The recent virtual BRICS summit, which brought together the heads of state and government of Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa, was interesting as much for what did not happen as for what did. The two-day gathering was marked by some constructive discussion but also platitudes and pablum, and concluded with a grandly titled but thoroughly anodyne “Beijing Declaration.” Few doubt the huge potential of the BRICS, which comprises the world’s two most populous countries (China and India), a former superpower (Russia), and two of the biggest economies in Latin America and Africa. But the grouping’s record since the first annual BRIC meeting in 2009 (South Africa joined the bloc the following year) has mostly been a story of lofty rhetoric and chronic underachievement.
The Beijing Declaration states that the BRICS High-Level Dialogue is an opportunity to deepen cooperation in the fight against COVID-19, digital transformation, supply-chain resilience and stability, and low-carbon development. All these goals are being pursued in a variety of multilateral forums. More hypocritically, the declaration condemned terrorism and called for the finalisation and adoption of the Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism within the United Nations framework. This rang rather hollow, since the summit took place just days after China blocked a joint proposal by India and the United States to designate the Pakistan-based terrorist Abdul Rehman Makki as an international terrorist under the provisions of the UN Sanctions Committee.
India and the US have long regarded Pakistan, which notoriously sheltered Osama bin Laden, as an enabler of international terrorism. But Pakistan gets away with it because it is shielded by China at the UN.
This was not the first time that China has stymied proposals for the Sanctions Committee to list known Pakistan-based terrorists. It has repeatedly blocked efforts to designate as international terrorists Masood Azhar, chief of the UN-proscribed terrorist entity Jaish-e-Mohammed, and others associated with the equally murderous Lashkar-e-Taiba. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi pointedly stated at the BRICS summit that the group’s members should understand each other’s security concerns and provide mutual support in the designation of terrorists, adding that this sensitive issue should not be “politicised.” It was against this background that China, the summit chair, floated a proposal to enlarge the group by accepting new members, and subsequent reports claimed that Argentina and Iran had applied to join. But the matter was not officially discussed at the meeting and featured only tentatively in the closing declaration.
Underlying the enlargement issue are two questions that go to the heart of the BRICS grouping. First, is it a largely economic organisation or a geopolitical one? Second, if the BRICS is primarily a geopolitical bloc, will it become the principal vehicle for the emergence of a global axis led by China and Russia – a goal that China appears to support and that the proposed enlargement, and the putative candidates, seems intended to serve? In that case, what is India doing in it?
As to the first question, the BRIC acronym – created by then-Goldman Sachs economist Jim O’Neill in 2001 – was initially impelled by a vision of economic cooperation. The four (later five) emerging markets’ shared and compatible perspectives on issues of global governance reform certainly provided a raison d’être.
But their common concerns about the direction of global development and the power of the Western-dominated Bretton Woods institutions meant that the group’s agenda was political as well. The BRICS seemed to be emerging as the premier platform of the Global South, articulating developing countries’ dissent from the so-called Washington Consensus – a tendency underscored by the addition of South Africa, the only African economy in the G20.
In recent years, however, the global environment has changed dramatically. A backlash against globalisation and a US-China trade war, as well as heightened suspicions among US policymakers of China’s geopolitical intentions, have been compounded by military hostilities between China and India, including the killing of 20 Indian soldiers along the countries’ disputed Himalayan border in 2020. As a result, the BRICS appears to be undergoing an identity crisis. Indian foreign-policy mandarins initially saw the group as a useful platform to increase India’s international influence, in keeping with its traditional role as a leader of the developing world. But India is plainly uneasy about efforts to turn the bloc into a geopolitical forum supporting Chinese and Russian interests – and to enlarge it to include other “like-minded” states such as Iran. (Brazil has also maintained a studied silence on Argentina’s reported membership application.)
India is said to have had a crucial hand in the drafting of the Beijing Declaration’s single reference to the bloc’s enlargement, buried deep within the 75-paragraph document. Paragraph 73 states: “We support promoting discussions among BRICS members on [the] BRICS expansion process. We stress the need to clarify the guiding principles, standards, criteria, and procedures for this expansion process through [the] Sherpas’ channel on the basis of full consultation and consensus.”
Sir Humphrey Appleby, the famously circumlocutory British bureaucrat in the Yes Minister television series, could not have put it better, except perhaps for adding “in the fullness of time.” The meaning is clear: “Full consultation” is a recipe for indefinite delay and the insistence on “consensus” means that at least one state will ensure that enlargement never happens.
It appears that China has not taken India fully into its confidence regarding BRICS expansion plans and the pending applications. India can scarcely be expected to welcome an enlargement of the BRICS that is intended to make the bloc more China-centric. There are also the inevitable concerns about whether, given China’s patronage, Pakistan would be next in line to join.
India has always been the indispensable swing vowel in the BRICS acronym. If the bloc’s current strategic direction and possible enlargement push the country toward the exit, the grouping will become not just unpronounceable, but also unviable.
Shashi Tharoor, a former UN under-secretary-general and former Minister of State for External Affairs, and for HRD, is a Congress MP