Divisions Haunt Rising Powers as They Organise Themselves as BRICS

With India reiterating that all five BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) member states were united in acknowledging the global threat posed by terrorism, and that those who perpetrate acts of terror are no more dangerous than those who support them, the latest edition of BRICS summitry came to an end last week in the Indian resort state of Goa. The BRICS leadership tried to move the agenda forward a bit by declaring their intent “to establish (a) BRICS agri-research platform, Railway Research Network, Sports Council, and various youth-centric fora,” and agreeing “to fast track the setting up of a BRICS Rating Agency,” based on market-oriented principles to “further bridge the gap in the global financial architecture.”

But what came out quite categorically was that despite some lofty pronouncements, the members states remained divided on key issues. In particular this came out on the issue of terrorism which Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi made the central security issue of the summit.

Without naming Pakistan, he used the BRICS platform to refer to Pakistan as the “mother-ship of terrorism” and forcefully argued that a “selective approach against terrorism” would be both futile and counterproductive. In more ways than one, he made it plain to his BRICS partners that this is an issue on which India feels rather strongly and that “BRICS needs to work together and act decisively to end this menace of terrorism.”

This message was primarily aimed at China with which India has had differences on the issue of Pakistan-sponsored terrorism against India. Modi did not have much success in convincing his Chinese counterpart on the desirability of changing his country’s stance on Jaish-e-Mohammad chief Masood Azhar. China had recently put a technical hold once again at the United Nations and prevented Azhar — who India believes was behind the Pathankot attack this year and the Parliament attack of 2001 — from being designated a global terrorist, despite Jaish being a UN-proscribed terror group.

But China refused to budge. It not only blocked India’s attempts to include the names of terror groups like JeM and LeT in the BRICS’ declaration but after the summit openly defended Pakistan, saying it is against linking any country or religion with terror and asked the world community to acknowledge Pakistan’s “great sacrifices.”

Group photo of BRICS leaders before the start of the summit. Source: kremlin.ru

Group photo of BRICS leaders before the start of the summit. Source: kremlin.ru

Recognizing the limits of bilateral Sino-Indian engagement, India had decided to use the leverage of a multilateral platform of BRICS to put China on notice. New Delhi was hoping that the Goa declaration by suggesting that “those who nurture, shelter, support and sponsor forces of violence and terror are as much a threat to us as terrorists themselves” might be able to pressurise China to alter its support for Pakistan. But India could only convince China that its State Councillor Yang Jiechi would travel to India again and meet National Security Advisor Ajit Doval to deliberate on this issue.

From India’s perspective, more significant was the reluctance of India’s traditional partner Russia to come to India’s support when it came to Pakistani-sponsored terror. China successfully persuaded Russia to keep Indian concerns on terrorism in abeyance in the declaration even as Moscow’s own concerns on Syria got reflected in the declaration which called upon all parties involved in the Syrian conflict to work for a comprehensive and peaceful resolution of the conflict taking into account the legitimate aspirations of the people of Syria, through inclusive national dialogue and a Syrian-led political process.

Russia’s kowtowing to China shouldn’t be surprising but it managed to challenge India’s long-held conviction that Moscow would always come to the aid of New Delhi. This was especially the case after India decided to rejuvenate its flagging defence ties with Moscow. Worth an estimated $10.5 billion, India signed several defence deals with Russia including ones to acquire advanced air defence missile systems, stealth frigates as well as jointly produce light-utility helicopters. But this did little to convince Russia to see merits in India’s case against Pakistan.

The BRICS mandate is under siege at a time of slowing economies and growing intra-BRICS political divergences. Not surprisingly, the grouping has been struggling to retain its relevance. China has managed to create financial institutions out of this grouping which it dominates and Russia is increasingly looking this forum as a platform for its shadowboxing with the US. For Indian Prime Minister Modi, who has made close US-India ties his signature foreign policy move, BRICS is an important platform to showcase to his domestic critics that his foreign policy remains independent, not subservient to America. He also tried to use the recent summit to highlight New Delhi’s concerns about Pakistan’s support for cross-border terrorism against India. Brazil and South Africa’s participation remains perfunctory at best.

BRICS has always been an artificial construct but as the geopolitical fault-lines among major powers become more vivid, its future looks even more bleak.

Harsh V. Pant

Professor Harsh V Pant holds a joint appointment with the Department of Defence Studies and King’s College India Institute as Professor of International Relations. He is also a Non-Resident Fellow with the Wadhwani Chair in US-India Policy Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Washington, DC.

Professor Pant has been a Visiting Professor at the Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore; a Visiting Fellow at the Center for the Advanced Study of India, University of Pennsylvania; a Visiting Scholar at the Center for International Peace and Security Studies, McGill University; an Emerging Leaders Fellow at the Australia-India Institute, University of Melbourne; and a Visiting Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.

Professor Pant’s current research is focused on Asian security issues. His most recent books include The US Pivot and Indian Foreign Policy (Palgrave Macmillan), Handbook of Indian Defence Policy (Routledge), and The US-India Nuclear Pact: Policy, Process and Great Power Politics (Oxford University Press).

Professor Pant is a columnist for the Diplomat and writes regularly for various media outlets including the Japan Times, the Wall Street Journal, the National (UAE) and the Telegraph.

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