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BRICS: Why India must play its cards with care

March 26, 2013 14:44 IST

When leaders of the five BRICS nations meet in Durban, there must be some stocktaking to assess exactly what the group wants to become, says Ambassador K C Singh.

The fifth smmit of BRICS -- an association of emerging economies comprising Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa -- is currently underway in Durban.

The meet has elicited fresh interest in the grouping of emerging economies most likely to impact global growth, which was created in 2008. While Brazil and Russia were major exporters of commodities and energy, India and China are huge consumers of oil and gas, minerals, metals and food products.

The founding of the association was not very propitious as it coincided with the banking crisis in the United States. The first full-scale meeting of the grouping was held in the Russian city of Yekaterinburg. Incidentally, the city is infamous for its history of bloodshed -- Tsar Nicholas II and his entire family was killed here during the October Revolution led by the Bolsheviks in 1918.

After four years, South Africa was added as the fifth member, so that the grouping could ostensibly represent Asia, Europe, Latin America and Africa. Many, however, doubted the new entrant’s credentials due to the size of its economy or its role in Africa.

During Mohamed Morsi’s recent visit to India, speculations were rife that the Egypt president had expressed an interest about the revolution-hit nation joining the grouping.

This push for expansion reminds one of the now almost forgotten G-15 grouping comprising prominent developing nations which were members of the Non-Aligned Movement.

It is hoped that BRICS will become a cohesive conclave of actual economic performers, dominant in their respective region, not merely a bus full of aspiring nations.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, in an interview, revived the erstwhile Union of Soviet Socialist Republic’s proposal for a security mechanism in Asia. He asserted that BRICS countries must have a 'full-scale strategic cooperation mechanism.'

He seems to have been encouraged by fact that Chinese President Xi Jinping chose Russia as his first destination abroad after being elected to the top post.

With the Russian gas market in Europe undercut by US shell gas revolution softening the LNG spot market, the European consumers are now demanding better terms from Russia. Consequently, the oil and gas behemoth is now turning to Asian markets. China has already inked contracts to increase its purchase of both oil and gas from Russia, even extending credit to some Russian companies.

The two permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, who used to be rivals in the past, seem to have drawn closer to offset US pressure on Russia in Europe and on China by the Asian ‘pivot’. The Putin doctrine seeks a similar approach to BRICS.

Singapore’s creator Lee Kuan Yew sceptically assesses that the five countries have 'totally different futures' and thus can hardly adopt a cohesive vision and coordinated action.

He is accurate in some sense -- 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 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.

For instance, in the last few weeks, China has assumed control of Pakistan’s Gwadar port and agreed to set up a 1000MW nuclear reactor at Chashma. China’s President Xi Jinping was also in touch with Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa after India decided to vote for a resolution moved by the US against the island nation at the United Nations Human Rights Council meet in Geneva on March 21.

China was thus calibrating its traditionally intrusive role in India’s periphery simultaneously with bonhomie in Durban. Sinologists in the government are underplaying this on the eve of the first meeting between Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and President Xi.

The theme of the current BRICS summit is the grouping’s relationship with Africa. There is a proposal to establish a development bank, to rival the Asian Development Bank, which will be funded by BRICS nations.

If such a bank is indeed set up, China, which has the deepest pockets, is bound to dominate its functioning. This is evident from the fact that China is expected to corner 60 per cent of the Africa-BRICS trade -- worth $500 billion -- by 2015.

That China is focusing on Africa now is reflected by the fact that President Xi is combining his Durban trip with visits to Tanzania and the Republic of Congo. This raises questions about the boundaries between Chinese unilateralism in Africa and the collective projects of the BRICS.

The first four BRICS summits chose themes that dominated the global discourse in a particular year. The topics ranged from food security in 2009 to development cooperation the next year.

The persistent weakness in the global economy and the Eurozone crisis shifted the focus to reserve pooling and currency swaps. Agriculture, trade and health became new areas of discussion and possible cooperation. Even a meeting of the national security advisers of the various nations was introduced.

When leaders of the five nations meet in Durban on Tuesday, there must be some stocktaking to assess exactly what the group wants to become. Is it another grouping to balance the unilateralism of the US? Or is it merely a platform to articulate alternate visions of global governance in finance and trade? I

ndia needs to play its cards with great care. It should not let the Sino-Russian aversion to certain elements of global governance turn BRICS into an exercise to contain or confront the US.

At the same time, India does share with the others concerns over climate change and sustainable development, which are closely intertwined issues for developing countries. After great effort, India has managed to de-link India-US relations from the rhetoric of non-aligned nations. This is not the time to resurrect the issue in a new form.

The US may be preoccupied with its endgame in Afghanistan and thus depend heavily on Pakistan, but India should not make the mistake of swinging to the other extreme by seeking strategic convergences with Iran, Russia and China.

China’s agenda seems to be to ensure that India is not pushed into the US corner, joining the unofficial alliance of the superpower, Japan, South Korea, Australia, nations of the ASEAN and other democracies of Asia.

India must project its soft power by presenting an alternative to the Chinese-Confucian model of governance. That can only happen if India articulates its concerns and hopes clearly at the summit.

At the peak of Chinese power during the rule of the Tang dynasty (618-907 AD), India held the pride of place, as it was the repository of Buddhism.

When the monks at Nalanda University in eastern India urged visiting Chinese pilgrim Xuanzang (600-664 AD) to stay in India and not return to the barbaric land of China, where the Buddha had chosen not be born, he argued that the Buddha would not 'forget those who are not yet enlightened.'

It is hoped that China’s new and resurgent leadership will demonstrate 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.

Ambassador K C Singh is a distinguished former diplomat.

Ambassador K C Singh