As the South African city of Johannesburg hosts the 15th BRICS summit from August 22 to 24, headlines have been devoted to the possibilities of certain anticipated bilateral meets on the sidelines. One such possibility is of Chinese president Xi Jinping and Indian prime minister Narendra Modi having an in-person meeting – their first since the May 2020 border standoff, though they had a fleeting encounter at a G20 dinner in Bali last November.
Yet the summit’s agenda – to deliberate upon the expansion of BRICS’ membership – is the bigger picture that India and other member states must not lose sight of. BRICS, which comprises Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, has had – some reports – knocking at its doors with applications for membership.
The eagerness of a number of countries to join the grouping can be seen as a sign of the bloc’s growing profile. But it’s also a reflection of the search for a sturdy multipolar anchor, given growing concerns about the US-led west’s unilateral moves on the Ukraine war.
In fact, after Brazil, Russia, India and China formed the four-nation BRIC in 2009, the inclusion of South Africa in 2010 was also seen as a long-felt response to the inadequacies of west-dominated institutions of global governance, especially global finance structures. There was a sense that contemporary, non-western, large and emerging economies, and their overlapping and distinct interests, were not well represented. West-steered institutions, rooted in post-World War 2 arrangements, were seen as out of sync with the reconfigured and complex world economy. Many key states in international economies and global politics hadn’t been given parity in decision-making in these institutions.
At the same time, even as globalisation gained steam in the decades following the end of the Cold War, there were worries about unipolarity. Far from being limited to the global security edifice, there were concerns about the US influencing the tone and tenor of global economic processes.
One may still recall what then president of India KR Narayanan at a banquet hosted by then US president Bill Clinton: “Globalisation does not mean the end of history and geography, and of the lively and exciting diversities of the world. As an African statesman has observed to us, the fact that the world is a global village does not mean that it will be run by one village headman. In this age of democracy, it will be headed by a panchayat.”
By the turn of the 21st century, such calls – for the widening of the representative nature of global governance institutions, and shielding countries’ national sovereignty from the intrusions of the globalising world – only grew. But in terms of the economic anxieties of an increasingly connected world, it was the global financial crisis of 2008 that reinforced concerns about the weaknesses of US-centred financial linkages and the US’s limited capacity in spearheading globalisation. This quickened initiatives for alternative structures, and BRIC was formed a year later in June 2009.
All five members of BRICS are also part of the G20. It was initially pitched as a form of inclusive globalisation, a stabilising influence where connectedness and engagement with the rest of the world, including the west, could unfold in a manner that did not interfere with a country’s sovereignty and cultural identity. In many ways, it had space for countries casting globalisation in their own image, without ceding anything to a global template. This was aimed at soothing the cultural and political anxieties about the conformist demands of western globalisation.
Simultaneously, there has been a relative decline in the US’s influence on power equations around the globe, given its geopolitical rivalry with China in security and military terms. This has recast the international order in a more multipolar mould, perhaps even sowing the seeds for a new bipolarity.
This altered scenario of global politics has pushed many observers to view the role of blocs like BRICS in a new light. While reflecting on the 15th summit, international relations scholar Zorawar Daulet Singh the setting up of the New Development Bank in 2014, which has already financed numerous projects worth $34 billion, as one of the significant steps taken by the bloc. But he also identifies a key challenge for the grouping that it would like to address in pursuit of its call for a “global financial architecture that can support a trading and investment system of interdependence, that isn’t dependent on a single currency”.
The way the US-led western powers have responded to the Ukraine war has only foregrounded this challenge. The network of reliance on a single currency, and the attending sanctions, have crippled the capacity of countries to decide on their course of action on trade, energy procurement and transactional activities of their will. If this wasn’t alarming enough, the legal frailty and arbitrariness in the attempts to freeze Russian foreign currency reserves in US bonds was an insidious sign for other member states of the grouping as well as the international community in general. In many ways, they show a vulnerability of the single-currency dependence, and also reflect the subversion of the rule-based order in pursuit of certain strategic interests of a country or a group of countries, pushing a narrative for justifying any transgression.
More significantly, these challenges place BRICS as one of the possible platforms for discussing and offering an alternative financial structure that unshackles the single-currency stranglehold over large volumes of global transactions. Unlike other blocs, like the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, which are more focused on the security dimension, BRICS is more suited for such initiatives as it has been directing attention more to the global financial flows and its implications for the international order. India, in pitching global south concerns as a subtext of its G20 presidency, must take notes on the relevant themes as New Delhi hosts the G20 summit next month.