In international politics, there is no room for the Groucho Marx theory of association -- 'I won't join a club that will admit me as a member'. Instead, show a large or even mid-sized nation a grouping, no matter how irrelevant or relevant, and the chances are that it will want to sign up.

At this week's summits of IBSA and BRIC nations, India and Brazil were the lucky two who had overlapping membership in both forums. But South Africa, which is only part of the former, would very much like BRIC to become BRICS, while China, which is part of the latter — as well as of the climate change ginger group of BASIC with India, Brazil and South Africa — would not be averse to IBSA becoming CHIBSA.

Equation reversed

Last year, when the Russian hosts at Ekaterinburg held back-to-back summits of BRIC and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, the equation was reversed. Russia and China belong to both groupings, while India, which has mere observer status in the SCO, agreed to have Prime Minister Manmohan Singh attend that summit only after receiving assurances that he would have full speaking rights and would not have to leave the room when the real members met.

On the sidelines of the April 15 IBSA and BRIC meets in Brasilia, President Hu Jintao of China held a bilateral meeting with his Brazilian counterpart, Lula da Silva, and the two countries signed a number of agreements. One of these was an 'action plan', and buried deep within it was this proposal: “The two sides will discuss conducting long-term research on the potential for furthering the development of trade relations between IBSA and China”.

Not enthusiastic

Some in Brazil have quietly been suggesting Beijing's inclusion in IBSA -- China is, after all, its largest trading partner -- but India and, to a lesser extent, South Africa, which sees IBSA as a great vehicle for itself on the world stage -- are not enthusiastic.

“Well, IBSA has a character of its own -- three large democracies coming together,” Prime Minister Singh told reporters who managed to throw a question to him on China joining the trilateral forum. He was standing with his delegation in the lobby of Itamaraty Palace, home to the Brazilian foreign ministry, on Thursday evening, waiting for his motorcade in between the IBSA and BRIC summits. “I think IBSA has now come into its own”.

The reference to democracies was not accidental. It was present in Dr. Singh's speech to the IBSA plenary and the final summit communiqué spoke of shared democratic traditions. For Indian officials, this is what provides additional glue to a grouping that joins India with the most important powers of Africa and South America. It helps, of course, that as a criterion for club membership, China would not quallify.

Problematic

Asked about the expansion of BRIC, the Prime Minister said this was an idea of Goldman Sachs. “We are now trying to give it some shape, flesh it out. Let us see”.

Like IBSA, the expansion of BRIC is problematic because the majority of its members fear the dilution of the forum's core competence: fast rising economies with a growing footprint in the global economy and system. BRIC today accounts for a little under a quarter of world output. The South African economy is not yet in that league.

Other countries that have expressed an interest in joining BRIC are Mexico, Indonesia and Turkey. The Turks are also apparently interested in IBSA.

“What makes BRIC a good fit today is that the four countries have complementary factor endowments and national skills,” a senior Indian official told The Hindu. If China has solid manufacturing and huge financial clout, Russia has energy and advanced technology in certain fields, while Brazil is an agricultural superpower with strong manufacturing and India has a comparative advantage in IT, pharmaceuticals as well as agriculture. In an article written on the eve of the BRIC summit, President Dmitri Medvedev spoke of the four countries collaborating with each other in nuclear technology, space technology, aircraft manufacturing, nanotechnology and other fields. But some in the Indian establishment remain sceptical of doing too much with BRIC, fearing a backlash from the U.S.