This column first appeared in Mint, on July 21, 2014. Like all products of the Brookings Institution India Center, this is intended to contribute to discussion and stimulate debate on important issues. The views are solely those of the author.
There is supreme irony that the genesis of the self-consciously anti-western Brics (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) grouping came from the most evocative symbol of the western liberal economic world—the head of an investment bank’s asset management unit, Jim O’Neill of Goldman Sachs. This underlies, on the one hand, the enduring appeal of the western liberal model even to aspirant countries, like Brics, and on the other, the established model’s inability to accommodate emerging powers that aspire to contribute to that order.
So will Brics—post-Fortaleza and at the end of the first cycle of summits—provide the ideal vehicle for the five countries, especially India, to become part of and shape the emerging world order?
Unsurprisingly, despite the successful outcome of the 6th summit, Brics alone will not suffice to achieve that objective for two reasons: first there are inherent contradictions within the group and open competition, if not hostility, between China and India.
For instance, while China and Russia are already permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), Brazil, India and South Africa are hoping to join the exclusive club. However, the two permanent UNSC members of Brics have been far more frugal in their support for the aspirant nations.
Thus the Fortaleza Declaration merely notes “China and Russia reiterate the importance they attach to Brazil, India and South Africa’s status and role in international affairs and support their aspirations to play a greater role in the UN.” This, apart from being cut and paste from the 5th Brics summit declaration in Durban in 2013, pales in comparison to the more forthright support at least for India’s permanent entry into the UNSC by President Barack Obama.
Instead UN insiders reveal that China, which is perhaps the most reluctant to reform the UNSC, played an active role in encouraging African states to adopt the Ezulwini consensus, which has practically stalled any prospects of enlarging the exclusive club.
Second, although the Fortaleza Declaration deliberately toned down the anti-West rhetoric, calling for “incremental change and reform of current institutions towards more representative and equitable governance,” the establishment of the New Development Bank (NDB), partly driven by the failure to reform the International Monetary Fund, and current events have reinforced this perspective.
In particular, the open confrontation between Russia and the West over Ukraine (exacerbated by the outrage over the tragic shooting down of a civilian aircraft over Donetsk) makes it less likely that the West—led by the US—would be willing to accommodate emerging powers into the existing world order. Thus, India would have to ensure that its proximity to Russia via Brics does not come at the cost of its crucial engagement with the US and the West.
These twin factors will prevent Brics alone from either effectively reforming the existing global governance system from within or establishing an alternative world order from without and underline its limited utility for India.
Nevertheless, it is imperative for India to remain engaged with Brics for several reasons. First, it establishes India’s multi-alignment credentials and ability to work with both western and non-western groupings to further its own objectives. Second, despite its limited funds (especially compared to the International Monetary Fund and World Bank), the NDB does offer some additional resources for India’s ambitious infrastructure development agenda. Finally, there are several areas, such as terrorism, climate change, clean energy and outer space, which are of concern to not only Brics but also the West. Here India could take the lead to build a consensus between Brics and the rest, and advance its own interests.
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