BRICS Remains In Search of an Identity

The credit for the BRIC acronym goes to the then Goldman Sachs chief economist Jim O’Neill who in a paper in 2001 was quite hopeful about the future of economies of Brazil, Russia, India and China. Riding on the wave of globally shared optimism surrounding the BRIC nations, Goldman Sachs, the American multinational investment bank and financial services giant, launched the BRIC fund in June 2006 with routine hoopla. But by September 2015 – four years ahead of that South Africa came on board to make the acronym one letter bigger BRICS – the growth promise of the group sufficiently faded with Brazilian economy in slums, Russia struggling with low oil and commodity prices in general and China moving far away from double-digit growth.

The global financial crisis of 2008-09 also was a factor responsible for the fund managing a low average annual return of 3 per cent and underperforming the MSCI BRIC index. What, therefore, followed was the merging of the exclusive BRIC fund into a more diversified emerging market fund in October 2015.

At that point the Washington based think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies said in a report: “Conflicting interests and the indisputable political, social and cultural differences among the group’s members have kept the BRICS from translating their economic force into collective political power on the global stage… And with economic prospects decreasingly promising, the notion of the BRICS as a political project seems too fragile to stand on its own.”

Then at the launch of BRIC, the hope was the grouping would become the representative voice of the global south and emerge as a rival to G-7. That hope died very young as there never has been much in common in the motley group of five countries – while China and Russia have one party rule with Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin always having the last word, India as the world’s largest democracy would look better with the largest minority group not nursing the feeling of always getting a raw deal, Manipur not burning and the space for free airing of views not squeezed. The heterogeneity of BRICS is also underlined by their economic performances.

Referring to the highly contrasting phenomenon, The Economist says: “On average, the GDP of Brazil, Russia and South Africa has grown by less than 1 per cent annually since 2013 (versus around 6 per cent for China and India.)” Then somewhat acerbically, it writes “any investment analyst who picked them among the most promising emerging markets today would be laughed off her Zoom call.” In the meantime, the equation among members of BRICS continues to change. Since the invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 and imposition of sanctions by Western countries, Russia has come to depend on Chinese diplomatic and strategic support like never before. At the same time, Indian refineries continue to reap a bonanza by importing Russian crude at highly discounted prices in the wake of the world’s third largest oil producer with a share of roughly 11 per cent of global supply finding some of its major traditional markets drying up because of sanction. What, however, must be a reason for discomfiture for New Delhi is Moscow virtually coming under Beijing wing.

New Delhi’s uneasiness is heightened by Putin deciding not to attend the G-20 summit in spite of Modi making a request on phone. Putin’s excuse is that he will stay too preoccupied with domestic issues and also overseeing Ukraine war operation. Incidentally, the Russian President absented himself from Johannesburg 15th BRICS conference for fear of arrest since South Africa being a member of the International Criminal Court would be under obligation to execute the arrest warrant issued against Putin in March for alleged war crimes involving Ukraine. Russia in crisis affecting BRICS relevance in world affairs apart, China and India continuing to find themselves in diametrically opposite praxis on a host of issues are not helping the cause of global south.

This is best illustrated by contradictory statements emanating from New Delhi and Beijing on what led to the meeting of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of BRICS Johannesburg conference. The Chinese foreign ministry says the meeting happened following an Indian request provoking a riposte from New Delhi that there was a pending request for a meeting from Beijing.

China has described the Modi-Li conversation as a “candid and in-depth exchange of views.” In diplomatic phraseology, candid does not leave room for amicability. New Delhi, on the other hand, said the conversation was “informal.” The two leaders, as transpired from what emanated from the two capitals, mainly discussed the border issue, which has defied settlement. On the subject, New Delhi says, Modi and Ji have agreed to “direct their relevant officials to intensify efforts at expeditious disengagement and de-escalation.” But Beijing maintains that the two countries will have to “bear in mind the overall interests of their bilateral relations and handle properly the border issue so as to jointly safeguard peace and tranquillity in the border region.”

