This could become tricky territory for India, given its basically adversarial relationship with China, its moves to block imports and investment from that country, and to deny market access for Chinese technologies, observes T N Ninan.
IMAGE: Prime Minister Narendra D Modi with other leaders at the BRICS Summit in Johannesburg, South Africa, August 23, 2023. Photograph: Press Information Bureau
There is nothing like a good acronym to give currency to a dodgy idea, and so it has been with BRICS.
Coined by economists at Goldman Sachs at the turn of the century, the original proposition was that Brazil, Russia, India, and China would by mid-century overtake the G6 developed economies in their combined size.
For about a decade, the idea held its own, but it has fallen apart after that.
China (the sixth-largest economy in 2001) and India (not in the top 10 then) have done well; both are now in the top five.
But Brazil and Russia have fallen short; Russia doesn’t even feature now in the 10 largest economies.
India in turn stands apart for having a significantly lower per capita income than the other three.
Superficially, there were other commonalities. In 2001, the chosen four were among the six most populous countries, and among the seven with the largest land areas.
So the logic of geography and demography gave supplementary validity to the acronym.
But Pakistan and Nigeria have since overtaken Russia and Brazil in population size.
Meanwhile, the original economic logic of the grouping was lost once South Africa (barely a tenth of India’s economy) was admitted as a fifth member.
But a good acronym cannot be allowed to die, so there are regular BRICS summits, with one scheduled for next week.
Such meetings must necessarily have agendas, leading to one impractical proposition after another.
Of the many discussed, only the ‘BRICS Bank’ has come into being, but has made little difference to international developmental funding even though some non-BRICS countries (like Venezuela) have been allowed to join.
A BRICS undersea cable, discussed a decade ago to create a data pipe immune to US tapping, has made slow progress.
In any case, China too may be capable of tapping into such a cable to steal data.
New currency arrangements have been proposed in order to rival the dollar, but it is hard to see India being happy with anything that is tied primarily to Chinese economic developments.
What is there to be gained from dumping the dollar to broaden the yuan’s reach?
What has grown, meanwhile, is the idea that BRICS — now devoid of internal logic — could pose an alternative to the Western-dominated global order.
No fewer than 40 developing countries have shown interest in joining.
But this idea has even less chance of succeeding than the G15 group of leading developing economies, which existed desultorily for a quarter-century with a similar objective but became defunct a decade ago.
For BRICS to take its place is problematic also since neither China nor Russia is a developing economy in any meaningful sense. All they are is anti-West.
In that sense, BRICS is in danger of becoming a vehicle for a Chinese diplomatic thrust.
Beijing’s allies in its region are limited to North Korea, Cambodia, and perhaps Myanmar, so it stands to gain from a broader diplomatic support base.
Predictably, Beijing is the prime mover pushing for expanding the BRICS membership.
With its new closeness to Russia, its diplomatic heft in Africa, and its foothold gained recently in the Gulf, China can hope to convert an expanded BRICS into a forum for breaking Western hegemony.
Indeed, BRICS has opened dialogue with another China-dominated group, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation.
This could become tricky territory for India, given its basically adversarial relationship with China, its moves to block imports and investment from that country, and to deny market access for Chinese technologies.
Also, while Indian positions on many developmental issues (including climate change) are inevitably at variance with those of the developed countries, it is increasingly aligned with Europe and the US for defence supplies, technology flows, movements of people, and the like.
It also runs a more open political system than either China or Russia.
And yet, since the countries seeking BRICS membership include the likes of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, India will find it hard to block them without causing offence.
So India says it wants clear criteria established for new membership.
But do even the existing members qualify under any meaningful criteria?
Feature Presentation: Aslam Hunani/Rediff.com