Harsh V Pant
India is trying to convey that any expansion of BRICS is futile without serious efforts to nurture trust and foster cooperation.
As global strategic realities undergo a fundamental transformation, existing institutional frameworks are facing enormous stress.
Global institutions reflect the power realities of the time of their creation, and as a consequence of a change in the balance of power realities, it is natural that their efficacy also becomes a matter of contestation. This is a moment of rapid evolution in the internal political order, and from the United Nations to the World Trade Organisation and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, every single platform is facing a crisis.
While the Bretton Woods institutions are struggling to respond to an era in which the post-World War II period is but a faint memory, even those platforms that are of recent vintage, like the SCO, have to come to terms with new power realities.
The BRICS grouping is no exception. With the BRICS annual summit about to be held later this month, the focus is not so much on what it can contribute to global governance as on the challenge it is facing internally. Reports have emerged of an internecine kerfuffle about the nature and scope of the potential expansion of this relatively nascent platform. The Chinese attempt to expand the platform is being resisted by India and Brazil.
Beijing is focused on a quick expansion with the aim of giving the platform a distinctly anti-western orientation, something that New Delhi and Brasilia seem to have no interest in. While the five members expressed an interest in the expansion of the grouping last year, India is keen that first there should be an express delineation of principles that can define the process of expansion. Because the platform works through consensus, it will be difficult for China to push its agenda unilaterally.
While Beijing has been categorical in saying that it supports BRICS expansion “to welcome more like-minded partners to join the BRICS family,” Indian policymakers have been more circumspect, with External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar underlining that the process of expansion was still a “work in progress”, given the lack of a common understanding among the five members on standards, criteria, and procedures of what an expanded grouping would look like.
Last year’s BRICS declaration also reflected this dissonance, as it talked of the need to lay out objective criteria for the membership of new members that are agreed upon first by the five member states so that the logic of expansion is clearly understood and endorsed by everyone.
Several countries, such as Argentina, Nicaragua, Mexico, Uruguay, Nigeria, Algeria, Egypt, Senegal, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Turkiye, Syria, Iran, Afghanistan, Indonesia, Thailand, Kazakhstan, and Bangladesh, seem to have evinced an interest in joining the BRICS grouping. And five of these—Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, the UAE, Egypt, and Argentina—are reportedly the front runners as far as this year’s summit is concerned.
For China, the logic of BRICS expansion is very clear at a number of levels. The economic strength of the five members of the grouping is not as promising as it was when the platform was first announced in 2009. That was when these were the emerging markets with great potential, and this grouping in more ways than one foreshadowed the contemporary era of plurilaterals or issue-based coalitions. These countries were growing economies that wanted a greater share in global economic decision-making. Though the BRICS nations certainly represent 43% of the world’s population and around 30% of the global economy, their economic weaknesses are quite palpable.
Russia is getting marginalised in the global economy, while China is facing a difficult economic environment with the west turning against it. Therefore, it makes sense for China to bring in new players and bind them to its own economic coattails. This might just revive the dynamism of the BRICS platform for many in China and will enhance the global legitimacy and weight of Beijing as an emerging challenger to the U.S.-led western order.
And this is the right time to make this move, as Russia seems to be in a particularly vulnerable position. It needs Chinese support to manage its conflict with the West over Ukraine, so it can be expected to side with Beijing in its plans to alter the nature of the BRICS grouping. But this exercise in enhancing its clout within the BRICS is fraught with challenges as it reinforces the perception in India and Brazil, particularly that China’s interest is not in working together and coordinating actions with them to seek greater voice for the emerging players but rather in making the BRICS a platform that is anti-American in its orientation and shaped by Chinese priorities.
A larger grouping will, of course, have to figure out a new purpose in global politics, but it will also struggle even more with a lack of coherence, something that even a smaller grouping of BRICS has struggled with since its very inception.
India has invested in the BRICS platform since the very beginning, hoping to use the collective voice of its members to demand a restructuring of global institutions, but given its wariness of Chinese intentions, it has been building bilateral as well as all-plurilateral partnerships with the U.S. and the wider west. In its initial days, New Delhi had hoped that, along with a strong Russia, it would be able to balance China’s growing economic and diplomatic heft.
But that seems unlikely today given the changed strategic realities and a Russia-China entente as they seek to push back together against the West. India’s much touted strategic autonomy rests on being able to work with the west in managing China’s rise, and there is no place for blind anti-westernism in its foreign policy framework.
Even with their strategic divergences, there is much that the BRICS members can do before they go in for an expansion, especially strengthening the New Development Bank by bringing in more stakeholders and exploring the idea of a BRICS currency more seriously. But this requires first enhancing political trust among themselves, something that is in short supply at the moment.
Without a serious effort to nurture trust and foster cooperation, the expansion of the BRICS might be an exercise in futility. It is this message that New Delhi is trying to send with its stand on the expansion of the BRICS.
This article was first published in the Bloomberg on 14 Aug 2023 as The Expansion Challenge For BRICS.
Disclaimer: All views expressed in the article belong solely to the author and not necessarily to the organisation.
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