Colombo, August 23 (Counterpoint): With India and China at loggerheads on critical issues, with opinion divided on Russia, and with a hostile West looking at it with disfavour, BRICS, which is holding a summit in Johannesburg from August 22 to 24, faces a bleak future.
While Russian President Vladimir Putin is not able to attend the summit in person because of a warrant against him issued by the International Criminal Court, China’s Xi Jinping did not attend the Business Forum held on August 22 even though the host, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi attended.
Xi’s speech was read out by the Chinese Commerce Minister, Wang Wentao. It was not clear why Xi, who had a meeting with Ramaphosa earlier in the day, did not attend.
BRICS, which comprises Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, is torn by the India-China conflict over a number of issues, namely, the border, relations with Pakistan, the nature of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the question of a common BRICS currency, and the expansion of BRICS.
While India and China have held local commanders-level disengagement talks 19 times, no agreement is in sight though India appears to have made an attempt this time round to come to an agreement if only to facilitate a friendly meeting between Modi and Xi in Johannesburg.
It remains to be seen if an attempt will be made by the two leaders to break the ice in Johannesburg before the summit ends. But the prospect appears to be dim.
While China is pushing its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in Africa, India wants to prevent countries from signing into it as it considers BRI projects to be debt traps, opaque and reeking of corruption. It is aware that China is using BRI projects to elbow India out of development projects in South Asia and Africa.
India is wary about China’s making inroads into Africa using South African President Ramaphosa’s bid to admit African countries and also turn BRICS into a China-friendly organization to India’s detriment.
India itself has big plans to enter Africa with development projects and it sees China’s expanding footprint there with displeasure.
Then there is the never-ending India-Pakistan conflict over territorial sovereignty and cross-border terrorism in which China has consistently taken a pro-Pakistan stand at the UN and outside. India could suspect that China’s support for the expansion of BRICS might sooner or later result in Pakistan’s being admitted. And that would certainly result in Pakistan’s raising the Kashmir issue in the forum.
India is also not keen on creating a common BRICS currency because that would only open the floodgates to the Chinese currency Yuan. According to the Hindu Business Line: “New Delhi is clear about not being part of the proposed BRICS currency as it sees it as China’s attempt to gain hegemony. But whether it will use its veto power to stop the attempt or allow other members to go ahead with their plans is a call that need not be taken immediately. It may take a long time for the plan to take a concrete shape because of the different levels of economic development of members.”
Be that as it may, there is no gainsaying that China will make constant efforts to push its currency given the escalation of its conflict with the US especially in the US-election year.
While China and Russia would like BRICS to be a platform to resist the US, India is reluctant to do that because it has gone closer and closer to the US since the border clash with China in Galwan.
Brazil too would not like to sharpen a conflict with the US since the US will tighten the screws on it as per the tried and tested Monroe Doctrine governing US relations with South America. The US is as sensitive about outside powers’ intrusion into South America as Russia is about Ukraine and China is about Taiwan.
This is the reason why Brazil’s Lula said: “We (BRICS) do not want to be a counterpoint to the G7, G20 or the United States.”
South African organizers told Reuters that there will be no discussions on a common BRICS currency at the summit. This will be welcomed in Western capitals.
While the Western media has been pointing to disparities in BRICS, Washington is dismissive about it. Speaking to reporters on Tuesday, White House national security advisor Jake Sullivan said he did not see BRICS turning into a geopolitical rival of the United States.
“This is a very diverse collection of countries … with differences of view on critical issues,” he said.
However, the move to enlarge BRICS will continue, with China, Russia Brazil and South Africa playing a leading role. Over 40 countries have expressed interest in joining BRICS, according to South African officials. Of them, nearly two dozen have formally asked to be admitted. Even Emmanuel Macron, the French President, wanted to be invited as he is looking for non-Western platforms to marginalize the US. But he was not invited.
Western commentators think that BRICS expresses the Global South’s unavoidable dream of disengaging itself from the West that is still seen as imperialist. It is believed that BRICS will survive in some form. But they wish that it will take the path shown by India rather than China’s.
Hung Tran, a non-resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s GeoEconomics Center says that if the BRICS group “follows India’s approach, then it can promote cooperation among developing countries and, on that basis, engage with the G7 to discuss ways to reform the international economic and financial system and deal with global problems such as the impacts of climate change.”
“This would seem to appeal to many developing countries, which want to reform the current international economic and financial system but do not want to explicitly take sides between the United States and China.”
“On the other hand, if China prevails, the BRICS group will likely become another venue for anti-US political activism, probably risking its ability to deliver concrete benefits to many developing countries.”
Given the economic clout of China, the danger is that Beijing’s agenda might prevail over India’s whose economy is one-fifth the size of China’s. That will put India in a tight spot and sway it further towards the West.