BRICS at a Crossroads: Shifting Fault Lines and Emerging Challenges

Harsh V Pant

BRICS has little to show by way of achievement even as fault lines within it sharpen, with China and Russia trying to convert its geo-economic orientation into a patently anti-West one. In subsequent years, the BRICS goal of gaining a stronger voice in the international financial system essentially provided the five countries with two possibilities: challenging versus reforming global governance.

For all the discussion and eventual hoopla surrounding the expansion of BRICS last week in Johannesburg, South Africa, the real drama was being played out elsewhere. On one hand, even as Russian President Vladimir Putin was virtually addressing his counterparts, there came news that a private aircraft carrying Russian mercenary leader Yevgeny Prigozhin crashed in Russia, killing all 10 people on board.

On the other, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced at the summit that “India is now on the Moon,” as India’s Chandrayaan-3 became the first space mission to land near its south pole, only days after Russia’s unmanned Luna-25 spacecraft spun out of control and crashed into the lunar surface.

This divergence between Russia and India and their contrasting approaches to the world at large is what’s shaping and is likely to shape the future trajectory of BRICS as a platform. This project emerged as part of an investment banker’s attempt to understand a global economic transformation happening in the early 2000s, but the leaders of the four nations clubbed together as ‘BRIC’—Brazil, Russia, India and China—were quick to capture the zeitgeist of the time as they came together in 2009.

The emergence of this coalition as a political platform took place eight years after the initial coining of the term, when Brazilian president Lula da Silva, Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh and China’s president Hu Jintao accepted an invitation from Russian president Dmitry Medvedev to participate in the first BRIC Summit in Yekaterinburg.

The group’s first Joint Statement said that BRIC countries support multilateral rule-making in global governance, a multipolar world order, and commit themselves to a “democratic and transparent decision making and implementation process at […] international financial organisations.” The four leaders committed their nations to the cause of reforming major multilateral institutions to reflect changes in the global economy: “[E]merging and developing economies must have greater voice and representation in international financial institutions.”

This was, in some ways, the beginning of the era of plurilateral talks, where an ad hoc coalition of countries got mobilized around a common demand to seek a redistribution of decision-making authority in global economic matters. The second BRIC Summit 2010 in Brasilia was joined by South Africa, which was admitted as a member, officially adding an ‘S’ to BRIC.

In subsequent years, the BRICS goal of gaining a stronger voice in the international financial system essentially provided the five countries with two possibilities: challenging versus reforming global governance. At the 2013 Summit in Durban, BRICS leaders decided to set up a BRICS development bank, an institutional innovation that could capture both aspirations at the same time.

On one hand, the New Development Bank (NDB), as it was named, can be viewed as a challenger. Member states supported this bank with an initial amount of $50 billion, thereby creating an alternative to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which claimed to have $630 billion at its disposal in 2011. On the other hand, BRICS leaders adopted a framing that allowed the world to see the NDB as just an initiative to democratize global governance by offering and discussing alternatives.

But beyond the NDB, there has been little to show for the accomplishments of a platform that today finds itself consumed by disarray within its ranks reflected in the changing global balance of power. For New Delhi, Russia as an autonomous player was critical in managing China’s growing economic hegemony within BRICS. And there was a time when even New Delhi and Beijing could speak in one voice about global challenges.

But today, the fault lines within BRICS are getting sharper, with Russia and China trying to pivot the grouping away from its geo-economic orientation to an overtly geo-political one as an anti-West platform, even as India and China are increasingly uncomfortable to even find their representatives in one room.

With the expansion of BRICS membership, a new phase has begun for a grouping that was searching for a sense of purpose even with only five members. Declining mutual trust was beginning to erode its already fragile foundations. Now we are being told that adding six new members this year—Saudi Arabia, Iran, the UAE, Ethiopia, Egypt and Argentina—and more to follow in subsequent ones would position BRICS as the voice of the Global South.

It is ironical that such a claim is made when the dismal state of play in platforms like the G-77 and Non-Aligned Movement is so obvious. The expansion was resisted by members like India and Brazil, which wanted clear membership criteria for this process to unfold.

For all of China’s desire to make India seem as a spoiler in the process of expansion, New Delhi has done well in ensuring that some of its closest friends will join BRICS-Plus. India’s presence is important to ensure that BRICS-Plus doesn’t end up becoming a patently anti-West platform, but in the absence of a clear direction, the club today looks even more of an artificial construct than it had seemed back when Jim O’Neill had coined the acronym. It is this artificiality that New Delhi needs to guard against more than anything else.

The article was first published by Mint as Keep close track of new BRICS in the Global South wall on August 31, 2023.

Disclaimer: All views expressed in the article belong solely to the author and not necessarily to the organisation.

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This article was posted by Priyanka Negi, a research intern at IMPRI.