Is BRICS just a catchy acronym masking the haphazard, slapping together of five developing, yet ultimately incompatible nations? Or is it just a cohesive conclave of actual economic performers, dominant in their respective region? India is at presently in the centre of a unique geopolitical moment. On the one hand its neighborhood and the larger Asian continent are being unpredictably redefined. Both India and China are charting new geographies of contests, the Indian Ocean and South China Sea. The world is today in a once-in-a-century churn. The superpowers who defined the rules and conduct of political and economic governance are now a defeated lot. India must seize the moment to defend its growth and development interests in areas such as trade, Intellectual Property Rights, space, climate, energy policy and as a South East Asian giant.
Regional order and global governance are both in flux and demanding India’s attention. In order to attain the global power status it desires, India must walk and talk tough at the same time. BRICS represents a uniquely appropriate platform and flexible mechanism with which India can address this dual imperative. However, there are multifarious paradoxes in the group. Three of its members are functioning democracies; Russia and China are not. China and India are neighbours with long outstanding disputes. South Africa and Brazil are geographically wide apart from each other and from the rest of the nations. China has land links with both Russia and India, though its recent friendliness with Moscow is in contrast to its relationship with India, which is normal only on a superficial level.
Simultaneous engagement with both China and Russia will be a tight rope walk. The past would need to be forgotten and future integration would need to sidestep suspicion and history. BRICS is a unique opportunity for the three to shape a new construct for Asia amidst the regional flux.
While speaking at the plenary session, PM Modi said that BRICS should be driven by people-to-people contact led by the youth of the five member nations. The idea of a BRICS Young Scientists’ Forum, BRICS language schools, Massive Open Online Courses and a BRICS University are welcome signs. He spoke of reforms in UN Security Council and the World Trade Organisation. All the members expressed commitment to refrain from taking any protectionist measures and improve policy coordination to enhance trade and investment. The members also signed a Memorandum of Understanding on Cooperation among BRICS Export Credit and Guarantees Agencies that will improve the support environment for increasing trade opportunities among the member-countries.
Modi also called for more concerted efforts in addressing the issue of terrorism, urging the world to put more pressure on countries that give “support and sanctuaries” to terrorists. The PM said terrorism, in any shape or form is against humanity and called for zero tolerance towards terrorism.
Mooting the idea of the BRICS development Bank will help India which has reached its maximum borrowing capacity at the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank. An Indian CEO at the helm was small consolation, as the Bank will be headquartered in Shanghai. What was a victory was the last minute agreement of equal participation among all the partners in this 50 billion corpus, otherwise it would have gone the way of the ownership pattern of IMF and World Bank.
On the sidelines, the tid-bits of the summit were the Hindi speeches of Modi, his meeting with President Xi Jinping regarding the border dispute and the extending and exchanging of invitations. The Chinese premier will come to India, Modi will go to China Putin will visit India and Modi will likewise visit Moscow.
India should draw on collective BRICS brainpower and catalyse the local development efforts. For example, sharing China’s experience on infrastructure development or poverty reduction or Brazil’s clean-fuel generation could be beneficial for India which is currently lacking the ability to take full advantage of its economic potential. The sheer size and rate of growth of intra-BRICS trade and economic exchange will allow each of these countries to exert their collective weight for their individual gains. Who gains more should not matter, what should matter is that every member benefits from this dispensation and the order is visibly equitable. Whether Modi’s visit was a success will be determined in the next few months. Indian and the fellow nations of BRICS constitute 40% of the world’s population. The US and Europe watch with certain fear and trepidation. The cynical among them look at it as ‘ragtag group’ odd aspiring nations which today look like a pile of bricks rather than the fortress that BRICS nations hope to finally build.
In the fifth century, when Hiuen Tsang, the Chinese pilgrim, visited the Nalanda University, the monks there asked him to stay back. They told him that he should not return to the barbaric China, where the Buddha had chosen not to be born. Hiuen Tsang had argued that the Buddha would not ‘forget those who are not yet enlightened.’ It is hoped that China’s resurgent leadership will prove that that enlightenment has not only reached China, but it still prevails in their minds. That will determine the success or failure of the BRICS summit.