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BRICS 3.0 and India: making the world safe for bilaterals and trilaterals

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BRICS 3.0 and India: making the world safe for bilaterals and trilaterals

Abhijnan Rej

18 Nov 2019

5min min read
  • International relations
I I

t is an important harbinger of things to come that the 11th BRICS Summit – which concluded in Brasilia on Friday – barely registered in the collective consciousness of India’s foreign policy elite. While Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi made predictable liturgical statements about the importance of the grouping thousands of miles away in Brazil, they were completely shadowed by his foreign minister’s speech at a New Delhi event the day before laying out the Modi government’s grand strategy. While Modi spoke of prosaic new initiatives of the five-nation plurilateral – creation of a “human milk bank” was one of them – it was Subrahmanyam Jaishankar’s hardnosed Fourth Ramnath Goenka Lecture, steeped in frank and brutal realism, that had India’s permanent strategic establishment animated. 

Taken together, the two events point to an unmistakably bleak future for BRICS. As New Delhi embarks on a vigorous “India First” foreign-policy trajectory – buttressed by its growing wealth and visibly muscular strategic pitch – India is most likely to treat the grouping as another forum, like the four-nation US-Australia-India-Japan Quad dialogue – that provides cover for cultivation of like-minded bilateral and trilateral relationships, in line with the country’s commitment to issue-based alignments. This is consonant with a foreign-policy formula that became clear during Modi’s first term as prime minister – informal groupings matter not because they are multilateral consensus-driven platforms, but because they are avenues to further Indian national interests through concrete constituent albeit transactional relationships.

The lives of BRICS

In order to understand how BRICS got to where it is today, it is important to look back.

While the ‘birth’ of BRICS is often dated to a meeting of the foreign ministers of Brazil, Russia, India and China (BRIC) on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in 2006 – followed by a leadership summit of the BRIC ten years ago – the notion arose much earlier by way of a suggestion of the then-foreign minister of Russia, Yevgeny Primakov, in the late 1990s. In Primakov’s conception, a Eurasian strategic club of Russia, India and China (the RIC) would efficiently serve as a counterweight to – and blunt the impulses from – America’s “unipolar moment.” The RIC – which continues to be the “political nucleus” of the BRICS project –was a manifestly anti-western project the way Primakov saw it. As such, it was roundly rejected by both China and India. New Delhi being part of any anti-western bloc would have clashed with its long-standing commitment to an autonomous foreign policy in the tautological sense that being against anyone as part of a grouping is equivalent to being part of a bloc oneself.

It is with the global financial crisis of 2008-2009, however, that the RIC along with Brazil saw the potential of common cause against an international financial system whose extant orientation stood opposed to the interests of emerging economies. The BRIC’s raison d'être, in its second life, was therefore a reform of Bretton-Woods institutions, such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, so that emerging economies could find their rightful equity as their share of global economic output increased. The BRICS project of setting up alternative institutions, such as the five-nation New Development Bank (NDB) - founded in 2014 - was, simultaneously, a bargaining chip and insurance. 

It enabled the BRICS to signal to the west that its commitment to the principles and modalities of Euro-Atlantic financial globalisation was far from sacrosanct. At the same time, the NDB – as well as the Contingent Reserve Arrangement (CRA), which is chartered with the provision of emergency liquidity to the five nations in the event of another global financial crisis – was an insurance in the sense that it allows the BRICS to potentially reduce its dependence on western-led institutions should such institutions stand in the way of each of the five states’ unique developmental agendas. That said, the volume of the CRA is so small that, in the words of two American scholars, it “is chicken feed compared to Russia and Brazil’s crisis-borrowing from the IMF,” despite Russian President Vladimir Putin’s expansive rhetoric around it. For its part, India was more than happy to see China pour some of its currency reserves into these institutions where India would have had a greater say than, say, the World Bank or the IMF. 

The China challenge

Away from the rhetoric of a common unified front, ‘realism’ continued to shape India’s approach to BRICS. As Indian expert Samir Saran and I wrote in a 2016 article, “[t]he bloc offers New Delhi greater bargaining space as India seeks to gain more prominence in institutions of global governance”. As long as this was the sole impulse that shaped India’s BRICS agenda it could have lived with the zero-sum considerations within the grouping. 

"Behind the façade of BRICS rhetoric now lies a hard calculus of Indian national interests which is to be furthered one issue and one partner at a time."

But such a proposition turned out to be short-lived with India-China competition becoming pronounced in the last few years. In 2016 at the Goa Summit, India fought tooth and nail to have the final declaration include an indirect reference to Pakistan’s sponsorship of terrorism in Indian soil - Islamabad remains Beijing’s closest ally. 

New Delhi’s failure to extract this concession out of China at the summit added fuel to the already-considerable BRICS skepticism among the city’s strategic community. China and India also continue to compete heavily across the African continent, as I wrote in a 2019 article for the Africa Portal. 

A tense run-up to the summit the following year in form of a months-long military standoff between India and China didn’t help matters. India’s decision to stay away from a pan-Asia mega trade agreement in face of a serious trade deficit earlier this month – as well as an increasing and vocal territorial contestation – with China has all but meant that New Delhi’s already instrumental view of the BRICS grouping is likely to be become much more accentuated. From occupying a pride of place in Indian grand strategy to yet another club India is part of, BRICS has lost its sheen when examined under the cold light of relative gains and losses.

BRICS without mortar

The incipient foreign-policy grand strategy in Modi’s second term, as laid out in his foreign minister’s speech last week, prioritises hard-security considerations above trade-driven interdependence. Its unabashed nationalism implies that China will increasingly be seen (no matter what photo-ops and summitry seem to suggest) as a threat to be managed. In this framework, India’s commitment to furthering South-South cooperation would be transactional in the sense that it would unsentimentally prioritise Indian gains and, concomitantly, Chinese losses. At the same time, true to the issue-based engagement formula, New Delhi would also need platforms to continue engaging when it can, where it can.

How does BRICS fit into this picture in its third avatar?

First, it allows India to simultaneously cultivate a maritime India-Brazil-South Africa axis, as well as engage Russia and China as a Eurasian power. The former is an expression of India’s newfound penchant for a coalition of ‘like-minded democracies’ (just like its engagement in the Quad); the latter is to secure a strong footing as a continental power at a time when there is a real risk of a new equation emerging in Eurasia through a Sino-Russian agreement. 

Second, it allows India to use the cover of the BRICS to pursue four bilateral relationships profitably. It is not an accident that it was Modi’s bilateral discussions with Chinese president Xi Jinping – as well as his decision to invite Brazilian President Jair Bolsanaro to India’s Republic Day next year – on the sidelines of the Brasilia Summit that made news , much more than the form and content of the plurilateral summit itself. 

Behind the façade of BRICS rhetoric now lies a hard calculus of Indian national interests which is to be furthered one issue and one partner at a time.

When it comes to BRICS and India, five equals two plus four.

(Main image: South African President Matamela Cyril Ramaphosa (R), Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (2R) , Chinese President Xi Jinping (L), Russian President Vladimir Putin (2L) and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro (C) pose for a photo during a welcoming ceremony on November 13, 2019 in Brasilia, Brazil - Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images)

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of SAIIA or CIGI.