When BRICS speaks, its views are bound to receive much greater notice than those of IBSA. If IBSA does not become stronger, it will become irrelevant.

In international politics, nations form new groupings or compete to join existing ones, sustain them for a while or long, and then abandon them, though seldom closing them formally. Following the recent summit of leaders of Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa (BRICS), it is worth pondering what lies in store for the IBSA Dialogue Forum with India, Brazil and South Africa as its members.

The two groupings

Last April, before the second BRIC summit and the fourth IBSA summit, the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) stated that BRIC was “still in a nascent stage,” whereas IBSA, as “the older grouping,” was flourishing well. This April, however, the perception has changed. According to an MEA official, BRICS has “a very good future.” He added that South Africa's entry into BRIC, transforming it into BRICS, would not “diminish IBSA in any way.” Is that a given or veiled signal that a serious internal debate is now under way to measure the relative utility, both actual and potential, of the two groupings?

Ironically, South Africa, which invested enormous diplomatic capital to secure its entry into BRIC, will host the next IBSA summit in 2011. And India, which has been in the forefront to project IBSA as a “unique” organisation of leading democracies, pluralist societies and emerging economies from three different continents, will host the BRICS summit in 2012.

In terms of key indicators, BRICS will have little difficulty in outshining IBSA. The former accounts for 26 per cent of the world's area, 40 per cent of its population, and 22 per cent of global GDP. Therefore, when BRICS speaks, its views are bound to receive much greater notice than those of IBSA. It also helps that those drafting BRICS declarations are far more concise and self-disciplined than their colleagues in IBSA who still seem to be driven by the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM)-style urge to be long-winded.

Sanya declaration

More important, as the Sanya declaration — the outcome document of the recent BRICS summit — demonstrated, five of the largest emerging economies now have “a broad consensus” of views not only on key international economic and financial issues but also on certain global political issues. The need for effective implementation of G-20 decisions, the demand for the reform of financial institutions of global governance — enabling developing countries to enjoy a greater say in them — and monetary reform, including the re-drafting of Special Drawing Rights (SDR), fall in the first category. The idea of a broad-based reserve currency which serves as an alternative to, but not a substitute for, the U.S. dollar would be studied further. The decision in principle to establish payment of credits in local currencies instead of the dollar has been noted widely.

On the political side, three key issues deserve a brief mention. BRICS has voiced support for a comprehensive reform of the U.N., including the Security Council. In this context, Russia and China have underlined the importance they attach to the status of India, Brazil and South Africa in international affairs, committing themselves “to understand and support” the three countries' “aspiration to play a greater role in the U.N.”

This is an advance, albeit a modest one. On countering international terrorism, a common position has emerged, which is significant, considering that South Africa has for long nurtured the notion that a blanket condemnation of terrorism should somehow exclude genuine liberation movements.

On the Libyan crisis, however, BRICS has managed to create an ample air of ambivalence. Prior to the Sanya summit, four countries abstained on the U.N. resolution, thereby providing a cover for western intervention, and one (South Africa) supported the resolution. At the summit, however, all five member- states expressed support for avoiding the use of force and ensuring respect for the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of a nation. As the South African President has been playing a mediatory role under the African Union mandate, he succeeded in securing support for the AU High-Level Panel Initiative on Libya, although it has not been getting anywhere so far. BRICS is struggling to cater to its numerous constituencies that are in conflict with one another.

Perhaps the most noteworthy aspect of the development of BRICS is the focus placed on promoting internal cooperation. Their Foreign Ministers have been meeting regularly since 2006. Three summits in less than two years have provided a fillip to discussions involving Finance Ministers, Agriculture Ministers, National Security Advisors and others including national statistical institutions, business communities and Track- II organisations. BRICS has decided to advance its cooperation “in a gradual and pragmatic manner,” making it “inclusive and non-confrontational.” The declaration has put intra-BRICS cooperation in three categories, namely existing cooperation, new areas of cooperation such as health and joint research on trade and economic issues, and new proposals for cooperation pertaining to culture, sports, green economy and pharmaceutical industry.

Comparison with IBSA

How does IBSA compare with the dramatic expansion of BRICS? Quite favourably so far, but it could change quickly.

Since the first meeting of its Foreign Ministers in 2003, IBSA has acquired an institutional character as well as considerable dynamism. Journeying through four summits, its member-states have bonded well, and the new leaders in two of them (South Africa and Brazil) have reiterated their commitment to the Dialogue Forum. Of its four principal facets, the Forum has regularly coordinated its positions on international and regional issues; it has been managing diverse development projects in seven Least Developed Countries (LDCs); it has sought to forge mutually beneficial trilateral cooperation through 16 Working Groups in areas ranging from transportation and agriculture to health, taxation and IT; and, above all, it has innovatively developed people-to-people contacts encompassing business, media, women, academics, and parliamentarians.

However, now that BRICS has emerged as a potential competitor to IBSA, the latter needs to re-calibrate its strategy and refine its unique selling proposition. Four suggestions merit consideration here. Articulating views on world issues should now largely be left to BRICS, the more influential grouping. Secondly, IBSA should dramatically raise its profile as a partner of LDCs. Thirdly, intra-IBSA cooperation now needs to move beyond the phase of trans-continental travels, meetings, studies and MoUs to viable and demonstrable projects. Let IBSA establish effective maritime and civil aviation connectivity, develop a liberal visa scheme, and strive to operationalise India-SACU-Mercosur trade arrangements soon. Finally, more substance should be imparted to people-to-people contacts.

In a short span of two years BRICS has travelled “a long distance,” as Prime Minister Manmohan Singh put it. However, an exercise in fine balancing is desirable. Geopolitical considerations would dictate that India should prevent BRICS from acquiring an anti-U.S. orientation on political issues. Thus, while on key financial and development issues, the IBSA countries may go along with Russia and China, on political and security questions, they would need to strike proximity with Washington and European Union capitals.

External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna asserted recently that BRICS has emerged as “a major voice” in world affairs. India will be in a better position to shape that voice when it succeeds in strengthening IBSA. If IBSA does not become stronger, it will become irrelevant. As the senior most among IBSA leaders, Dr. Singh bears a special responsibility. MEA can help him by being clinical and courageous.

(The author is a former Indian ambassador.)

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