ALSO READ: BRICS Expansion, Geopolitics And India

Now within a few days of that meeting and the statements on unresolved border issues (contradictory in some ways) that followed, China to India’s disappointment released its 2023 edition of “standard map” laying claims to ownership of Arunachal Pradesh and the Aksai Chin. This, however, is not the first time that China has been up to this trick. Is the release of the map showing Indian territories as its own amounts to a Chinese message that it is not committed to restore the April 2020 status quo in eastern Ladakh, where, according to some military veterans, it remains in occupation of around 2,000 sq km of Indian land?

Expectedly, India’s external affairs minister S Jaishankar has been dismissive of the Chinese claim and New Delhi has filed strongest possible protest using diplomatic channels. Jaishankar said: “China has even in the past put out maps which claim territories which are not China’s, which belong to other countries. This is an old habit of theirs… Making absurd claims doesn’t make other people’s territories yours.” Sadly, Beijing’s release of the map ahead of G-20 summit and soon after BRICS meet militates against relationship improvement of mighty neighbours. Chinese diplomacy has always been full of riddles, not easy to decipher. For a change and to India’s satisfaction, China agreed to the BRICS declaration describing the aspirations of India, Brazil and South Africa to play a bigger role in world bodies, including the UN Security Council.

The operative part of the declaration says: “We support a comprehensive reform of the UN, including its Security Council, with a view to making it more democratic, representative, effective and efficient, and to increase the representation of developing countries in the Council’s membership so that it can adequately respond to prevailing global challenges and support the three legitimate aspirations of emerging and developing countries from Africa, Asia and Latin America…” BRICS acknowledgement of G-20 as a premier multilateral forum is also of comfort to India, which this year is doing rotational presidency of the group.

BRICS will now be an 11-member organisation with the induction of four from the Gulf and West Asia comprising United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Iran and Saudi Arabia and Ethiopia from Africa and Argentina from South America. An expanded BRICS will no doubt carry more heft to engage with the West and leave its impact on future economic and trade reforms of the latter. BRICS has wasted much time in haranguing the West, often without provocation, which, however, was ignored.

But that should not have been the case since the grouping not only included the world’s second and fifth largest economies, but BRICS’ share of world GDP is now around 26 per cent, up from 8 per cent in 2001. Moreover, BRICS failed to capitalise on its combined population of 3.2 billion that is 41 per cent of the world. The only concrete thing to have emerged so far from BRICS is the Shanghai based New Development Bank (NDB or BRICS Bank). Well, NDB has not delivered the way it was hoped at its founding in 2015. But it will wrong to undermine the bank in any way. One positive is the joining of three members – Bangladesh, Egypt and the UAE. NDB has so far extended credit of $33 billion to nearly 100 projects. The non-starter was a common currency for BRICS. What is to be accepted is that none of BRICS constituents has the capacity to operate an exchange rate monetary policy regime.

Moreover, because of profound differences with China, India will not acquiesce to Chinese Yuan playing a big role in global trade, not to talk of Yuan becoming a reserve currency. As BRICS become bigger – likely Bangladesh and Indonesia will next come on board – the challenge will be to frame a programme, based on consensus and not by way of economic and political power of any constituent that will allow global south to work in harmony with the West. Now there is a challenge for the world’s most adroit scrabble player to write an appropriate acronym for the expanded BRICS.

BRICS Expansion Geopolitics And India

BRICS Expansion, Geopolitics And India

BRICS concluded its 15th Summit in Johannesburg, South Africa last week. India is a key partner in the original BRICS and has been participant in the key highlight of the summit, the announcement of expansion of the group from January 1, 2024. The newly inducted members are as disparate as the original group. They comprise the United Arab Emirates, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and the Republic of Iran from West Asia, two Nile riparian countries of Egypt and Ethiopia from Africa and Argentina from South America.

