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BRICS summit: Of carnivores and herbivores

April, 09 2013 14:17 IST

Not only has Russia’s position of support to India as a permanent member been lost in the BRICS document, but even the aspirations of Brazil, India and South Africa have been downgraded. What have the three countries gained in exchange, wonders former ambassador TP Sreenivasan

Russian President Vladimir Putin unwittingly acknowledged the dangers inherent in the formation of the expanded BRICS Group, when he compared its members to the elephant, the rhinoceros, the buffalo, the lion and the leopard. He did not identify which was which, but his image of three herbivores and two carnivores trying to cohabit in the same tent was an apt description of the grouping.

However strong the coincidence of interests at this time may be, it will not be too long before carnivores develop an appetite to devour the herbivores. The eThekwini Declaration and Action Plan of the fifth BRICS summit, named after the municipality in which Durban is located, has clear hints of the intentions of the lion and the leopard.

The unspoken agenda of BRICS to counter the West and the global governance architecture, built against the backdrop of very different challenges and opportunities came loud and clear in Durban. Putin characterized the BRICS approach as “not against, but bypassing the West”. The idea is clearly to rearrange the world, thus stripping the West of the fruits of its economic success. The present configuration of the world, by which everything depends on the US and the Eurozone, must change. Instead of merely calling for reform, BRICS decided to establish new institutions to suit its agenda.

The main objective of the establishment of a development bank was fashioned, essentially by China to counter the World Bank and IMF. Replacing the Western dominated financial system with a Chinese dominated one cannot be an unmixed blessing for the developing countries, even though it opens up possibilities for softer credits. The summit established the feasibility and viability of a development bank, indeed phenomenal progress, but wisdom prevailed in the end and a decision on issues like contribution and venue was postponed for further negotiations.

Theinitial proposal for China to provide the largest share seems to have given way to a capital of USD 50 billion divided equally among the five members. The BRICS strategy of long-term economic cooperation, common infrastructure projects and BRICS Business Council will devolve on the richest of them all, China, which appears to be looking for an alternative to the way the world does business today.

The venue of any multilateral meeting bestows some advantages to the host country. It chairs the meeting and it has the privilege of shaping the outcome by providing the first draft of decisions. But the prime importance given to African development at the BRICS summit was unusual. The theme, 'BRICS and Africa: Partnership for Development, Integration and Industrialization' was not prompted by the venue alone. Here again, China seems to be looking for legitimacy for its enhanced level of activities in Africa.

China’s seemingly abundant cash availability and its increasing appetite for minerals and other raw materials in Africa seem to have influenced BRICS to take extraordinary interest in Africa at a summit, which should have given importance to the issues of common interest to the five as well as to the other developing countries.

A retreat with African leaders planned by BRICS is reminiscent of China hosting an African Summit in Beijing not so long ago. Assistance to Africa is like motherhood, but in the context of emerging rivalries in Africa, it appears that China has an axe to grind in focusing on Africa.

For a statement of an essentially economic grouping, the eThekwini Declaration is rich in political statements. It reads like the standard statements of a political grouping like NAM, which normally incorporates the whole agenda of the United Nations. The issues range from burning issues like Syria, Palestine, Iranian nuclear issue and terrorism to routine multilateral events in which BRICS countries have participated. Except for a tone of defiance of the US, these pronouncements do not point to any game-changing innovative solutions. With talk of the setting up of a permanent secretariat, which is now in the form of a virtual secretariat, BRICS is on the road to becoming an organization, not a mere grouping.

Ironically, the BRICS countries have deep involvement with the United States and Europe and the international financial institutions, which would largely influence their wellbeing in the immediate future. This was the reason for the caution with which BRIC began its meetings. At the fifth summit, with the addition of South Africa, BRICS seems to be abandoning that caution. Inevitably, a confrontational tone has crept into the pronouncements.

When two permanent members of the UN Security Council form a grouping with three strong aspirants to permanent membership, the least that should be expected is for the former to express solidarity with the latter. Instead, the position expressed by the five has diluted not only the aspirations of the three, but also the support of the fourth, which was brought in line with the fifth: 'China and Russia reiterate the importance they attach to the status of Brazil, India and South Africa in international affairs and support their aspiration to play a greater role in the UN.'

Not only has Russia’s position of support to India as a permanent member been lost in the BRICS document, but even the aspirations of Brazil, India and South Africa have been downgraded. What have the three countries gained in exchange?

IBSA, formed by India, Brazil and South Africa had a logic and philosophy of its own. As the three biggest developing countries, with a high rate of growth, they have similar aspirations and challenges. It has now been overshadowed by BRICS, which originally was a generic name for a group of countries with similar characteristics, identified by a Goldman Sachs economist, to which South Africa was added by China ostensibly without consultations with the others. The inclusion of South Africa was hard to resist, even though South Korea and Indonesia had greater claim. With the formation of BRICS, IBSA cannot take an independent line without the constraints of being in league with China and Russia. IBSA now appears to be a sideshow.

The debut of President Xi on the international scene in Durban may have something to do with the fairly easy manner in which China accomplished its mission in Durban. His visit to Moscow on the way to Durban was not without significance in this context. For Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, the first meeting with President Xi was of greater importance than what BRICS as a whole accomplished. But though President Xi had put forward old wine in new bottle as a befriend India initiative, the meeting ended up on a dissonant note on Brahmaputra rather than on a note of bonhomie over BRICS.

Bilateral discords cannot be covered up with multilateral accords.

T P Sreenivasan is a former Ambassador of India and Governor for India of the IAEA; Executive Vice-Chairman, Kerala State Higher Education Council, Thiruvananthapuram; and Director General, Kerala International Centre, Thiruvananthapuram.

For more columns by Ambassador Sreenivasan, please click here.

TP Sreenivasan