The seventh BRICS summit began in Ufa in Russia on Wednesday. Perhaps what was more telling was the fact that this time around, the BRICS summit was dovetailed into the 15th session of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), which clubs China with five other countries including Russia, and will be held on 9-10 July. The SCO summit has garnered a lot more attention in China and this bunching together of the two disparate formations indicates the pecking order as perceived by the Chinese.
Even if we ignore the BRICS-SCO dynamics, it is vital to ask three questions from an Indian perspective - What role will BRICS play in shaping the new geopolitical and geo-economic world order? What value does BRICS add to India? How much of its diplomatic capability should India direct towards this group?
The first question can be answered by analysing three paradoxes that exist in the conception of BRICS (Brazil, Russia, China, India and South Africa).
One, BRICS needs China more than China needs BRICS. It is China's economic might that makes the world take notice of this formation. While BRICS needs China, China doesn't seem to be overly excited about this formation. It has instead chosen to focus on other Chinese-led initiatives like One Belt One Road (OBOR), Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and SCO. BRICS countries will need to resolve this China paradox to become a sustainable global coalition.
Two, each of the BRICS nations perceive the "West" differently. The Russian administration's biggest domestic threat is what it refers to as "colours revolution technology" - the possibility of radically networked societies coming together to overthrow the State. Russia holds western ideas like individualism and liberalism responsible for instigating the youth with an aim of upholding Western geopolitical interests. This conflation of Western ideals and Western geopolitical interests is a big challenge to the effectiveness of BRICS as countries like India, South Africa and Brazil do not see Western ideas with the same lens of suspicion. This difference will particularly play out when BRICS nations discuss collaboration on areas like internet governance and cybersecurity.
The third paradox is the lack of legitimacy of BRICS to foster an effective international government. While the previous attempts at international governments such as League of Nations or UN were formed by victors of preceding wars, BRICS was born in an investment bank conference room. In order to gain legitimacy, BRICS will need to have a viewpoint on every major global occurrence, whether it is natural calamities, economic downturns or civil wars.
Beyond these three paradoxes, there is another factor which is particularly relevant to India - China's position as the primus inter pares in this group. As the realist theory of international relations suggests, authority to govern will be vested in the most powerful actor, which in the BRICS case is clearly China. This means that the principle of justice and the conception of the common good will closely follow China's interests. On the geo-economic side, this means that the economic order proposed by BRICS will be closer to the East Asian Model rather than the Washington consensus model.
China's dominant role is not necessarily inimical to India's interests. In fact, it means that India can utilise BRICS to play its role as a swing power between the US and China. From a purely realist angle, India is better off being a part of BRICS than being outside it. Once inside the club, the guiding principle for India's commitment should be based on an assessment of marginal benefits and costs as India attempts to become the most powerful member of the group.
BRICS will be judged by the swiftness and conviction with which it offers new solutions to the problems of the world such as poverty, economic slowdown and cyber-governance. Though the solutions offered might not be necessarily better than the ones offered by the UN ecosystem, being able to be an alternative voice in global affairs will itself enhance the legitimacy of BRICS as a potent global force.
(Pranay Kotasthane is a Research Fellow at the Takshashila Institution. He participated in the Civil BRICS summit held in Moscow earlier this month.)
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