The Importance of BRICS

Commentary | April 09, 2013

Writing for The Daily Mail, EWI Board Member and former Indian Foreign Minister Kanwal Sibal stresses the importance of India's role in the BRICS nations.

Media commentary in India on the fifth BRICS Summit, held in South Africa on March 27th, has not been particularly positive. Attention has been drawn to the artificial character of this grouping originally thought up by Goldman Sachs, the conflicting interests of its constituents, the disparate nature of their political systems, the doubtful advantages to India of membership, and, now fears of Chinese domination of this ensemble because of its overwhelming economic and financial weight.

If the logic of this criticism were to be accepted, it will apply partially to the United Nations, the IMF and the World Bank too, where differences in the political systems, power equations and interests of countries are even more marked, with the influence of one country—the United States—being the most decisive. The G-20 also cannot be exempt from such criticism too. Yet India is a member of all these international organizations or groupings, without self-questioning.


The perceived anti-West orientation of BRICS is troubling for some. True, the Russians pushed for its creation in order to forge a partnership between major non-western countries to promote multipolarity. Members like India—and this would apply to Brazil and South Africa as well—believe in a reform of the West-dominated international system in which their voice is not sufficiently heard. Groupings like BRICS can act as platforms for calls for change, without the three countries in question slipping into any futile anti-westernism.

We should not overuse the democracy argument to question our cohabitation with China and Russia in BRICS. If we are supposedly in bad company, then it is worth recalling that US financial and economic links with China, or those of major European democracies, are incomparably greater than ours. We should also be careful not to buy into the highly tendentious western criticism of Russian democracy for geopolitical reasons.

We are against policies of regime change, interference in the internal affairs of sovereign countries, politicization of human rights issues and doctrines of humanitarian intervention etc. India-Russia annual summit declarations show congruence of thinking on the principles that should govern international relations. With Brazil and South Africa too we have such consonance. The BRICS platform enables all of us to project our opposition to western efforts to create new, destabilizing norms.

In BRICS only India and China have sharp bilateral differences. Should we be in a grouping that provides space to China to expands its influence internationally, eventually at our expense? Russia too should have similar concerns theoretically, but it is working closely with China politically, economically and, once again, militarily, as the decision to sell its 24 SU-35 aircraft, the very same that lost out in competition for the supply of 126 aircraft to us, shows. This is discomforting for us as it devalues the relative importance of India-Russia relations to China’s advantage.

Despite this negative feature of BRICS for us, there are clear strategic advantages of membership. BRICS is an instrument of pressure for change in the international system. The eThekwani Declaration calls for new models and approaches as regards global governance. It notes the negative spillover effects of the monetary policy of the U.S., Europe and Japan which have led to increased volatility of capital flows, currencies and commodity prices, with negative growth effects in developing countries. It calls for prioritizing the G20 development agenda. It expresses concern at the slow pace of IMF reforms and demands that International Financial Institutions should reflect in their structures the growing weight of BRICS and other developing countries. The core principles and the developmental mandate of the Doha Round is stressed, besides asking that the next Director-General of the WTO should be a representative of a developing country. All this reflects India’s thinking and interests.


The declaration calls for a comprehensive reform of the UN, including its Security Council, with Russia and China reiterating the importance they attach to the status of Brazil, India and South Africa in international affairs and supporting their aspiration to play a greater role in the UN. This kind of patronizing formulation was not needed by India, which is less than what Russia offers us bilaterally.

The eThekwani declaration is moderate, with no anti-western bias. The paragraph on Syria is balanced; the one on Palestine repeats standard formulations. On Iran, there is a call for a negotiated solution, with concern expressed about threats of military action as well as unilateral sanctions. The paragraph on terrorism accords with India’s position. The one on Afghanistan is unobjectionable. The paragraph on climate change is non-controversial. The importance of peaceful, secure, and open cyberspace through universally accepted norms, standards and practices is emphasized.


Because the summit was held in Durban, the focus on Africa in the proceedings—with participation of several African countries in discussions—and the final declaration is prominent.

The decision to set up a New Development Bank with substantial and sufficient initial contribution to finance infrastructure in emerging and developing countries has attracted adverse attention, as if working outside the World Bank or ADB is unacceptable. Differences over the size of funding and fears of Chinese domination have been highlighted. A Contingent Reserve Arrangement (CRA) with an initial size of US$100 billion to help BRICS countries forestall short-term liquidity pressures has also been established. These are steps in the right direction.

We should not be dismissive about the declared aim of progressively developing BRICS into a full-fledged mechanism of current and long-term coordination on a wide range of key issues of the world economy and politics. This is part of our sensible policy of playing on all chess boards with prudence, calibration and no ideological bias.

Read this column at The Daily Mail.