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EFSAS Commentary

Pre-Summit reports suggested India’s reluctance to BRICS expansion, but the new members are to its liking


The 14 BRICS summit that were held before the one in South Africa last week (22-24 August) had drawn international attention, but not in the manner that the 15th summit did. A decision on the growing swell of over 40 countries that had evinced interest in joining the grouping comprising Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa, and the 23 that had put in formal requests to join, was to be taken. South African President Cyril Ramaphosa had invited the leaders of as many as 67 countries to the summit. Pre-summit reports had suggested the proposed expansion was being driven by China and Russia, and that Brazil and India were opposed to the inclusion of new members. At the summit, however, both President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and Prime Minister Narendra Modi welcomed the expansion of the grouping. From India’s perspective, five of the six new members have a strategic partnership with it, and the leaders of five of the six countries have been chief guests at its Republic Day celebrations.

In the Johannesburg II declaration that was adopted on the final day of the summit, the five BRICS members said that they “appreciate the considerable interest shown by countries of the Global South in membership of BRICS”, and announced that six countries – Argentina, Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – had been invited to join as full members from 1 January next year. They said that the new members were selected after “BRICS countries reached consensus on the guiding principles, standards, criteria and procedures of the BRICS expansion process”.

Al Jazeera reported that in their addresses at the summit, the leaders highlighted different priority areas for their respective countries. Ramaphosa focused on partnerships with Africa and how BRICS could put the continent’s interests on the agenda. He also said an announcement would be made with regard to proposed changes the grouping hopes to implement related to the international financial system. “We are concerned that global financial and payment systems are increasingly being used as instruments of geopolitical contestation. Global economic recovery relies on predictable global payment systems and the smooth operating of banking, supply chains, trade, tourism, as well as financial flows”, Ramaphosa said. Saying that the BRICS group should remain united and also play a key role in working to stabilize the world, Ramaphosa asserted that “Development is not a privilege of the few”.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, who spoke via video stream while his Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov attended in person, criticised “ongoing neocolonialism” and countries that “promote their own hegemony”. He also said Russia was open to dialogue to find a resolution to the war in Ukraine, which Russian forces invaded in February 2022. Putin did not receive much support for his anti-West position from any of the other four leaders. Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping did not directly refer to the war in Ukraine at all, while Ramaphosa merely said, “We agree that the war can only be resolved by negotiations, which you have always said you support”. Lula was more elaborate. Emphasizing that “We cannot avoid dealing with the main current conflict taking place in Ukraine with global effects”, he underlined that “Brazil’s historic stance is to defend sovereignty, territorial integrity and all the United Nations’ purposes and principles”. Lula also put the conflict in the context of a world order that had shifted over a few years from “a scenario of benign multipolarity towards one that resumes the obsolete mentality of the Cold War and geopolitical competition”.

In the Johannesburg II declaration, without referring to Ukraine directly, the leaders raised concerns about continuing conflicts in many parts of the world, saying that “We stress our commitment to the peaceful resolution of differences and disputes through dialogue and inclusive consultations in a coordinated and cooperative manner and support all efforts conducive to the peaceful settlement of crises. We recall our national positions concerning the conflict in and around Ukraine as expressed at the appropriate fora, including the United Nations Security Council and United Nations General Assembly. We note with appreciation relevant proposals of mediation and good offices aimed at peaceful resolution of the conflict through dialogue and diplomacy, including the African Leaders Peace Mission and the proposed path for peace”.

Xi Jinping highlighted the importance of stability and certainty in his speech and said there was a need to deepen cooperation to build growth. He criticised a new “Cold War mentality” across the globe, and said that countries should “respect all modernisation paths” that individual nations choose for themselves.

Modi focused on the successes of the BRICS grouping over the last 15 years, specifically the New Development Bank, the Shanghai-based lender better known as the BRICS Bank, a multilateral development bank that works with emerging markets, and the “financial safety net” of contingent reserve arrangement, which works as a liquidity mechanism to support BRICS countries struggling with payments. Modi put forth several suggestions for further broadening cooperation among the member countries. These included the creation of a BRICS Space Exploration Consortium for space research and weather monitoring, enhancing cooperation in education, skill development, and technology to make societies ready to face future challenges, and skill mapping to identify each other’s strengths to complement each other in the journey of development.

Among the key takeaways for India from the summit was that an issue it has been pursuing for long, reforming the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), was one of the key points of discussion. The BRICS declaration endorsed a greater participation of emerging and developing countries in the UN, including its Security Council. It said, “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 memberships so that it can adequately respond to prevailing global challenges and support the legitimate aspirations of emerging and developing countries from Africa, Asia and Latin America, including Brazil, India and South Africa, to play a greater role in international affairs, in particular in the United Nations, including its Security Council”. UN Secretary-General António Guterres echoed these sentiments when he said that today’s glo­bal governance structures reflected yesterday’s world. On the final day of the summit he recalled that “They were largely created in the aftermath of World War 2 when many African countries were still ruled by colonial powers and were not even at the table”, adding while referring to the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund that this was particularly true of the Security Council and the Bretton Woods institutions.