If the inclusion of major oil producers from West Asia provides political heft and clout to the group, Egypt and Ethiopia represent African aspirations of representation in the global fora. Argentina, being an economic and financial struggler may be looking for revival through loans with less stringent conditions from BRICS’ New Development Bank.

The location of the BRICS countries and the new members is interesting, in terms of geopolitical reach. Egypt and Saudi Arabia also have been major beneficiaries of their strong linkages with the United States of America during Cold War and after. They facilitated US in West Asia and the Arab World. Now, it seems the tables have turned, perhaps, with the onset of a new Cold War. The second pole, however, this time comprises the formidable Russia-China alliance. Does BRICS expansion signal the return of the proverbial Chessboard vis-à-vis NATO? Or the BRICS is just an economic power bloc enhancing its energy prospects and geographical extent? What are the implications for India of the expanded membership? The article seeks to answer these questions.

BRICS’s fundamental aims since its conception have concentrated upon creating a new financial architecture in the international system. Gradually, however, it is acquiring a political character and has been concerned specifically with security issues in the international system. This is reflected in consecutive Summit Statements of recent years and political and security cooperation forms the most important pillar of collaboration in BRICS.

Owing to Russia-Ukraine war, this year’s summit acquires tremendous significance as none of the BRICS members have been openly critical of Russian actions. Russia intends to overcome the sanctions imposed by the United States and the West and thereby supports the expansion of BRICS. China benefits in its effort to shape a new international order wherein Beijing holds the leadership. With its economic strength and increasing military numbers, it is well placed to work on alternative financial and economic mechanisms which may be acceptable to many countries, visible in the interest in the membership of the BRICS.

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Regionally, inclusion of Saudi Arabia, UAE and Iran shows that the West Asian ‘Arc of Instability’ now has a range of actors and a different set of stakeholders. Saudi Arabia being the largest exporter of oil and China, the largest importer, the partnership will grow and will have implications for the international energy scenario. Traditionally, the US has been a trusted partner of the Saudis and such change may be considered a blow to US interests in West Asia.

Furthermore, Iran with it’s expanding nuclear programme and resulting sanctions have been at loggerheads with the US and the West. An important regional arena through which the US established its military and geopolitical credentials now seems to be sliding out of its grip. US withdrawal from Afghanistan two years ago perhaps was the commencement of this process. The process may be hastened with BRICS membership for Saudi Arabia and Iran, whereas the major beneficiary is China with its ambitions of global geopolitical dominance. Moreover, China, is the leading trading partner of most countries in the region and beyond in Central Asia and South Asia.

For India, inclusion of six new members into the BRICS has several implications. Initially, during the Johannesburg summit, Brazil and India were skeptical of expansion and were keen on the modalities and criteria for inclusion of new members. The inclusion, however, reflects rising Chinese influence in the international system as BRICS and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization are primarily led by Beijing. The membership of both comprises of major regional actors in their respective regions and they cover Eurasian landmass in the case of SCO and BRICS has membership from all the continents except for North America.

China and India have major differences on a range of issues, the foremost being the contentious Line of Actual Control where they blame each other for massive deployment of troops in the Himalayas since 2020. Therefore, rising Chinese influence in any sphere is inherently not a favourable situation for India.

India, on the other hand, in the recent past has drifted towards the US, the other pole of the emerging Cold War. For New Delhi to feature in two major organizations led by China and at this critical juncture in the international scenario may be a balancing act, but it will have long term ramifications.

It may be argued that India with the current dispensation asserts its strategic and national interests but agreeing to a Chinese agenda may not create that impression. Also, the illusion that BRICS and SCO are representatives of the Global South and thereby India agrees to be a part of them, now comes under scrutiny. With the membership of Iran and Saudi Arabia, BRICS is now a geopolitical group aimed at the US and the West. India must find it hard to negotiate with the two antithetical arrays in global geopolitics.

