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14 September 2021, Hindustan Times

Measuring 15 years of BRICS

India hosted the 13th BRICS summit on September 9, celebrating 15 years of the multilateral. The leaders committed to fighting terrorism and reforming multilateral organisations, among other diverse aspects. However, the grouping clearly needs better implementation strategies if the agreements reached, are to be truly successful.

Distinguished Fellow, Foreign Policy Studies Programme

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Celebrating its 15 years, BRICS comprising Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa held its 13th summit on 9 September in virtual format. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, as the chair and host, depicted the grouping as “an influential voice of the emerging economies.” He aptly observed that BRICS has several achievements to its credit, but without being “too self-satisfied” it should strive to become more result-oriented in the next 15 years.

It is thus important to assess objectively what BRICS has achieved so far, while factoring in its challenges and missed opportunities.

The five leaders delivered crisp and succinct opening remarks, highlighting their national perceptions that were in harmony with the BRICS philosophy of working together to secure common, agreed goals. The summit was convened under the shadows of the devastating Coronavirus-19 pandemic and the cataclysmic repercussions of the upheaval in Afghanistan.

South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa spoke feelingly of knowing “sorrow and hardship”, while “we have also known solidarity and cooperation.” He underlined the world’s obligation to ensure “equal access to vaccines, diagnostics and therapeutics.” China’s President Xi Jinping plugged for promoting the practice of “true multilateralism” and called for the building of “a community of shared future for mankind.” He also emphasised the need for BRICS partners to strengthen their unity. But to many in India this lacked credibility, in light of the armed intrusion by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in eastern Ladakh last June that took India-China relations to the lowest point since 1962.

While Afghanistan could be viewed by many in South Africa and Brazil as a peripheral issue, it is of vital concern to the Asian trio – China, Russia and India. The Taliban’s ascendency to power in Kabul, the freedom of action its allies – militant Jihadi groups – will now enjoy, and the explicit projection by Pakistan of the new Afghan government as its ‘proxy’ have all combined to create widespread anxiety in the neighbouring region. Indian diplomacy prudently leveraged it to craft a clear-cut position of BRICS on this subject.

Thus, the top leaders committed themselves to “the priority of fighting terrorism, including preventing attempts by terrorist organisations to use Afghanistan as a terrorist sanctuary and to carry out attacks against other countries.” The Achilles heel of this formulation, however, is China’s apparent inclination to be in a hurry to recognise the Taliban government, support Pakistan fully in all its misadventures, and turn a blind eye to whatever damage extremist Islamic groups cause to other countries as long as they stay away from its troubled Uyghur province. In other words, the gap between Beijing’s words and action reveals the potential vulnerability of BRICS. The Russian role, in this specific context, would be crucial, meriting close watching. The grouping has produced a meaningful counter terrorism action plan which was finalised before the Afghan crisis developed in full measure. The plan’s success will depend on the solidarity and determination of the four members to persuade and pressurise China to adhere to the commitments it gave at the summit.

On the reform of multilateral institutions, the leaders endorsed the very substantial statement negotiated by their foreign ministers in June. BRICS presented its unified position in some detail, stressing its faith in “representative and effective multilateralism.” But concerning the heart of the matter, namely the expansion of the UN Security Council and the inclusion of Brazil, India and South Africa in it, all that China and Russia could do was to stick to their decade-old and somewhat patronizing sentence: “China and Russia reiterate the importance they attach to the status and role of Brazil, India and South Africa in international affairs and supported their aspiration to play a greater role in the UN.” It was left to President Ramaphosa to “call on BRICS” (read China and Russia), in his public remarks, to be equally bold and determined in seeking reform of the UN Security Council so that Africa secures its rightful place in the comity of nations.

As one appraises the 15-year long record of intra-BRICS interaction covering the three pillars of political and security, economic and financial, and social and people-to-people exchanges, an overall evaluation indicates incremental progress. The grouping’s agenda now includes such diverse realms as customs cooperation, digital health, green tourism and space cooperation. During India’s tenure as chair, over 150 meetings and programmes would be completed, 20 of them at the ministerial level. BRICS rides on the active backing of an elaborate architecture of leading institutions from the partner countries, which generates its own momentum.

India ensured that a special focus was placed on the deployment of digital technology to secure progress in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of the 2030 Agenda. The summit showcased the importance of burgeoning science, technology and innovation cooperation through collective efforts of researchers and scientists. Among notable economic initiatives, the New Development Bank (NDB) has drawn global attention, especially as it recently opened its doors to new members – Bangladesh, UAE and Uruguay. The direction from the leaders to the bank is to arrange adequate financing for social infrastructure sector and also to mobilise private capital. Efforts have also been underway to strengthen another significant achievement, namely the Contingent Reserve Arrangement (CRA).

To those in governments, holding a meeting of partner nations is a gain in itself. If the meeting produces a consequential outcome, it is considered an achievement. However, to ordinary (but informed) citizens what matters is whether the agreements reached are getting implemented and, more importantly, whether their implementation will bring some benefit to the people at large. This yardstick should be used to measure the impact of BRICS meetings and a plethora of pacts produced by them. So viewed, BRICS is work in progress.

A final thought: the Delhi Declaration comprises 74 paragraphs. Perhaps the five countries’ sherpas will be very happy if at least 74 persons in each country read and understand the document fully. If not, governments should be motivated to produce shorter declarations in the future, particularly as BRICS enters into adulthood.

This article was first published in Hindustan Times.

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