Another discussion at the summit that was of direct interest to India was the push for the use of local currencies to facilitate trade and transactions. Commenting on this issue, Ramaphosa informed that the finance ministers and central bank governors of BRICS nations had been tasked with considering the modalities of trading in local currencies. He said, “The summit agreed to task the BRICS finance ministers and central bank governors, as appropriate, to consider the issue of local currencies, payment instruments and platforms and report back to the BRICS leaders by the next summit”.

Kapil Sharma, senior director and a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center believes that the expansion of BRICS from five countries to eleven may result in India and the group gaining leverage, as “the expanded bloc includes a greater concentration of energy-producing countries, as well as potential collaboration on shifting trade transactions away from the dollar. The members will try to use the expansion to push for changes at the United Nations and other global institutions. However, for the BRICS to be effective over the long term, India and China will need to resolve their border challenges and collaborate on tough global issues as well as the deployment of capital for developing economies”.

Others, such as Danny Bradlow, professor with the Centre for the Advancement of Scholarship at the University of Pretoria, told Al Jazeera that “It is hard to find commonalities among the six countries invited to join BRICS other than that they are each significant States in their region. The grouping now represents a larger share of the world’s population and economy. However, this only means that the group is potentially a powerful voice for reform of the arrangements for global governance and a powerful actor in these arrangements. Whether it actually becomes such a voice will depend on whether the expanded group is more effective than the BRICS have been in forging agreements on how the arrangements for global governance should be reformed and how they can more effectively serve the interests of the whole Global South”.

Former Indian Foreign Secretary Kanwal Sibal believes that the global system is under new stresses with the collapse of Russia’s ties with the United States (US) and Europe and the rise of serious tensions between the US and China. The expansion of BRICS, therefore, has considerable geopolitical significance, and is a consequential step in changing the balance between the West and others in the global system. Sibal is of the opinion that the large number of countries from the Global South that formally applied for BRICS membership or showed interest in joining the grouping indicates a growing discontent with the West-dominated global order that continues to be shaped in accordance with the policy priorities and interests of major Western powers. The Global South wants greater democratisation of international relations and an enhancement of its role in global mechanisms, Sibal feels.

Suhasini Haidar wrote in a 24 August analysis in the Indian daily The Hindu that as a result of the expansion, the BRICS grouping had strengthened its position as a global grouping to be reckoned with. She continued, “In addition, the choice of countries, bringing in four major players from the ‘Middle East region’: Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia and UAE, apart from Ethiopia and Argentina from Africa and South America, is significant, as it denotes a shift in the non-western economic grouping’s underpinnings, to make it a more politically relevant bloc”. She informed that while India may initially not have been in favour of such a rapid expansion of the BRICS grouping, officials have said that it took the lead in drafting the criteria for membership, and the fact that most of the new members are strategic partners of India is a direct result of its efforts.

India-Argentina relations were elevated to the level of Strategic Partnership in 2019 during the State visit of the President of Argentina to India. The two countries have strengthened their ties in various areas, including political, economic, cultural, and scientific cooperation. India is the 4th largest trading partner of Argentina. In June 2023, during PM Modi’s visit to Egypt, the bilateral relationship was elevated to a strategic partnership. With Saudi Arabia, India signed the Strategic Partnership Council Agreement in 2019 under Vision 2030. India’s relationship with the UAE has deepened significantly over the past decade, and the country has become one of India’s closest partners in the Middle East both in terms of strategic cooperation and economic partnership. India’s participation in Iran’s Chabahar port project is important for its trade with the Central Asian countries, and it is an important node in the International North South Transport Corridor. India’s relations with Ethiopia, which is strategically situated at the Horn of Africa and hosts the headquarters of the African Union, have been traditionally strong. In Africa, Ethiopia is the largest recipient of long-term concessional credit from India.

Former Indian Ambassador to Russia D.B. Venkatesh Verma, when asked by The Hindu about the takeaways for India from the BRICS expansion, responded, “A measured expansion in BRICS membership was both timely and necessary. Instead of viewing expansion solely through the prism of big power relations, say its relations with China or the U.S., the bubbling desire for multipolarity in various regions is something that India should embrace and channel within BRICS for its own benefit”.

How each member country will embrace an expanded BRICS and benefit from it remains to be seen, but the real potential of the grouping lies not in the fact that it now has 11 members instead of 5, but in how large this number could become in ten or twenty years time, when the fast expanding list of applications for membership and expressions of interest have all been considered and decided upon.