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LONG VIEW: The Time For A Global Plural Alliance

International norms and the international rule based order are based on the universalist ideology of a liberal western civilisation and its Westphalian State history, with little accommodation let alone coexistence of alternative ideological or philosophical positions or dynamics. This has caused tensions but more importantly a situation where the tools for mediation and resolution of conflicts, or of arbitration and institutionalisation of diversity are imperfect in international institutions such as the United Nations. It restricts all efforts to be compliant within options consistent with the paradigm of an interpretation of liberalism with no scope to negotiate as equals or with respect for alternatives.

The current ideology in international institutions, international law and international relations assumes axiomatic universal paradigm status.  This means all alternatives are considered in need of correction, reform or improvement relative to the ideal liberal ideological values, norms and principles. This approach permeates all of the institutions of United Nations as the body has institutionalised liberalism within all its organs and treaties.

The consequences of this is two-fold. It militates against nature’s propensity towards diversity and plurality. Secondly it restricts the flexibility of the first article of the United Nations Charter as it cages the scope of activity within a paradigm that assumes hegemony and preference as well as the reference against which possibilities for peace are explored.

The first contradiction is indeed axiomatic. Nature is not universalist. Gravity may be one of the most fundamental force but there are also anti-gravity forces. There is matter but also dark matter and anti-matter. There is the physical universe with its laws but there are also black holes. The range of vegetation, species and life forms is phenomenon. Life needs oxygen but there are others who thrive on its lack. Most species need light, but there are others that are destroyed by light. Most species need warmth but there are others that thrive in sub-zero temperatures. The list is endless. The number of species is almost endless. Some animal species, such as elephants are highly social, matriarchal and collectively look after their young. Others like lions are highly patriarchal and kill the young offspring of male lions they have ousted from the family. Some like wild dogs work in packs and have a hierarchical system, while others like bears are highly individualist and territorial about their hunting ground. Even within species there are variants. Some apes and monkeys have rigid hierarchical cultures that rook no challenge while other like the bonobos have a very cooperative culture. Nature is certainly not universalist. The UN and international institutions are universalist.

Similarly human society and its civilisations have evolved over many centuries and thousands of years in different ways. Some have a strong sense of individual sovereignty while others have complex systems of filial responsibilities or family orientated cultures with duties and obligations. Legal systems also vary among civilisations as do concepts of rights, duties, obligations and responsibilities. Some cultures are hierarchical and both comfortable and strong with such systems while others have high levels of consensus among members before decisions are made. Like nature, human society is not governed by a single set of value systems, legal instruments or political orders. There are some extraordinary and somewhat unrealistic assumptions in some of the treaties of the UN that all of human kind seeks the same set of freedoms, values, rights and life ambitions. This is a universalist assumption that crushes diversity of perspectives and contradicts nature’s propelling tendency towards diversity and pluralism.

Universalism is the presumption that a group of individuals or communities can identify what is fundamental to all human beings and how that can be achieved. While the struggle to live and have dignity is natural to all life, the route to realising this is not necessarily universally through a regime of rights. In some species and in some cultures of human beings, life is sustained and nurtured through a complex set of responsibilities. An unnatural death, or even death by disease, is seen as failure or abrogation of duties and responsibilities of the whole family, relatives and even village community. Life is not protected just by a regime of rights against an aggressor or intruder or negligent State but by a collective sense of commitment to sustaining life.

The United Nations charter starts with the essential mission for which it was established, that is ‘to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war’.  In Article 1 it states that its purposes are ‘ to maintain international peace and security and to that end to take effective collective measures for the protection and removal of threats to the peace and for the suppression of acts of aggression or other breaches of the peace, and to bring about by peaceful means and in conformity with the principles of justice and international law, adjustment or settlement of international disputes or situations which might lead to a breach of the peace.

