India is at a unique geopolitical moment. On the one hand its neighbourhood and the larger Asian continent are being unpredictably redefined. The United States has declared, if somewhat ambiguously, its reorientation or “pivot” towards Asia, recognising the region’s economic force moving forward, or perhaps merely countering enhanced Chinese power. India and China are charting new geographies of contests, the Indian Ocean and South China Sea. The “Arab Spring” has exposed the fundamental inadequacies in Middle Eastern and North African governing structures but has also given rise to an uncertain political future in an important energy-producing region. Last, but certainly not least, China’s growing assertiveness in the Asia-Pacific region has led to increased, if sometimes seemingly unnecessary, conflict with neighbours in Southeast Asia and Japan.
On the other hand, the world is seeing a once-in-a-century churn. The global board of directors that sit on the high table and define rules for conduct of political and economic governance are now unrecognisable from the lot just after World War II. India must seize the moment to shape these revisions of rules devised by the Atlantic countries and defend its growth and development interests in areas such as trade, Intellectual Property Rights (IPR), space, climate, and energy policy, among others.
Regional order and global governance are both in flux and demanding India’s attention. This is not unique by itself. What is different this time around is that India has the capacity, increased capabilities and enhanced level of demonstrated intent to engage with this dual external relations challenge. In order to attain the global power status it desires, India must walk and chew gum at the same time. It must tend to its immediate and extended Asian neighbourhood while also engaging with the task of shaping a new rules-based political and economic order. BRICS represents a uniquely appropriate platform and flexible mechanism with which India can address this dual imperative.
Role for three
Engaging with China and Russia in an environment free of the sharp edges often wrought in bilateral negotiations will catalyse congruence over an array of mutually important issues. Any stable Asian order must have at its core, a certain level of accord among these three large continental powers. The past would need to be defrayed and the path for future integration would need to sidestep suspicion and history. Annual BRICS summit-level discussions on political and economic matters allow the three countries such an arena of tactical camaraderie. The current moment allows a unique opportunity for the three to shape a new construct for Asia amidst the regional flux. Perhaps at some stage it may be worthwhile having a summit level RIC meeting on the sidelines of BRICS to discuss this Asian project.
On resetting and reshaping economic and political governance, BRICS has the potential to be the new (and often criticised) game changer. The sheer size and rate of growth of intra-BRICS trade and economic exchange will allow each of these countries to exert their collective weight for their individual gains. Who gains more should not matter, as long as every member benefits from this dispensation and the order is visibly equitable.
There are a few benefits that India must seek through and with the BRICS. First, there are many multilateral organisations within which a “BRICS-bloc” can exert significant leverage. The U.N. and World Trade Organization are two such forums. While geopolitical and economic thinking among BRICS is not always in-sync, where there is consensus (and the areas are increasing rapidly) BRICS could be a compelling voice. Like they did on the debates on non-interference and “Responsibility to Protect.” Similarly, India’s views on climate change, financial norms, trade rules and so on could also benefit from BRICS’s aggregate voice. Of course the UNSC membership issue strikes a discordant note but it should not cannibalise the possible coming together on other matters.
Barrier against slowdown
Second, as economic powerhouses and regional hubs, intra-BRICS market integration can insulate these nations from western economic slowdown. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) stagnation is impacting BRICS growth, with multi-percentage point GDP dips in India and China. BRICS market integration could leverage the economic power of emerging world economies by sparking increased trade and foreign investment, especially if done in local currencies. Only China is part of India’s top 15 trading partners, making the BRICS forum an attractive stage from which India can promote economic ties with other dynamic economies. The BRICS development bank, option of holding each others’ currencies as reserves, stronger trade facilitation and eventually a comprehensive BRICS economic partnership agreement are all worthy possibilities.
For inclusive growth
Third, the BRICS are each experiencing rapid development with uniquely national characteristics. However, despite growing middle class populations, BRICS hold the lion’s share of the world’s impoverished population. These nations must take increased responsibility for a new global development agenda, incorporating inclusive growth, sustainable development and poverty alleviation. BRICS is a platform not only to learn from each other’s development experiences but also the instrument that can define new rules for health care, education and IPR for the billions at the bottom of the pyramid.
The collective BRICS experience around social policy could be beneficially shared with others as well. A forum (like the OECD) or clearing-house to disburse this information would prove a relatively low-cost measure producing substantial insight into development efforts, technology sharing, low-cost and sustainable energy generation, information technology and manufacturing.
By drawing on collective BRICS brainpower, local development efforts will be catalysed. For example, sharing China’s experience on infrastructure development or poverty reduction or Brazil’s in clean-fuel generation could be beneficial for India currently lacking the ability to take full advantage of its economic potential.
Is BRICS just a catchy acronym masking the haphazard, slapping together of five developing, yet ultimately incompatible, nations? India should respond with an emphatic no. At this unique moment, when India faces a multitude of challenges seeking its attention both towards the region and the global stage, BRICS provides a flexible platform to respond to both.
(Samir Saran is vice president and Daniel Rubin is Henry Luce Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation.)