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BRICS Baby Steps: The Challenges Ahead

Dr. R. N. Das is Senior Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • March 22, 2013

    The fifth edition of the BRICS forum is set to be held in Durban, South Africa, on 26 and 27 of March 2013. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is scheduled to meet the newly elected President of China Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the summit. This will be their first meeting, although they have earlier had a telephonic conversation and an exchange of communication.

    As BRICS takes its baby steps, mentoring it is quite a challenge. China’s pivotal role in the forum is indisputable given the size of its economy and its weight. But the role and contribution of all the member countries including that of India should also be acknowledged and recognised. Both India and China together played a positive and proactive role in helping the process of recovery following the global financial crisis, though many will debate whether it was a global financial crisis or a western financial crisis. Be that as it may, strategic trust between India and China, two main drivers of the BRICS, is a prerequisite for its success. Much before BRICS came into existence, India and China had elevated their relationship to the strategic level during the visit of Premier Wen Jiabao to India in April 2005. Making a suo motu statement in Parliament, Dr. Manmohan Singh had said at that time that the strategic partnership between India and China was not in the nature of a military pact or alliance, but reflected a congruence of purpose apart from a common perception of world events. In fact, the joint statement issued by the two leaders asserted that the two countries stood for the establishment of a new international political and economic order that was fair, rational, equal, and mutually beneficial and promoted North-South dialogue and South-South cooperation. This spirit permeates the very aims and objectives of BRICS.

    The idea of BRICS was waiting to happen in the cyclic order of the world economy. The arrival of BRICS is a resounding statement of emerging economies. BRICS as a political entity can be said to have germinated from the informal meeting among Russia, India and China, the three core members of the grouping. Its success depends on coordination, synergy and cooperation among all the member countries. BRICS has provided China with an excellent platform to showcase its global leadership. China never had such an exposure except briefly during the Banding Conference when it rallied behind the Afro-Asian resurgence along with India. On that occasion, India, being critical of Western dominance of international order, had a nuanced position with regard to its engagement with the West, while China was acerbic about the capitalist West. Things, of course, are quite different now. China’s mentoring of BRICS coincides with its economic and political ascendance, and in that sense it is a force multiplier. The strategy it has adopted is very simple. It wants to reform the international order, particularly the economic institutions like IMF and World Bank, by being a part of the system and in this exercise it seeks the support and cooperation of other BRICS member countries. As much as China wants to project its peaceful rise through the BRICS, it also wants to be a responsible stake holder in global governance.

    As far as India is concerned, the question is to what extent it is able to secure its own interests while promoting the collective interest of the world’s emerging economies. Being a founder member of BRICS, India should play an active role in its deliberations, which will have a bearing on important decisions. Now that NAM is defunct and very little wealth is left in the Commonwealth, which are the world forums available to project India’s global profile? G-20 has a set parameter and doesn’t encompass the aggregate of the hopes and aspirations of the developing world. India should, therefore, use the BRICS forum to project its global profile. China should be sensitive to India’s aspiration. Many of the objectives of the BRICS like fighting protectionism have been cardinal principles of India’s foreign policy. Not long ago India was in the forefront of establishing the New International Economic Order and has been pursuing this goal consistently. It may be mentioned in this connection that, while addressing the United Nations General Assembly in September 2011, Manmohan Singh said, “The world economy is in trouble. The shoots of recovery after the 2008 financial crisis are yet to blossom. In many respects, the crisis has deepened even further.” Alluding to the negative effects of globalisation he stated, “Till a few years ago, the world had taken for granted the benefits of globalisation and global interdependence. Today we are called upon to cope with the negative dimensions of those very phenomena.” Referring to protectionism, he said, “we should not allow global economic slow down to become a trigger for building walls around ourselves through protectionism or erecting barriers to movement of people, services and capital.”1 The BRICS has thus done reverse engineering by reinventing the wheel.

    As far as the BRICS Development Bank is concerned, it may further be mentioned that at the G-20 Summit held in Seoul in November 2011, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had pleaded that Multilateral Development Banks have an important role to play in recycling global savings. He said, “Recycling surplus savings into investment in developing countries will not only address the immediate demand imbalance, it would also help to address developmental imbalance. In other words, we should leverage imbalance of one kind to redress the imbalance of other kind.”2

    As the Summit this time is being held in South Africa, its theme has been appropriately chosen as “BRICS and Africa: Partnership for Development, Integration and Industrialisation”. Although in the narrative of Sino-Indian engagement in Africa, a zero-sum game approach is often projected, Sino-Indian cooperation in Africa in the energy sector in particular is seldom mentioned. For example, both India and China are engaged in oil exploration in Sudan and Syria.

    The world, particularly the West, will watch the outcome of the BRICS Durban summit with avid interest. It is all the more essential that the leaders of the BRICS should display exemplary solidarity and camaraderie for realising the objectives of this forum. True, there will be contentious issue relating to the proposed Development Bank such as its scale, functions, structure, and location. Ironing out such issues requires diplomatic acumen, thoughtfulness and political will. India’s role and contribution in this regard should be recognised.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.