26 nations sign the ‘Declaration by United Nations’

If the foremost primary mission of the United Nations was and remains to maintain international peace and to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, then it would be necessary for it to remove or at least diffuse one of the most recurring triggers of wars in history, particularly in the history of the western sphere and middle east. This is the tensions that arise when one dominant culture tries to impose a hegemonic order upon others based on its idea of the perfect set of values and governance. Through history this fuse has been ignited by religions that assume their truths are universal and divine while others are false. During colonialism wars were supported by the notion that the dominant force was ‘civilising the barbarians’ or ‘civilising those who were in need of a greater civilisation’. Even slavery was justified by ideological propping with one community assuming itself to be ‘civilised’ while others to be ‘uncivilised barbarians worthy of being treated as labour in captivity’. The World Wars were fought with competing secular ideological hegemonies being a major frame in the war. Nationalism and claims of threats to nations was a significant factor although territorial designs and access to resources were just as important.

Nevertheless the UN charter introduces an ideological preference in the next sentence that it assumes is self evidently universal, universally desired by all people and universally applicable across the world. It states in the preamble that’ to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights … in the equal rights of men and women…. The charter in Article 1.3 states‘… in promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion’. The Charter then commits to a practical route for itself to attain these by stating in Article 1.4 ‘To be a centre for harmonising the actions of nations in the attainment of these common ends’.

Having established the ideology that it feels will bring permanent peace or remove the scourge of war, it embarks on ‘harmonising’ the actions of nations in the attainment of these goals.

Given that many wars in history have been over ideological competition and campaigns or ‘crusades’ as they were called, for ideological hegemony, it is contentious whether the United Nation’s mission to end wars would be achieved by committing to harmonising the actions of nations to the preferred ideology. Harmonising the actions of nations is controversial. It means that ‘nations’ and civilisations would have to sacrifice their distinctive cultural or philosophical and political worldview and adopt the one that the UN promotes. This also means that the power or dominance or even ownership of the ideological hegemony to which all nations have to move towards is in the hands of those countries or civilisations whose worldview and ideological paradigm the United Nations has adopted as a universal preference and standard. It is not difficult to see that this immediately negates the intention of the mission to end wars, since wars in history have largely been fought for ideological hegemony, although as well as resources.

The inevitable happened almost instantly when the UN was instituted. There emerged a block of countries called the ‘west’ that claimed democracy, rule of law, human rights and liberalism as ‘civilised governance’, axiomatically universal and that which they were already practicing and that they felt all countries of the world should ‘harmonise’ towards. Resisting this and seen as the opposing worldview was communism as adopted by the Soviet Union. This was ascribed as authoritarian and anti-democratic, thus either in violation of the principles of the United Nations or in need of reforms to be consistent with the United Nations. In this group were placed, along with the Soviet, the People’s Republic of China and any other countries that did not have western forms of democracy. This group was and still is usually termed ‘dictatorships’ or autocracies. Thus a clear division of opposing ideologies emerged immediately after the formation of the UN and a fertile ground for wars was created by the United Nations itself by tying itself to one ideological mission. The UN had unwittingly created and instituted the conditions that had led to many wars in history. Inevitably there followed a long period of what was called the ‘Cold War’ but which led to many real and bloody wars through proxy and remote management. The two superpowers that emerged from World War II, decided to avoid a direct confrontation with each other as both had nuclear weapons. A direct conflict would lead to the third World War and almost mutual decimation.

The preference to create a hegemonic ideology and persuade nations or force them to ‘harmonise’ their actions to this, is a paradox that the United Nations has failed to appreciate in context of its founding mission. It was and remains the fertiliser for conflict and war. Ideologies usually consider that if the entire world embraces the same ideology, there would be permanent or eternal peace in the world and all wars of differences would come to an end. This is contrary to nature as nature nurtures diversity and pluralism. Any effort to push against nature and create an artificial or human imagined set of universal rules inevitably fail because neither human beings nor human society accept uniformity or universalism. It leads to more wars as the post-war period has shown.

