Opinion Piece: BRICS and BEYOND By Lt Gen S L Narasimhan (Retd)

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The Background

The Eighth BRICS Summit Meeting has just concluded in Goa, India. It was conducted over two days on 15 and 16 October 2016. This group has come a long way since its inception in 2009.

In 2001, Goldman Sachs brought out a paper called, “The World Needs Better Economic BRICs”. In that paper, they gave projections of the economic status of developing economies like Brazil, Russia, India and China in the next 50 years and concluded that these economies will dominate the world’s economic scene by 2050. In that report, they used the term BRIC for the first time. Leaders of India, China and Russia met in 2006 at the side lines of the G8 Outreach Summit in St Petersburg and that was the start point of BRICS. This grouping took its formal shape at the First Meeting of the BRIC Foreign Ministers, alongside the UN General Assembly in New York in 2006. The first BRIC Summit Meeting was held in Yekaterinburg, Russia on 16 June 2009.

BRIC Foreign Ministers, when they met in New York in September 2010, agreed to expand the BRIC to BRICS thereby paving the way for South Africa to enter the Grouping. In the Third BRIC Meeting held in Sanya on 14 April 2011, South Africa formally joined the group as a member. Eight Summit Meetings of the BRICS Grouping have been held so far.  Till the fourth Meeting, the summit meetings were held just for a day. Thereafter, the scope of the Summit Meetings expanded and the meetings have been taking place over two days.

The Past

Basically, BRICS started as an economic grouping and as years passed the scope expanded to include topical global issues.  In the past seven summits, economy, reforms to financial institutions like International Monetary Fund and World Bank, sustainable development, cooperation in energy, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, science and technology, education, agriculture cum food security, climate change issues, trade, Information and Communication Technology were the common threads of discussion.

In addition, UN Reforms and condemnation of terrorism in all forms have been constant subjects that find a mention in all the summit joint statements. In spite of seven summits mentioning these two issues there has been minimal progress on them. Moreover, from a summit level meeting of all the five countries, bilateral meetings have also started gaining in importance. In a lighter vein, the joint statements have been increasing in length. Countries like China and Pakistan have been behaving differently after the summit.

While China supports India’s enhanced role in UN and condemns terrorism in the Joint Statements, she opposes India’s entry into UN Security Council and places a technical hold on terrorists who live in Pakistan. Pakistan’s Prime Minister agrees for a dialogue with India on terrorism in Ufa but does an about turn immediately after returning to Pakistan. Therefore, the efficacy of the joint statements and the decisions arrived at bilateral meetings do not convey sustainable stances by these countries.

The Present

The Eighth Summit took place in the backdrop of China stonewalling the India’s entry into the nuclear suppliers group, the former renewing the technical hold on the listing of Masood Azhar in the UN terrorists list, the Uri incident in which India lost 20 soldiers to a terrorist attack on an Indian military base and the surgical strikes that she launched to avenge the Uri incident. This backdrop was also accentuated by India’s ambivalent stand on South China Sea Issue.

Russia holding an exercise with Pakistan had not gone down well with India. Prior to the Summit, India had started marginalising Pakistan though the process of marginalising India was started first by Pakistan’s Prime Minister who nominated 22 Members of Pakistan’s Parliament to travel to other countries to achieve that task. The acrimony between both the nations was clearly visible in their respective speeches in the UN General Assembly. Therefore, the tenor of the Eighth BRICS Summit was a foregone conclusion.

While the Goa declaration contained all the usual subjects, it seems to have fallen short of India’s expectations.

Take Aways

The first take away from the summit is the fast approaching demise of South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC). SAARC was being held to ransom by the India – Pakistan Relationship and it was not making much of a progress. By having the outreach to the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) countries and not SAARC, India’s preference to the linkage of South and South East Asian countries in consonance with her Act East Policy has come out to the fore.  Therefore, RIP SAARC.

The second take away is Russia’s fears that India is tilting towards USA have been allayed by the contracts signed for five units of S 400 Air Defence Missiles, joint production of 200 Kamov 226T helicopters and four stealth frigates of which two will be purchased and another two will be made in India. These are huge purchases that should keep Russia happy. Simultaneously, the Make in India programme has also been catered for in these deals. India needs to take note of the fact that Russia did not come out clearly in support of her against Pakistan in spite of all these deals. This needs to be dealt with diplomatically.

Thirdly, China being adamant on anti-India issues, to include her support to Pakistan, will continue. India needs to look at other alternatives to counter this aspect than the direct approach that she is following now. India – China relations started off well with the Fifth Generation Leadership coming to power in China in 2013. However, the relationship between these two countries started souring with the Daulat Beg Oldi incident of 2013 and India not supporting the One Belt One Road initiative of China. What can India do? India needs to be ambivalent on the South China Sea issue and keep China guessing. She should increase her cooperation with, Mongolia, South Korea, Japan, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Central Asian Republics. India can also look at increasing her trade with Taiwan.

Fourthly, BRICS may have to look at going “back to the basics”, meaning thereby, it should not lose the focus on the aim with which it was started, namely economics. By taking on more and more initiatives, the main focus seems to be dissipating.

Fifthly, this is a group with divergent strategic interests. China – Pakistan relations work against India’s interests. Russia and China’s stance on Syria and India’s stance on that country are due to different reasons. Brazil and South Africa are going through a bad patch economically and in internal politics. Barring India, the economies of other four countries, which was the basis for this group to come together, are slowing down. They need to find a unity of purpose for this group to remain relevant.

In sum, India has been successful in placing her cards on the table though with partial success. Media reports sway between positives and negatives for India depending on who writes them. The truth is likely to be somewhere in between.

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