Tango or Tangle? The BRICS challenge

Harsh V. Pant

At the BRICS Foreign Ministers meeting held virtually last month and chaired by China, External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar asserted that “BRICS has repeatedly affirmed respect for sovereign equality, territorial integrity and international law” and it “must live up to these commitments.” This, in a nutshell, is the challenge that the Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa (BRICS) platform faces as it plans to host its 14th leaders summit later this month.

With China challenging the territorial status quo all around its periphery, including along its border with India, and Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, it is increasingly becoming difficult for the BRICS members to rally around the principles that laid the foundations of this grouping. For a platform that was expected to provide an alternative to the West-led international relations paradigm, the behavior of two of its members of trampling upon the sovereignty and territorial integrity of weaker nations has the potential to slowly, but surely, unravel this nascent experimentation.

To be sure, BRICS was a complicated undertaking from the very inception. It was an investment banking catchphrase that evolved into a geopolitical grouping and there was always something forced about it. The Russia-India-China trilateral was in any case operational from early 1990s and was aimed at challenging the unipolar inclinations of American foreign policy.

American hegemony was the buzzword that brought these countries together to call for a more equitable global order. But as the economic weight of China, India, and Russia grew in the 2000s, their rising power aspirations came into focus. Brazil was also viewed as an emerging economic power and so, it joined in while South Africa was included post-hoc. There were wide disparities among the five nations and also bilateral differences but what supposedly bound them together was a commitment to some principles of global governance.

Today, those principles are under threat by the actions of two members of the BRICS. It is, therefore, necessary for New Delhi to keep reminding the platform that its salience is a function of its adherence to its core principles. If they are violated, then the challenge for BRICS will continue to gather momentum.

In his intervention last month, Jaishankar laid bare these challenges rather explicitly. His argument that the BRICS members “must not only seek socio-economic recovery from the Covid pandemic, but also create resilient and reliable supply chains” speaks to the principle economic conundrum of our times. China’s dominance of the global supply chains has produced a rather lopsided global economic order. Today, India along with several other nations wants to reconfigure these supply chains to reduce overdependence on any nation. If the Covid pandemic alerted India to the dangers of overreliance on China for critical imports, the Ukraine crisis is revealing the nation’s vulnerabilities when it comes to its extreme dependence regarding defence on Russia.

Jaishankar also underlined the growing costs of the energy, food and other commodities as a result of the Ukraine crisis. For a platform like BRICS, this is particularly important as it was intended to speak up for the developing world. A majority of the most vulnerable nations are feeling the effects of the Russian aggression.

Against the backdrop of global food shortages and grain supplies stuck in Ukrainian ports, African Union head Macky Sall recently called upon Russian president Vladimir Putin to “become aware that our countries, even if they are far from the theatre (of action), are victims on an economic level” of the conflict. BRICS has to respond to this seriously even if one of its own members is responsible.

A large part of the BRICS agenda from the beginning was about the reforms of the global multilateral order. However, in recent years it has been put on the backburner. Jaishankar reminded the platform that BRICS should unanimously and specifically support United Nations Security Council (UNSC) reform. For India, this is a foreign policy priority but it’s not evident if this is important for China and Russia. China, in particular, has been at the forefront of creating obstacles for India’s entry into the UNSC.

At the global level, China is a revisionist power but when it comes to the UNSC, it is status quoist, seeking to retain its position as the only Asian power on the UNSC wielding a veto. New Delhi’s impatience with the lack of reforms in the UN has been growing, and it has, in recent years, put the onus on the UN itself, questioning its credibility in light of lack of any substantive reforms. How will BRICS as platform resolve this conundrum remains far from clear at present.

From India’s perspective, participating in the BRICS platform allows it to shape global governance conversations as a rising power and it underscores New Delhi’s desire to maintain autonomy in its decision making. Yet the limits of intra-BRICS consensus are becoming quite evident. With Russia after Ukraine likely to get even closer to China, India’s space for strategic maneuvering within the platform will get squeezed even further.

And Sino-Indian ties show no signs of improving. Taking aim at China, Jaishankar recently made it clear that “our [India’s] borders also need safeguarding and we [India] will never accept any attempt to unilaterally change the status quo.” He threw a challenge to Beijing that “a posture that departs from established understandings will evoke its own responses.”

China, meanwhile, is moving the platform towards a ‘BRICS plus’ format with reports of Argentina, Egypt, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Nigeria, Senegal and Thailand leading this expansion. With the Sino-Indian core of the platform withering and new members joining, the BRICS has entered uncharted territory. The challenge going forward will be to manage internal contradictions among its members even while trying to enhance functional cooperation. It’s a tough ask but one that will require New Delhi to be nimble and vocal. The leaders’ summit later this month will be an important marker in shaping Indian priorities going forward.

This article was first published in Financial Express as Tango or Tangle? The BRICS challenge on 11 June 2022.

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About the Author

Harsh V Pant edited

Harsh V. Pant, Professor, International Relations, King’s College London; Vice President – Studies and Foreign Policy, Observer Research Foundation (ORF), New Delhi.