Judging by this newspaper’s headlines in the last few days, Delhi is more interested in a meeting between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese leader Xi Jinping in Johannesburg than in the agenda of the BRICS forum. This is not surprising. Most multilateral meetings are usually overshadowed by important bilateral meetings among member states. The prospect of ending India’s military standoff with China in Ladakh is surely far more consequential than the soaring rhetoric on global issues at the BRICS summit. Even small steps towards military disengagement and de-escalation in Ladakh would be of greater relevance than the unreal debates about dethroning the US dollar in Johannesburg.
What about expanding the BRICS membership that has emerged at the top of the immediate agenda of the forum? Does not the widespread interest in joining BRICS reveal its greater relevance to world affairs today? Numbers alone, alas, don’t increase the effectiveness of an organisation. Bigger numbers are more likely to undermine the coherence of any group. The larger the membership, the smaller the least common political denominator. Having more members will also lead to the challenge of managing a larger number of bilateral differences. The tensions between India and Pakistan, for example, have long limited the effectiveness of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation. The SCO has struggled to manage India-Pak and India-China differences. The conflict between India and China has already cast a shadow over BRICS.
The story about the BRICS expansion, however, is not about the organisation’s efficiency or effectiveness. It is about the political intentions of China, which is championing expansion. Beijing sees BRICS as a political platform to mobilise the non-Western world in its rivalry with the US. Balancing the US was also the original motivation for Moscow in promoting the BRICS. Russia turned a marketing gimmick from Goldman Sachs — which clubbed some of the growing markets at the turn of the century into an attractive acronym — into a political organisation.
The Chinese and Russian logic in countering the US is understandable. The problem begins when innocents worldwide want to conflate Sino-Russian geopolitical games with the interests of the “Global South”. Associating BRICS with the Global South and imagining this week’s summit at Johannesburg as a “new Bandung” does great disservice to the origin and evolution of the non-aligned movement. The presence of several friends of BRICS, and many African special invitees does not make Johannesburg comparable to the gathering of the Afro-Asian leaders in Bandung, Indonesia, in 1955. Quite the opposite. One of the principal objectives of the Bandung movement that morphed into NAM eventually was to stay away from rivalrous power blocks — the US-dominated Western one and the Eastern one led by Soviet Russia. The BRICS, in contrast, is led by one of the competing power blocs — the Sino-Russian alliance.
Beijing and Moscow want to squeeze the BRICS, which began as a forum to limit the dangers of the “unipolar moment” and promote a “multipolar world”, into a bipolar confrontation with the West. The Global South had a different provenance. If NAM was about avoiding East-West rivalry, the Global South addressed the contradictions between developing countries and the developed world, or the Global North. But today, China is the world’s second-largest economy, and its capital has made great strides in penetrating the Global South. The claim that Chinese capital is more altruistic than Western capital or that the Yuan-dominated world economy would be more benign than the dollar-denominated does not stand scrutiny. Some in the developing world argue that China’s rough and ready “neocolonialism” is worse than Western “imperialism” tempered over the centuries.
Why, then, are so many countries lining up to join the BRICS? For the same reason Russia and China founded the forum — to hedge against the West. Beijing and Moscow want to leverage the BRICS to negotiate bilateral compacts with Washington. At stake for both are not ideological qualms about reconciling with the West but settlement terms. Enhancing their bargaining power with the US drives most countries towards the BRICS. On top of it, posturing against the West plays well at home for most political elites. Unlike in Bandung, the post-colonial elites are not today animated by ideology. They want to play hardball with the great powers. What does that mean? Focus on the politics of the BRICS summit, and don’t take the rhetorical hot air from Johannesburg too seriously.
The important question in the end is whether China and Russia can turn the BRICS into a credible anti-Western forum. Winning is everything in world politics. On that score, the prognosis is mixed. That China has had some success will be visible in Johannesburg. That South Africa’s Cyril Ramaphosa is giving special treatment to Xi by hosting the Chinese leader on a state visit during the BRICS summit and co-chairing a China-Africa dialogue indicates how close Pretoria has moved to Beijing. Russia, too, has gained geopolitical ground in Africa at the expense of the West. The gains for Xi and Putin on the African battlefield, however, pale in comparison to the losses in the war with the West closer home.
In February 2022, when China and Russia announced their “alliance without limits”, it looked like they were unstoppable. They appeared well-placed to deliver the final blow against the Western dominance of the world. Since then, Russia has been locked in a prolonged and unwinnable war against Ukraine, is isolated from its natural partners in Western Europe, and faces heavy international sanctions. Last February, the world waited with bated breath for China to end its zero-Covid policy and storm the world with renewed growth. With China disappointing the world with its sputtering economy, the international focus is on the several structural challenges — including debt, demographic decline, and decoupling from the West — that Chinese policymakers confront. Meanwhile, the US, which was supposed to be in terminal decline, has bounced back on economic and geopolitical fronts.
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The talk of China overtaking the US economy has now been relegated to the distant future, if ever. Over the last two years, Washington has mounted relentless pressure against Beijing with its economic and technological measures. It has put together new strategic coalitions on China’s periphery — including the Quad (with Australia, India and Japan), the AUKUS (Australia and the UK), and the trilateral coalition with Japan and South Korea. Thanks to Washington’s added support, Manila, which has been long at the receiving end of Beijing’s bullying, is standing up.
During his visit to Moscow in March, Xi talked about the historic changes he was bringing to the world in partnership with Putin. Six months later, one change certainly stands out. With their overweening ambition and reckless overreach, Xi and Putin have diminished themselves. One needs extraordinary faith to believe that Xi and Putin, who put their well-placed nations on the defensive and helped the US reinvent itself in Eurasia, will lead the “pilgrims of the Global South” to the long-awaited “deliverance from the evil West”.
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The writer is senior fellow, Asia Society Policy Institute and contributing editor on international affairs for The Indian Express
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