What happens when the glue that binds a set of nations comes unstuck? That is when the contradictions within the members of the set begin to loom larger than the force that brought them together in the first place. That is the current strategic condition of the BRICS forum involving Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa whose leaders are gathering in Goa this weekend. It is the quest for a multipolar world that brought these geographically disparate states under one umbrella after the Cold War. But when the multipolar world is already upon us, can the BRICS hang together?
The example of NATO, the world’s most powerful military alliance, is instructive. The US and West European states came together in 1949 to counter what they saw as an assertive Soviet Union after World War II. Keeping NATO afloat as a coherent alliance after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 has not been easy.
The differences within NATO broke out barely a decade later when the US decided to invade Iraq in 2003. Turkey, a member of NATO, refused to back the intervention. France and Germany stepped back. Britain joined the fight, but has regretted it ever since. Unlike in Iraq, the fight in Afghanistan seemed a “good war” for most members of NATO. But as the Taliban, nurtured back to life by the Pakistan army, began to destabilise Afghanistan since the mid 2000s, the alliance members are finding it hard to sustain their national military commitments to Kabul.
BRICS, too, may have passed the moment of peak solidarity. The challenge now is to manage the growing differences among them. The political origin of BRICS lay in the concept of a “strategic triangle” that was articulated by the Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov in the early 1990s. Primakov wanted Russia, China and India to blunt the edge of American power in the post-Cold War world. Brazil and South Africa joined the forum a little later and lent it greater credibility as the voice of the emerging powers. Although Brazil and South Africa are important partners, it is the shifting dynamic among the three Eurasian powers — Russia, China and India — and their relationship with the US that will shape the future of BRICS.
That brings us to the current double bind faced by BRICS. One is the decline of America and the other is the rapid rise of China. If the fear of unrestrained American power dominated the global strategic discourse in the early 1990s, the discussion today is about American retrenchment, if not decline. If China had its head down in the 1990s, Beijing is now convinced that its moment is at hand.
Thanks to President Barack Obama’s refusal to take America into another war in the Middle East, it is Russia that is shaping the regional dynamic. America, much dreaded in the 1990s as a “hyper power”, has become a virtual bystander in the Eurasian theatres. In Europe, Russia is running rings around NATO. In the South China Sea, America warily watches China’s assertion of expansive territorial claims. Worse still, Washington has the mortification of seeing one of its oldest military allies — the Philippines — toyed with by Beijing.
That has put Delhi in a triple bind. One, in the 1990s, India joined Russia and China as part of its hedge against American power in a unipolar world. It was a decade when Washington was trying to roll back India’s nuclear weapons programme, raising questions about Kashmir’s accession to India and threatening to mediate Delhi’s disputes with Islamabad. Today, it is China’s power that India rubs against all the time — whether it is the membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group or getting the UN to act against Pakistan’s support for cross-border terrorism.
Two, although Delhi continues to argue with the terms of US-led globalisation, India’s bigger problems are with China. Delhi has a tidy trade surplus with the US — about $23 billion in 2015 and $16 billion in the first eight months of 2016. India’s trade deficit with China swelled to $52 billion in 2015-16. While China may be India’s growth opportunity over the longer term, Delhi is struggling to come to terms with the rise of Chinese capitalism and its impact on regional and global economic systems in the near term.
Three, China’s rise has also begun to constrict India’s room for manoeuvre in the neighbourhood. In the past, India worried about America’s sweeping political influence in the neighbouring states. Today, India’s regional challenges are complicated by China’s expanding political, economic and military influence in all South Asian capitals.
Some in India argue that it is India’s recent “tilt” towards America that is creating problems with China and Russia. The fact, however, is that both Russia and China are looking for their own deals with America. President Vladimir Putin has not embarked on an ideological crusade against Washington. He wants a better geopolitical accommodation than what America gave Russia in 1991. China’s supreme leader Xi Jinping too wants to build a “new type of great power relationship” with the US. Translated, it means Washington should accept China’s primacy in Asia and share responsibilities with Beijing in managing the global order.
For Putin and Xi, BRICS is part of a geopolitical play to advance their national interests amidst a tectonic shift in global power distribution. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s commitment to realpolitik is probably no less. Delhi’s public discourse may continue to pretend that it is Indian foreign policy’s “dharma” to lead the construction of a non-Western global order; Modi, however, knows that Delhi’s enduring “karma” is to work for a balance of power system that favours India’s rise. To figure out the meaning of the Goa summit, ignore the collective BRICS rhetoric and focus on what Putin, Xi and Modi might say and do separately.