The Russia-Ukraine conflict seems to be having a deeper impact not only on the energy supplies of the world but also in bringing new ideas to trade bodies to reset their priorities and embark on a new agenda. One such institution, the five-member BRICS, has indicated its willingness to expand and include more countries. Iran and Argentina have sounded their willingness to join BRICS. In fact, Saudi Arabia is also believed to have evinced interest in joining the group. It will not be surprising if other Arab states as well as Pakistan decide to join the BRICS bandwagon soon. China, as this year’s chair, has clearly indicated its willingness to work with “like-minded partners” who can join the grouping and promised to set clear priorities in wide-ranging cooperation to make our ‘strategic partnership’ more efficient.
The Brazil, Russia, India, China (BRIC) forum included South Africa in 2010 and became a pluralistic organisation. In the 14 years of its existence, it has developed into a formidable trade block to tap the economic potential of Asia, Africa and Eurasia. Accounting for nearly 30 per cent of the world GDP, the total trade value of intra-BRICS countries stood at more than $600 billion in 2017, an increase of 20 per cent since its inception. The collective market potential and intra-BRICS trade prospects were expected to create the right atmosphere for greater cooperation between the member countries. China’s production capabilities, South Africa’s resources and gateway to the rest of Africa’s rich and diversified mineral resources, Russia’s energy strength and India’s expanding consumer base and increasing technological prowess were some of the reasons for creating the perception that BRICS would be a game changer in international trade. It is understandable that such trade bodies are more important for collective bargaining and securing national interests through negotiating as a block.
China’s BRICS plan unfolding
Although the collective trade of BRICS should have increased manifold, many factors such as the bilateral FTAs and national interests prevailed, resulting in the bilateral trade becoming far more than the collective trade engagement. Besides, by the end of the last century, China realised the potential of ‘economies of scale and imperfect competition’ as envisaged by Paul Krugman in his “NTT Toolbox”. The Belt & Road Initiative (BRI) overshadowed the collective trade principles and has nearly made BRICS into a subsidiary forum of the powerful BRI mechanism.
Eventually, the proverbial cat seems to be out of the bag and Beijing’s strategy of seeking to turn BRICS into a strategic forum of emerging economies as a forum against the West is unfolding gradually.
The idea of converting BRICS into an anti-West forum could have its origins in Beijing’s strategy to challenge the trade potential of the US. It would be naïve on part of China to assume that all the member countries would consider the US as their main challenger, especially when it comes to trade. Notwithstanding the troubled relations between the US and Russia over the Ukraine crisis, even Moscow may not want a forum like BRICS to be turned into an anti-US body. But pushed to the wall and finding itself isolated in its conflict with Ukraine, Russia finds a willing and useful partner in China. The Beijing-Moscow axis to turn a trade body into a security and strategic forum to hit the West led by the US, especially at a time when the US and the EU countries are facing an emerging energy crisis, is to say the least, extension of the Cold War. Making no secret of his intensions, Xi Jinping warned the BRICS partners of the world being overshadowed by the dark clouds of Cold War mentality and without naming the US called upon the member countries ‘to unite against coercing countries to take sides and pursuing unilateral dominance’.
The original mandate
BRICS is essentially a trade forum that seeks to derive maximum common benefit for member countries. But any attempt to convert it into a soft power tool and strategise to make it a security and foreign policy group will weaken its trade aspects and defeat its very founding purposes.
For India, BRICS is an important forum that gives ample opportunities and accords equal status when it comes to making investment rules. India has always supported the expansion of trade bodies to include emerging economies and extend the benefits of the commonwealth to developing countries. The BRICS Civil Society Forum held in 2021 clearly sent out the message that New Delhi would like to advance the objective of building a new international multilateral order.
But such an expansion should fall within the ambit of rules-based inclusive order where ‘economic hegemony’ and anti-West agenda should have no place. While New Delhi can continue to be part of the positive aspects of BRICS, it should exercise its influence and prevail upon the trade forum to confine its activities to commerce instead of competition and work towards establishing a robust cooperative framework through independent and sustainable institutionalised supply chain mechanism.
Meanwhile, it is important for New Delhi to focus urgently on the working of India, Brazil, South Africa Dialogue Forum (IBSA) initiative and BIMSTEC — the Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Thailand grouping. IBSA represents three democracies representing Asia, South America and Africa, promoting South South Cooperation (SSC) and has become instrumental in forging closer cooperation on global issues.
The author is the former editor of ‘Organiser’. He tweets @seshadrichari. Views are personal.
(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)