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IBSA Dialogue Forum: Problems and Prospects

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  • October 15, 2008
    Round Table
    Only by Invitation

    India will be hosting the third IBSA Summit on October 15, 2008 at New Delhi. Inaugurated in June 2003, the India-Brazil-South Africa (IBSA) Trilateral Dialogue Forum is a unique model of trans-national co-operation, as the three countries come from three different continents and yet share similar worldviews and aspirations. Five meetings of the Trilateral Ministerial Commission have already taken place, the last one in May 2008 at Pretoria. The first historic IBSA summit was held in September 2006 at Brasilia and the second in October 2007 at Tshwane, South Africa. Around sixteen working groups have been set up to cover diverse areas like agriculture, climate change, environment, education, energy, health, science and technology, tourism, trade, transport, culture and defence, amongst others.

    The IDSA organised a round table on September 15, 2008 to discuss the problems and prospects of the IBSA Dialogue Forum. The objective of the roundtable was to generate a fresh perspective on the issue prior to the forthcoming IBSA summit.

    Around twenty experts from the diplomatic corps and academia participated, including Shri Shashank, Former Foreign Secretary, Ambassador R. Rajagopalan, IDSA EC Member, Shri Amit Dasgupta, Joint Secretary, MEA, Mr. Ashok Tomar, Joint Secretary, MEA, Prof. Varun Sahni, Prof. Abdul Nafey, Prof. Hussein Solomon from JNU, Dr. Ash Narain Roy, the Institute for Social Sciences, Dr. Arvind Gupta, Lal Bahadur Shastri Chair at IDSA, Ms. Ruchita Beri, Research Officer at IDSA, Sujit Dutta, Senior Fellow at IDSA, Prof. P. Stobdan, Senior Fellow at IDSA, and others.

    The discussion focused on several issues like possibility of long term existence and functioning of the forum, its importance and role in the international arena, the relevance of IBSA Dialogue Forum for India in the present international context and in future, as well as the challenges and limitations facing the forum.

    Strategic Partnership

    Is IBSA dialogue forum only a vehicle for South-South Cooperation or does it serves a larger purpose? There was a consensus that the forum is not merely a grouping for South-South Cooperation, but that it is a strategic partnership between the three countries. The contours of the partnership are being defined in respect to the changing international and regional environment. A number of factors contribute to the strategic partnership between the three countries. First, all the three member countries, India, Brazil and South Africa, are emerging powers that are also dominant in their respective regions. At the same time, for all three partners IBSA is an important tool of foreign policy. Moreover, the forum has helped fructify common positions on various strategic issues like UN reforms, climate change, fairer trade regimes etc., by the three countries. They have been able to coordinate some of their positions in the WTO. Most importantly for India, South Africa and Brazil’s backing has played a great role in the Indo-US Nuclear Cooperation Agreement passing through the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG).

    It was also felt that the dialogue forum is aimed at improving understanding among each other and the fact that its leaders meet at regular intervals and feel the need to talk to each other is a pointer towards the importance of the forum in the years to come.

    Relevance for India

    The IBSA forum is very important from India’s point of view. Both Brazil and South Africa are important for India, economically and strategically. India has a bilateral trade of around US$ 4.5 billion with South Africa and it is about $2.5 billion with Brazil. Indian companies are acquiring presence in Brazil and South Africa. Participants agreed that diversification of India’s foreign policy is extremely important at this moment. It is very much in India’s interest to give priority to a forum like IBSA. It was felt that, unlike India, the other two countries are regionally united and function in a cohesive regional environment. In that sense, it remains a challenge for India to deal with these two countries.

    The world is changing fast and diverse interests are emerging every day. India must learn to grow in an environment of varieties of regional cooperation, global impacts, etc. IBSA provides the forum for India to interact with important countries in different regions of the world. As an emerging global power, India must understand other countries. India should deal not only with the big powers but also with other regional powers and explore opportunities in every region. For that, India needs to significantly increase its manpower and establishment. In clear strategic terms, it is important for India to build relationships/partnerships around the world.

    Limitations and Challenges

    Participants felt that there were some limitations and challenges that the forum is facing at the moment. There is a visible lack of coordination among the three member countries. The three countries have to synergise their efforts and build upon mutual complementarities. The conference also felt that all three countries of the forum face severe challenges and competition from other countries of their respective regions for the leadership role. For instance, India faces challenges from Pakistan, Indonesia and Malaysia; South Africa from Nigeria and Egypt; and Brazil from Argentina and Mexico. Also, the agreements individual members have signed with other international organisations/entities can have an impact on the coordination and functioning of the forum. The forum can grow effectively only if it functions without any hindrances. There are several internal issues that haunt the three member countries – corruption, increasing crime rates, political violence, economic inequality, etc., which need to be addressed properly by the individual countries for the forum to be successful.

    Apart from the usual channels of political and economic cooperation and development, participants felt that the involvement of civil society and business enterprises should be strengthened to make the dialogue forum more successful. Some were of the view that civil society participation should not be independent of the government. Rather, it should be a public-private partnership to be more effective. Participants also felt that further cooperation in the fields of energy, food security, transport, health, security and information technology can be mooted in the coming days and that member countries should learn from each other’s best practices in various fields.

    Finally, a consensus emerged around the table that the potential of the IBSA forum as a strategic partnership between three regional powers from three different continents remains beyond doubt. Compared to other multilateral fora of which India is a member (e.g. IOR-ARC, BIMSTEC) IBSA’s record is quite creditable. However, the grouping should move in due course from being a forum for dialogue to becoming a vehicle for concrete socio-economic cooperation so that its benefits are shared by the common man as well. Awareness about IBSA is low and needs to be increased. Member countries need to address the limitations and challenges the forum faces, urgently. It remains to be seen how the forum plays a role in the international arena and influences multilateral entities like WTO and the UN.


    The Round Table felt that given the growing importance of the IBSA dialogue forum as a vehicle of cooperation between India, Brazil and South African, IDSA jointly with the Ministry of External Affairs should establish an IBSA Strategic Dialogue, bringing together experts from these three countries to brainstorm on the path of the IBSA strategic partnership. This could be organised as a part of the larger IBSA summit outreach events, with IDSA as the nodal point in India. Further, academic exchanges amongst the universities and ‘think tanks’ of the three countries should be enhanced. This will help generate knowledge about each other and also strengthen trilateral ties.

    Prepared by Ruchita Beri and Prasanta Kumar Pradhan.