What the United Nations needs to do is to revisit its charter and ask itself whether it sees its purpose as an institution that will work to end wars by mediating among, negotiating between and creating the circumstances for diametrically opposite and different political ideologies to coexist or does it consider its purpose to establish permanent peace by persuading the entire world and its nations to commit to a ‘universal’ set of values, principles, political ideology and standards that one of dominant civilisations that emerged from colonialism thinks is the ultimate ideal universal.

If the United Nations sees its purpose to ‘save succeeding nations from the scourge of war’, then it has to learn from history and avoid promoting both ideological hegemony and ideological universalism. It needs to restate its mission to encourage coexistence of diverse political ideologies and promote pluralism as well as enact instruments and create the tools to make that possible. Mediation needs to be between diverse ideologies without any side feeling they are being judged against one and required to conform to a particular universalist ideology. Dignity and respect of the human being can be achieved through all different ideologies and almost all ideologies claim their purpose to respect the dignity and security of all human beings.

Efforts have been made at the United Nations to establish a ‘dialogue between civilisations’. However this seems to have been marginalised. Moreover the influence of this exercise is almost irrelevant as the body corpus of UN treaties and orientation is to promote one civilisation. A ‘dialogue’ will also only attempt to harmonise others towards this one universalist ideology.

It is also not fair to assume that the west is behind all this or that it is enforcing the liberalism adopted by the UN to impose its hegemony. The charter and the subsequent treaties were drafted and agreed by the State members present. Among them were countries that did not have liberal form of democracies. Whether they lacked arguments against the deep convictions of the west that liberalism was the future, or they were implying that they too would ‘harmonise’ towards the ideals of liberalism, even democracy. There was little if any critique of the ideological hegemony being created and against which every nation, civilisation and ideology was to be judged from henceforth. The world handed hegemony to the west and then accused it of exploiting it.

The impact of this universalist approach based on western liberalism has been that when countries that practice liberalism deviate from it, it is considered as a temporary aberration. But the countries who do not have liberalism as their core political philosophy, are intentionally or unwittingly considered by the UN system as ‘fundamentally flawed’ in need of reform, even if this statement is not publicly stated. There is thus a permanent state of countries who meet UN standards and those that are ‘defective’ or in need of reform. The status of this category of countries is one of defensive. Whatever confidence they assert in international institutions such as UN, crashes against the liberalist wall of the charters, the treaties and the declarations. These countries are therefore in a de facto status of second class and not really in ownership of the agenda. They throw their weight by virtue of their size, power and finance, but ideologically they are always followers.

The United Nations needs reforming itself and needs to adopt pluralism rather than one form of liberalism as its driving conceptual foundation. This will ensure diversity is respected equally and with dignity thus removing one of the recurring causes of wars, the desire for ideological hegemony.

To start a serious debate, research and move towards a United Nations that is genuinely plural without institutionalising hegemony, there is a need for a movement and alliance for pluralism. Countries and civilisations that feel they are being ‘harmonised’ towards one universal ideology that grants control of the debate to one civilisation, could form a Global Alliance for pluralism or the Pluralist Alliance. This alliance could be the start of a genuinely pluralist world and human society moving away from wars, or the traditional notion of war to end all wars, and moving towards coexistence of differences and diversity of world views. Some of the treaties may need to be revisited and the wordings changed so almost all civilisations could coexist, be respected and not made to feel lacking perfection.

During the Cold War, India led the Non-Aligned Movement to duck the pressure to side with one or the other. Some 75 other countries, now increased to 120, joined this group and escaped inordinate pressures to some extent. But in current date the world is multipolar. It is no longer binary, divided in two blocs with a need for non-aligned to stay independent. In fact India itself is now a power bloc.

The current period offers an opportunity to realise this and institute pluralism, particularly at the United Nations, as the world is in a state of multipolar power blocks. The distribution of power and wealth is not binary but genuinely plural with different power blocks having distinct cultures and civilisations too. The time to start and form a serious debate about pluralism and end hegemony is now if ever. It could start with the BRICS countries forming a Global Alliance for Pluralism at the United Nations.