The three-day BRICS summit in Johannesburg will probably make bigger headlines if Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping meet on its sidelines, than what the leaders of Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa do in the summit proper. At the time of writing, there was no word available on the chances of that meeting taking place, linked as it was to the outcome of the ongoing military commanders’ talks of the two nations over the stalemate at the LAC. A positive movement in breaking the impasse at the LAC would signal a Modi-Xi summit on the sidelines of the Johannesburg summit. Given that an ascendant and increasingly assertive China is pressing for the admission of a whole lot of new members from the African sub-continent in order to tilt the scales fully in its favour in what had begun as a counterweight to the Western dominance in the global forums back in 2001 (South Africa was admitted nine years later), it would be unwise for India to agree to do so. Without alienating these nations, India will need to do some tightrope-walking to ensure that the forum is not hijacked by China to advance its expansionist-imperial project. As it happens, most of the countries whose admission China is seeking are in its thrall, having borrowed heavily for that patently exploitative Belt and Road Initiative. Either way, since the formation of BRICS, there has been a sharp shift in the power equations between various nations. Russia has virtually become a second fiddle to China, especially after its misadventure against Ukraine. Gloves are off in the hitherto under-the-surface tussle for supremacy of the global order between the US and China. US is wary of a newly militaristic and belligerent China, though it still remains by quite some distance the world’s biggest military and economic power. On the other hand, India is making its own place at the global high table, growing rapidly among all the major economies and showing a deft hand in conducting its international affairs.
Since the start of the new century, geo-politics has brought India and the US closer even as both have veered away from China thanks largely to its expansionist designs. In other words, the old Cold War, with China replacing the old Soviet Union against the US, may well be in the works. However, so strong is the distrust of China that even its client states, such as Pakistan, go along with it only out of fear or under duress since they are heavily indebted to it. No different is the case of the African nations whose entry into BRICS China is pleading for at the Johannesburg summit. Having been launched to push faster economic development in the global South, aside from the New Development Bank, in concrete terms the body has nothing much to show. And now that the original objective has been pushed on the backburner, while China’s and the post-Ukraine Russia’s geopolitical game of one-upmanship with the US-led Western bloc takes the front seat, BRICS has lost its way. Due to the Covid pandemic there were no summit meetings in the last two years. Even in the current one, Vladimir Putin is attending virtually. South Africa being a member of the International Criminal Court in the Hague was obliged to arrest him should he have shown up, due to an arrest warrant issued by the ICC for the forcible deportation of Ukrainian children to Russia. In any case, it would have put the hosts in an awkward position.
Though it is not a plea for scaling down such summits, the fact is that so numerous are international forums that it is hard to remember all the acronyms standing for each one of them. BRICS is a forum which China and Russia are keen to put to use against the West in general and the US in particular. India, though now closer to the US than at any time before, barring the few months when it went begging for help following the Chinese aggression in 1962, is still being wooed by the two countries. Without the ‘I’ in BRICS, it would lose whatever independence it can exercise in its deliberations. India’s presence lends the body a veneer of independence and respectability. In the interplay of clashing geopolitical interests, forums such as BRICS can play a useful role provided these are not hijacked for advancing the interests of a dominant member-State. Happily, India finds itself in a good place globally — the Western bloc seeks its friendship while without it, the China-Russia jugalbandi forfeits its claim to fairness and objectivity in these gabfests. We should make the best of this moment to advance our own national interests.