Brics: falling apart

Hosting international summits inevitably offers a country the opportunity to lead the agenda and provide leadership to the meeting; enhance the institution’s role in serving its members and providing global public goods; and thereby also advance its national, regional and global interests and standing. India might have sought to achieve these objectives in hosting the 8th Brics summit in Goa, but the results are at best mixed.

First, India, under the marketing-obsessed Narendra Modi government, could not resist the temptation of coining a catchy but corny theme for the summit—“Building Responsive, Inclusive and Collective Solutions”, which translates into the painfully obvious acronym Brics. Additionally, and in keeping with the same management jargon, India adopted the I4C (Institution building, Implementation, Integrating, Innovation and Continuity) approach. In reality, none of these were evident in the proceedings, which were overshadowed by one geopolitical agenda: how to isolate Pakistan.

Second, India, which registered the highest growth among all Brics and indeed G20 members, was unable to leverage its contribution towards the global economic recovery into a greater leadership role of the institution. Instead, the summit declaration makes no mention of India’s singular contribution to the global economic recovery (albeit by default). The only noteworthy development of the Brics in serving its members’ economic agenda are the achievements of the New Development Bank (NDB), which is providing a crucial impetus for renewable energy projects. Whether these projects and even the NDB can be sustained remains to be seen.

Third, instead of using the Brics summit to push for greater economic growth and a greater global governance role, New Delhi sought to use it more for the geopolitical objective of dealing with Pakistan by highlighting terrorism and by inviting Bimstec (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation) countries for a mini-summit to stress India’s Saarc (South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation) minus one approach.

In doing so New Delhi risks its global standing and national interests in three ways. First, while India’s frustration in dealing with Pakistan is evident, venting it in every plurilateral and multilateral setting will invariably lead to a re-hyphenated relationship, which is detrimental to New Delhi’s goals.

Second, this approach also leaves India vulnerable to China’s veto and highlights China’s growing economic and geopolitical influence in India’s immediate neighbourhood. Unsurprisingly then, despite Modi’s brazen “mothership of terrorism” plea, China refused to allow any specific mention of state-sponsored terrorism or Pakistan in the declaration, which simply carried an anodyne reference to terrorism. It must be particularly irksome that Russia (despite the renewed bromance with India) demurely followed China’s lead on this issue.

Similarly, while the Brics-Bimstec meetings might have been conceived by India as an alternative to the Saarc summit, it underlined that the Bimstec countries have closer economic ties with China than India. One indication of this was Xi Jinping’s visit to Bangladesh before the Goa Brics summit and the announcement of Chinese investment of about $40 billion (several times that of India) while another was the curious “coincidental” meeting between China and Nepal, which India reportedly gatecrashed.

In fact, instead of host India, China appears to have benefited the most and advanced its interest the furthest over the course of the Goa summit. Indeed, with a successful flight of two astronauts to the Chinese space station coinciding with the Brics summit, Beijing was literally flying high. Moreover, the maiden visit of Philippines president Rodrigo Duterte to China and his announcement of the “separation” from the US as well as his decision not to pursue the ruling of the international permanent court of arbitration on the South China Sea underline the growing global strategic clout of Beijing. In this context it is very likely that unless China is effectively checked, Brics (like the Shanghai Cooperation Organization) will become another vehicle to advance Beijing’s global agenda.

Against the backdrop of these developments, India’s instinct might be to declare Brics irrelevant and opt out (as it is doing with Saarc and the Non-Aligned Movement). However, this is unlikely to serve India’s long-term interests.

Opting out of existing groupings will simply allow China a free hand (even in those organizations where it is not a member but has loyal proxies). Instead, it might be better for India to remain engaged and to counter China where possible. For instance, in the Goa summit, India, along with Brazil and South Africa, was able to nix China’s proposal for a Brics free trade agreement. Clearly, there is a need to revive the forgotten India, Brazil, South Africa group—perhaps enlarge it to include Turkey, Indonesia, South Korea and the like to develop alternatives to China-centric groupings.

Similarly, India also needs to invest more in building groups that bridge the north-south divide. One such group is the G4 (Brazil, India, Germany and Japan) aspirants to the UN security council. The group has focused solely on this until now. However, it might be time to enlarge the agenda to examine how these countries can work together to enhance global governance, which is not held hostage to the traditional east-west contestation and can, perhaps, balance China.

This article was originally published by LiveMint on Octovber 24, 2016 

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Oct 24, 2016
WPS Sidhu
South Asia
China, South Asia, India