously staring at an incoming cold war on the horizon with US and its allies on one side and an expansionist China and a beleaguered Russia on the other. India-China relations are ‘abnormal’ if not ‘unfriendly’.

In this radically changed international strategic environment at the 15th BRICS Summit at Johannesburg on 22-24 August 2023 China, in collusion with host South Africa, has succeeded in changing the character, membership and objectives of BRICS-as world knew it.

The character of the group has been changed from a closed club of likeminded large emerging economies to a body with open doors, amorphous agenda and little in common among the members except that they are not members of OECD!

Despite Indian and Brazilian reservations, China and South Africa succeeded in short circuiting the process of admission of new members without determining any clear and objective criteria for the new members. It would be logical to conclude that South Africa actively encouraged countries to seek membership of BRICS as reportedly there are 40 countries interested in membership with 22 having formally applied. Finally, six- Argentina, Ethiopia, Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia and UAE- were admitted and will join BRICS on 1 January 2024.

At Johannesburg Summit, the South African sources sought to portray India as the spoiler impeding admission of new members. Reuters on 24 August reported from Johannesburg that the agreement on new members had been delayed after ‘Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi introduced new admission criteria’ like incoming members not being target of international sanctions and all decisions to be by consensus. The report alleged that India was also pushing for a minimum per capita GDP requirement.

India needs to be careful in formulating its stand on new members. While the list of applicant countries is not in public domain, most would be our friends. There is hardly any justification in India attempting to slow down the inexorable growth in membership of BRICS and lose goodwill among the aspirant countries.

The objectives of BRICS have also been evolving overtime. While initially the focus was on economic and development related issues, now its declarations encompass all social, political and strategic subjects also. The 26 page 94 para Johannesburg II document adopted on 24 August 2023 frames the objectives as to inter alia ‘promote a more representative, fairer international order, a reinvigorated and reformed multilateral system, sustainable development and inclusive growth.’ The document is aspirational, repeats well known positions and would largely be ignored by the world.

What sets BRICS apart from other talk shops is the successful operation of the ‘New Development Bank’ (NDB) under its auspices. Since its inception in 2015, the total value of approved financing by NDB is $30 Billion. Notably, of the 98 approved projects, 24 are in India. As the criteria for credit approval are not as stringent as other multilateral Banks, even non-members of BRICS are keen to join NDB and Bangladesh, Egypt, UAE and Uruguay are already members in addition to the original five. The success of NDB as an alternative to the established multilateral lenders is attracting attention. Werner Hoyer, the Head of European Investment Bank, has warned that the western governments were in danger of losing the confidence of the ‘Global South’, unless they urgently increased their own financing for poorer countries.

India needs to carefully adjust to this new BRICS and strive to retain its ‘leading’ role. This would require careful planning, forward thinking and deft diplomacy with the present eleven members as well as the aspirants.

Our endeavor could be to go back to the original purpose of BRICS in 2009, and enlarge it to articulate the vision of the ‘Global South’ at G-20 and other relevant fora where other BRICS members are absent. This could be a counterfoil to the harmonized G-7 positions on critical issues and would be a continuation of India’s emergence during its G-20 Presidency as a bridge between North and South. In fact, at the recently concluded New Delhi Summit, India has succeeded in changing the character of G-20. It is no longer a closed club of 19 largest economies and EU. With the skillfully orchestrated admission of African Union as a permanent member, the voice of 54 African countries would be a part of the agenda of all G-20 deliberations in the future.

While India has a principled stand in advocating some objective criteria for new members, this should be handled tactfully so that we do not run the risk of annoying friendly aspirant countries. We should also not again be blindsided. Most multilateral groups have a permanent secretariat. India should have a clear position if this is raised by some members in the future.

US National Security Advisor does not see BRICS turning into a geopolitical rival of the US due to the member countries’ “divergence of views on critical issues.” It is hard to disagree with him. Thus, any Chinese design to steer enlarged BRICS in an anti-West group is unlikely to succeed.

With indiscriminate increase in membership the expanded BRICS is likely to lose focus and may be on a slow march to irrelevance. Only NDB is a bright spark and needs to be infused with fresh capital and financing.

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>

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