BRICS grouping lacks enough mortar to bind it together

It was not intended to be a formal grouping at all

Photo: AFP
Photo: AFP

By TP Sreenivasan

Published: Mon 4 Jul 2022, 10:26 AM

Formal groups of countries are formed under different circumstances at different times. Most often they are dictated by geography, history, ideology, similarity of views or shared problems. Major powers constitute groups under their tutelage to wield influence. Many of them remain active for long, but some lose relevance or cohesion because of bilateral issues or lack of a clear vision or direction. Some may also have outlived their utility. But very few get wound up and they remain in name without being convened. There have also been cases of old groups being revived to tackle new situations or new dynamics among the members. Some groups like the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) are unable to meet because it cannot meet unless all the members agree to attend.

BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) which held a virtual a summit meeting under the Chairmanship of China in June was the brain-child of a Goldman Sachs economist, who wanted to categorise Brazil, Russia, India and China, which were expected to collectively dominate global growth by 2050. It was not intended to be a formal grouping at all. But seeing the possibility of developing a non-Western global economic system, China welcomed the idea of BRICS as the nucleus of a new economic grouping and invested energy and resources in building it. The others, joined later by South Africa were also attracted by the idea of creating a catalyst to form an alternative to the Bretton Woods institutions. India was not enthusiastic about it because it was feared that it would be seen as a counter to the existing global system.

The composition of the group had its own contradictions right from the beginning. Two permanent members of the Security Council, together with three aspirants to permanent membership appeared like two carnivores and three herbivores invited to the same meal with little possibility of a change in the menu. But the grouping focussed on possibilities of cooperation among them by developing institutions like the New Development Bank, the Contingent Reserve Arrangement and cooperation in certain sectors.

The fundamental question of support for the three countries to secure permanent membership was fossilised on China’s position that the role of the developing countries should be enhanced, implying that there shall be no expansion of the permanent membership of the Security Council. Russia’s support for India also got diluted as a result. Even at the best of times, the BRICS partnership did not result in support for its three partners.

BRICS gradually grew into a forum which encouraged cooperation among its members, though China held sway and gave lesser responsibilities to others. The New Development Bank had grown to be a $100 billion entity with 79 projects worth $ 29.3 billion.

The Contingent Reserve Arrangement gained assets worth a $100 billion. The group was poised for growth with the participation of the five countries and other developing countries began to show interest in participation.

But the situation of the member countries of BRICS had undergone a sea change by the time the fourteenth summit was convened to the extent that it became doubtful whether all the members would be willing to attend. The fragile framework of limited cooperation between India and China was shattered with the bloodshed at Galwan in 2020. The treaties, agreements and agreed procedures established over the years dis- appeared, leaving it for the two countries to find a new framework. But India decided to attend in the spirit multilateralism to deter- mine the dynamics of the future course of the dynamics in the Indo-Pacific.

The change of the status of Russia in the grouping was even more dramatically different since February 2022. The balance that existed in the group between China and Russia disappeared after China and Russia agreed on uninhibited cooperation between them. Russia had shown some inclination to facilitate a discussion between India and China, but after February 2022, Russia is legally obliged to take the Chinese side in any future showdown between India and China.

If Russia had agreed to end the war and begin negotiations with Ukraine and China had disengaged from areas occupied in 2020, it would have marked a change for the better. With Russia continuing its war in Ukraine and China-India border tensions not abating, they had no credibility in restating many of the principles included in the long Joint Communique. The words like responsive, effective, transparent, democratic, objective, action-oriented and credible sounded hollow.

China pushed for an expansion of the group by inviting some like-minded countries to join the BRICS leaders to discuss global development, but there was no enthusiasm for it among the others before establishing a global agenda for the group in the new context. BRICS was being built brick by brick over the years, but the mortar which was necessary to hold the edifice was found lacking at its 14th summit.

The writer is a former Indian ambassador

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