KANTI BAJPAI

The fourth Brics summit between the leaders of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa has just concluded. At the heart of the summit was the desire of these five very large, dynamic economies to promote trade and investment between them and find ways of cooperating on major global economic, security, and sustainability issues without sounding anti-American and anti-western. What are the prospects of this relatively new grouping? Can it emerge as an effective group within the G-20 and other forums? As the western powers struggle to overcome their economic problems and provide leadership globally, can the Brics step into the vacuum?

Brics countries have a number of differences. First, China is clearly the leader of the pack in terms of its comprehensive national power and economic clout, but both India and Russia are eager not to cede leadership too obviously to their huge neighbour. Second, both India and Russia are wary of China in light of a number of bilateral problems. While relations with China have been stable and are increasingly institutionalised, New Delhi and Moscow are constantly looking over their shoulders. Third, each of the five has more going on with the US and western powers than with each other. Trade is an exception, with China being everyone’s largest trading partner. As a result, however, each has difficulties with Beijing, particularly on the value of the renmibi and other Chinese trading practices. Notwithstanding their differences, Brics share a number of concerns. They are all worried about US leadership and western policies on geopolitical issues, in particular in the Arab world and in Iran. They are all opposed to interventionism even though none of them has much of an alternative to offer except such anodyne suggestions as “diplomacy is the answer”. The West’s stand on climate change and, particularly for Russia, India and China, the future of Pakistan and Afghanistan, are very troubling. Most importantly, they are all concerned that the West’s economic troubles are chronic and will be consequential for them. They look increasingly, therefore, to sustain their growth prospects on the backs of each other’s economies.

While the Brics countries are keen to have an impact on global governance, they do not have much to their credit. They will continue to be concerned mostly with their own development and growth. A further limit on their taking the initiative globally is domestic problems. Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff is still labouring under the shadow of her predecessor; Russian president Vladimir Putin is trying to shrug off a controversial election; Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s government lurches from one crisis to another; China is undergoing a fractious leadership transition; and President Jacob Zuma of South Africa is at best a workman-like leader. Can the grouping play a role on geopolitical issues? The Russians have certainly been trying to bring about a negotiated settlement in Syria. Brazil, India and South Africa, however, voted for the western resolution. They are all opposed to strong-arm tactics with Iran but have little else to offer. With Israel poised to strike, diplomacy as usual, which they endorse, is a counsel of virtue but not terribly creative. Russia, India and China are concerned about the future of Pakistan and Afghanistan but show no signs of common action. Beijing, which could be the most influential in the long term, is also the most reticent about how it sees this region as the US draws down its forces.

The Brics grouping is most likely to focus on economics. The idea of settling their trade through currency swaps; of putting their weight behind a South-South development bank; of cooperating on food, water, and energy; of ensuring that the world continues to support an open trading system - these are all important areas of joint endeavour. If Brics delivers on any of them, it will have done quite a lot.

The strength of a chain depends on the weakest link. Unfortunately, India is the weakest link in Brics. Its chaotic politics, abysmal human development record, low per capita income (the lowest in the group) and uncivil civil society make it an unreliable partner. New Delhi should keep this in mind as it beats the drum over the future of Brics.                                   –India Times