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BRICS: expectations from the Goa Summit

In presenting an informed assessment of likely outcomes of the 8th summit of BRICS, to be held in Goa from 15-16 October 2016, it is desirable to factor in the international and regional context, recent high level interactions of BRICS leaders, and the wide expanse of activities unfolding under India’s current chairmanship. As a hyperactive transcontinental grouping, BRICS continues to draw media interest both within India and beyond. Will the Goa Summit help it to score substantial gains?

Several developments in the preceding months, including economic problems impacting EU as a result of Brexit, U.S. presidential elections and the rising assertiveness of China in Asia, especially after an adverse arbitration panel award on the South China Sea issue, define the context in which the BRICS fights for its place under the sun. It seems to be doing quite well, considering that it has already won far more attention than deliberations of G-7 – its counterpoint in the West/North, and the 120-strong Non-Aligned Movement which held its summit in Venezuela recently. The forthcoming BRICS Summit on Oct 15 may contribute to further consolidation of its agenda and increased international influence.

Two recent meetings – of leaders in Hangzhou on 4 September and of foreign ministers in New York on 20 September – have provided sufficient glimpses of what the Goa Declaration, the summit’s outcome document, might contain. The groupings evaluation of the current state of global economy as well as the economies of BRICS member-states is fairly clear. It views global economic recovery as uneven, marked with significant downside risks. Its prescription is to strengthen macroeconomic cooperation, promote innovation, robust and sustainable trade and investment growth. Of the five members, only two i.e China and India are doing well in the economic sphere, but they too face economic constraints. BRICS, therefore, recognises candidly that new economic challenges impede its economic growth and believes that deepening its strategic partnership is the way forward.

On a range of global and regional issues, it should not be difficult for summiteers (and their Sherpas) to craft their common and coordinated positions concerning climate change, Sustainable Development Goals, World Trade organization (WTO) reform in global governance, all of which are on the Summit agenda. While differences among them will remain, over the past several years they have perfected the art of pinpointing and projecting areas of convergence On Syria and security developments in Africa, BRICS is certain to adopt formulations that make Russia and South Africa comfortable respectively.

There is, however, some uncertainty about the position concerning international terrorism. Following the attack on the Indian army’s camp at Uri by Pakistan-trained and armed terrorists, and India’s “surgical strikes”  in response, New Delhi will justifiably strive for a very strong and specific set of words that help it to censure and isolate Pakistan diplomatically. However, given China’s time-tested support for Pakistan and Russia’s interest in befriending Pakistan, South Block may face an uphill task. But, it is worth trying.

The common interest of all the five members will drive them to focus and highlight the intra-BRICS cooperation. The grouping’s shining achievement – the New Development Bank (NDB) – has been performing well, but it needs a strong injection of capital of the order of $3-4 billion to execute its ambitious plan to finance infrastructure projects within and outside BRICS countries.

The Contingent Reserve Arrangement (CRA) has been created and is known to be fully operational a key gain at Goa could be the decision to establish a new credit rating agency, given the dissatisfaction of BRICS with the West-dominated agencies at present. The shift from an issuer-pays model to an investor-pays model is learnt to be under consideration.

As regards the mission to take BRICS to the people, it is noteworthy that a total of 101 events/meetings/activities involving all five members are due to be completed during India’s chairmanship. Multi-sectoral in nature, these activities are staggering in scope. Inter alia they cover commercial arbitration, agriculture, exchanges among parliamentarians, young scientists and diplomats, football and films. These events are driven not just by the ministry of external affairs but the entire government. They are taking place in various parts of India. As to their rationale and impact, government spokespersons are enthusiastic and passionate. But that has not prevented experts from questioning the official approach. The Big Three – Russia, India and China – can perhaps afford this indulgence, i.e. organizing over hundred events in a year, but will Brazil and South Africa, preoccupied with internal challenges, continue it? Will this level of activity really lead BRICS to greater success and help it emerge as a major power player in global politics? The time for a fair assessment will come later

On the sidelines of the summit are the customary Outreach meetings. BRICS’ outreach summit with BIMSTEC on 16 October will be a first of its kind. Its outcome will be awaited with much interest. Had India-Pakistan relations been without the kind of tensions they face today, the outreach partner would have been SAARC. The choice of BIMSTEC by India nevertheless underlines the country’s commitment to the Act East Policy and the high priority accorded to Southeast Asia.

BIMSTEC may not be a particularly active sub-regional grouping, but it expects to benefit from its exposure to the world’s leading emerging economies. It should learn from them how to leverage the political will that drives a grouping to scale new heights – as BRICS is doing today. Besides, BIMSTEC may hope to obtain sizable funds from the BRICS bank, NDB, to finance its infrastructure connectivity projects.

Here, BRICS needs to pay attention to the outcome of the summit with BIMSTEC. Previous BRICS summits had outreach meetings with leaders of their respective regions – Latin America, Africa and Eurasia. However, nothing much seems to have come of them. If the outreach with BIMSTEC is not to end, like the others, in a mere photo-op, then this year, BRICS, led by India, should be ready to show a blend of generosity and commitment, for instance in assisting BIMSTEC countries’ regional connectivity projects.

Finally, Goa is likely to demonstrate that having come of age, BRICS is capable of managing its internal differences and showcasing its areas of its agreement. The hope is that, in due course, the habits of working together, convergence of interests and common concerns, may help the member-states to narrow their divergence too.

Rajiv Bhatia is Distinguished Fellow, Foreign Policy Studies Programme, Gateway House, and former high commissioner to South Africa.

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