India, BRICS in cold war conditions

The phone conversation on Friday between Prime Minister Modi and Russian President Putin conveyed a big signal, coming on the morrow of the release of the new Strategic Concept by NATO which called Russia the alliance’s “most significant and direct threat.” The readouts from Moscow and New Delhi both highlighted the two leaderships’ determination to carry forward the momentum of economic cooperation despite the western sanctions against Russia. (here and here) 

Ironically, the West’s “sanctions from hell” have given a big stimulus to India-Russia bilateral trade, giving it a dynamism that one never suspected would be recaptured in the post-Soviet era. 

Friday’s call was agreed upon in the sidelines of the BRICS summit (June 23-24). Curiously,  it has come at a time when the Western powers have stepped up their efforts to create discord among the BRICS member countries, and brainwash India, in particular, to join their bandwagon in the new Cold War conditions. India is of course cherrypicking, as obstreperous as ever on the multilateral circuit — EU, G7, QUAD.

India’s relationship with Russia was the leitmotif of Modi’s visit to Japan in April (partly) and three visits to Europe in May as well as his two meetings with US President Biden during this period (mostly.) In the West’s calculus, China and India are giving what analysts would call “strategic depth” to Russia, which nullifies its frantic efforts to “erase” Russia. Interestingly, the western attempts to create paranoia in the Indian mind about the close ties between Russia and China are no longer having the desired effect of Delhi becoming wary of Russia’s intentions. India sees, on the contrary, great opportunities to tap into Russia’s tilt to Asia-Pacific region for economic partnerships. 

Without doubt, India is “balancing” between Washington and Moscow and BRICS summit was a great occasion to monitor that trapeze act. An unabashedly pro-western internet paper from Delhi had predicted that Modi would act as a vigilante for US President Biden, blocking any BRICS statement critical of the US. Whether that was true or not, Modi made a rather anodyne speech at the BRICS summit. 

On the other hand, Putin had stated in his speech at the summit that “Considering the complexity of the challenges and threats the international community is facing, and the fact that they transcend borders, we need to come up with collective solutions. BRICS can make a meaningful contribution to these efforts.” 

Putin added, “We are confident that today, as never before, the world needs the BRICS countries’ leadership in defining a unifying and positive course for forming a truly multipolar system of interstate relations… we can count on support from many states in Asia, Africa and Latin America, which are seeking to pursue an independent policy.” 

In his speech, Chinese President Xi Jinping made an even more direct appeal to the BRICS partners: “Our world today is overshadowed by the dark clouds of Cold War mentality and power politics and beset by constantly emerging traditional and non-traditional security threats. Some countries attempt to expand military alliances to seek absolute security, stoke bloc-based confrontation by coercing other countries into picking sides and pursue unilateral dominance at the expense of others’ rights and interests. If such dangerous trends are allowed to continue, the world will witness even more turbulence and insecurity.

“It is important that BRICS countries support each other on issues concerning core interests, practice true multilateralism, safeguard justice, fairness and solidarity and reject hegemony, bullying and division.” 

Frankly, no matter the impressive-looking XIV BRICS Summit Beijing Declaration, the fact remains that the grouping is performing far below its actual potential and one principal reason for this is India’s zero-sum mindset regarding China, which makes it difficult for it to work with China collectively in any regional forum. 

However, any apprehension in the Indian mind that China would “dominate” BRICS is unwarranted. Russia undoubtedly occupies a special place in the structure of the BRICS. In fact, BRICS was Moscow’s brainwave and Russia was responsible for launching the format. The first ministerial meeting (in the BRIC format) took place at the suggestion of Putin in September 2006, on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly session in New York. Thus, the idea of creating BRICS matured in Russia. 

Second, BRICS is a “de-ideologised” format. It shows no animus against America although it challenges western hegemony of the international political and economic order. The very fact that the Manmohan Singh government welcomed Putin’s BRIC initiative at a most sensitive juncture when India’s negotiations for a nuclear deal with the US (with eye on Washington’s embargo on technology transfer) speaks for itself. 

Moscow conceived the BRICS concept for the strengthening of the formation of a multipolar system of international relations and the growth of economic cooperation — and it has indeed contributed to the birth of a new economic system, based on the equal access of countries to financing and sales markets, a combination of state planning and market economy. 

India has a problem to appreciate that the BRICS paradigm does not lie in expanding the capabilities or ambitions of the group’s member countries, but in fostering a qualitative change in the economic development model of the Global South. India’s dog-in-the-manger attitude — sulking and politicising the forum with extraneous issues (primarily to embarrass China) — doesn’t make sense. 

Unlike India, China takes BRICS seriously. The Chinese initiative to create a BRICS Vaccine Centre has been under development and the implementation of this project amid the current conditions can be a significant achievement that will bolster the entire format of the association. Ideally, India should cooperate with the project instead of teaming up with its QUAD partners which has turned out to be a wild goose chase.  

Again, industrial innovation is slated to be a priority for China’s BRICS Presidency in 2022. Expectations are high that during its presidency, China will come up with a number of breakthrough initiatives. Clearly, now that the construction of the BRICS’ New Development Bank headquarters in Shanghai has finished, new proposals are expected from China on the development of its operations, including possibly an expansion of the number of shareholders of the bank.

Of course, China will promote its own projects, including Belt and Road initiative. But then, China is also putting into the projects the most financial resources. It is high time for India to have a serious reassessment of values within the BRICS framework, and the changing internal balance of power in the grouping in the new Cold War conditions.

BRICS is at the crossroads and this realisation has propelled the concept of a “BRICS+” format to the centerstage of discussions. China’s BRICS chairmanship 2022 witnessed the launch of the extended BRICS+ meeting at the level of Ministers of Foreign Affairs. Participants included Egypt, Nigeria, Senegal, Argentina, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Saudi Arabia, UAE and Thailand. 

During the ministerial, China also announced plans to open up the possibility of developing countries joining the core BRICS grouping. Argentina and Iran have been mentioned as candidates for BRICS expansion. Be that as it may, “BRICS+” is certain to be on the agenda of global governance in times to come.