Here’s why.

Amidst tumult and tensions India gives BRICS a lease of lifePTI
Voices Opinion Saturday, October 15, 2016 - 19:51

To appreciate the importance of the BRICS meeting in Goa this week is easy – ask what would happen if the meeting did not take place? The world would not come to a standstill, no more than it would if the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) had not gathered recently in New York.

Meetings are like parties. Nations and governments replace people in such forums and all seek to speak with one voice on issues that bind them. In Goa, economy and trade will have pride of place for all the obvious reasons. China has the largest economy of the BRICS countries at $11.4 trillion and India with $2.38 trillion is growing at 7.5 per cent making it the fastest growth nation in the group.  The five BRICS countries have a combined GDP of $16.6 trillion. Intra-BRICS trade grew $297 billion in 2014. More importantly the five BRICS nations represent over 3.6 billion people. Three of the five countries are democracies and the other two – Russia and China – are heavy hitters when it comes to economic and military might. The motley mix is an interesting one, quite unlike all other international groupings.

But, there is a different message New Delhi is sending out from Goa. Perhaps the biggest diplomatic leap India has taken in recent months is to facilitate the outreach summit with the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (Bimstec) comprising Bangladesh, Bhutan, Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Thailand. Afghanistan has been invited to participate. Each of these countries have different ties with Russia and China and further beyond, with Washington, but situated in the Asian and South Asian region their immediate interests are not about being wedded to terrorism. Independently and together, they have condemned the recent Uri attacks. Perception is important in diplomacy, like which party you attended last evening or, even better, where were you invited to and why?  For example, China has a straight line to Colombo and its relations with Myanmar are difficult, but appearances and photo opportunities are important even as tensions rage. In this scenario, the absence of Pakistan and the presence of the rest is no small success for India. How long this continues remains to be seen, but for now this is it. 

On the Goa agenda this year are items to create a BRICS agricultural platform, a BRICS railway research network and a BRICS Sports Council. These are new vistas, quite different from the BRICS bank and BRICS trade and commerce conversations which normally dominate meetings of this nature. It is important to note that Russia and China are both permanent members of the UN’s Security Council to which India, Brazil and South Africa have staked a claim. That is not going to happen in the short run and neither will China allow India to enter the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG). 

But, timing is key, and here India has been generously served as BRICS countries meet within weeks of the URI tragedy and the calling off of the SAARC summit. This will not figure on any official agenda as China will defend Pakistan and Russia will most likely skirt the issue – both have bigger fish to fry - but one can rest assured that India will ensure that the penny will be made to drop on every occasion that one country in the region exports terrorism. Terrorism is anathema to economic growth and most countries attending the event have been at its receiving end.

BRICS meetings do not make international headlines and that is not a negative thing. What is more important to see is that the group has stayed together from the time it met in 2009 in Yekateringburg (Russia) hoping to usher in a new global economic order. That meet came some 20 years after the fall of the Berlin wall which undid Cold War equations of countries divided between pro-American and pro-Russia. It also meant that the Bretton Woods institutions – the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Trade Organisation (WTO) – could not be allowed a free run to the detriment of developing economies. 

The developing group cluster of G-77 had become too big to matter and there was a space to be filled by a group that spoke up for interests other than those of western democracies. BRIC was an acronym coined by an employee of Goldman Sachs to focus on what then seemed like the world’s growth areas. South Africa was the last entrant to BRIC, making it BRICS. The new group had has to deal with a world where multilateralism has been thrown to the winds and countries take unilateral decisions based on national interests be they national security or economic interests. The UN has failed to tilt the balance in favour of reason in most cases. The structure of large organisations is such is that they will always play to the tune of the largest and the richest.

BRICS is different. The economic growth trajectories of India, China, Russia, Brazil and South Africa have not much in common. China and Russia are not democracies but the five have been holding together.As a student of international politics and a journalist, I’ve done the rounds. Covered many UN meetings in Geneva and New York or G-7 summits in Europe or for that matter G-20 summits which is an extended version of G-7 as it includes developing countries. I have interacted with diplomats and sherpas (a sobriquet for diplomats who prepare the texts), seen foreign ministers walk out of the room in disagreement and watched with the world when a G 7 meeting made Russian President Vladimir Putin sit alone at a table to protest Russian action in Crimea. Childish, you would say, but taking care of high dignitaries in times of war and tension and peace is more difficult than humouring a child. The fact that countries decided to come to Goa at a time when each has burning domestic issues to solve and under a new type of framing  is good enough. Headlines and breakthroughs can wait. 


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