When leaders of countries that make up half the world’s population and nearly a quarter of global GDP ($17 trillion combined) gather, it is a display of muscle that the world is bound to watch. Added to their economic clout, the leaders themselves are formidable strongmen, both regionally and globally: Prime Minister Modi, President Xi, President Putin, President Zuma and the new Brazilian President Temer who replaced strongwoman Dilma Rousseff.
Yet despite the power-packed photo opportunities at Goa this year, there are several reasons to believe that the BRICS forum, once comprising the world’s fastest growing economies, is running out of steam. The slump in oil prices have negatively impacted both Russia and Brazil’s growth stories, and Russia has paid heavily for western sanctions over Ukraine.
Chinese manufacturing saw its weakest growth in years, while India has faced a contraction in IIP figures even though it remains the world’s fastest growing economy. The South African Finance Minister himself said his economy is in “crisis” this year, with revised growth estimates falling below 1 per cent, and 26 per cent unemployment, fuelling violent protests.
The other shift is political. Two years ago, when newly elected Prime Minister Narendra Modi took his first official visit outside of the neighbourhood to Fortaleza, Brazil, to attend the BRICS summit, he was yet to take his decisive shift toward the U.S. As a result, the BRICS joint statement included some bold paragraphs on counter-western views, on issues including Palestine, and the world economic order that are unlikely to find space in the Goa declaration.
Meanwhile bilateral ties between India and China have reached new lows: with China’s CPEC clinch with Pakistan and India’s shift to the U.S.’ strategic corner on the South China Sea. Russia’s shift away from an exclusive relationship with India, an ambivalence on defence ties with Pakistan consistent with its new dependence on China is another factor that is loosening some of the mortar between the BRICS countries. Brazil and South Africa are also known to have reservations on India’s bid for the NSG membership, possibly prompted by China that has openly discouraged non-NPT members, which is a critical issue for India later this year when it tries to push through the bid again.
When it comes to the Goa declaration to be signed on Sunday, each of them has a particular agenda. The Modi government has made it clear that it wants to see “strong language” on terrorism, with specific references to cross-border terror, safe havens, funding and sponsorship of terror groups, that China may seek to temper on behalf of Pakistan. Russia would like the full backing of BRICS for its actions in Syria, which India and Brazil’s new pro-U.S. government may resist. And China would like all BRICS countries to express support on the South China Sea, which India may find it difficult to do.
Given all the stresses and strains on the structure of BRICS, the ‘sunny’ spot for India as a host may come from the BIMSTEC outreach instead. The seven-nation grouping of Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Sri Lanka, Thailand, was founded in 1997 as BISTEC, and then refurbished as the Bay of Bengal initiative for Multi-sectoral technical and economic cooperation (BIMSTEC), but has floundered since then for lack of funding. It didn’t even have an office, and meetings were held at the Thai foreign ministry in Bangkok until it was given headquarters in Dhaka in 2011 and a secretary general, Sri Lankan diplomat Sumith Nakandala, in 2014.
Much of BIMSTEC’s success, say analysts, will depend on keeping the grouping away from politics that bedeviled SAARC. “India must not to fall in the trap of putting geopolitics over economics, reducing BIMSTEC into just another geopolitical weapon for isolating Pakistan. Rather, India should lead BIMSTEC positively with a much broader, inclusive vision driven by economic merits of cooperation,” said Prof. Syed Munir Khasru, Chairman of Dhaka-based think tank, The Institute for Policy, Advocacy, and Governance (IPAG).
To that end, in the past few months, the grouping has shown a coherence and focus that is leading to new projects on connectivity, building infrastructure and sharing resources, both inter-regionally as well as bilaterally. India’s “Act East” policy is spurring the government to extend the Trilateral highway project all the way to Cambodia, to help with port infrastructure in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Myanmar, while recently rescued ties with Nepal will see the government step up its hydel and road projects there.
In addition, the ‘SASEC’ grouping that also includes the Maldives, met last month to clear infrastructure projects funded by the Asian Development Bank, and the BBIN (Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal) and BCIM (Bangladesh, China, India, Myanmar) groupings are seeing their projects on seamless connectivity moving at a quicker pace.
As a result, when the BRICS leaders meeting at South Goa’s Taj Exotica head over to the Leela resort for its retreat meetings with the BIMSTEC leadership including Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, Aung San Suu Kyi, President Sirisena and others on Sunday, India will have concrete plans and projects to recommend for BRICS’s New Development Bank to fund and the contingency reserve arrangement to propose. As the lynchpin between BRICS and BIMSTEC, India can also carve out a new leadership role that will help the region, while tiding over the current tensions within its BRICS partnerships.