Photo: Hillary Clinton, then U.S. Secretary of State, with Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J. Jayalalithaa (left) on July 20, 2011 in Chennai. Credit: PTI - Photo: 2020

India Succeeds Russia as BRICS Chair Amid Rising Challenges

By Kester Kenn Klomegah*

MOSCOW (IDN) – India assumes the rotating Chairmanship of BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) regional association on January 1, 2021. The South Asian nation takes over from Russia under whose leadership the organization managed to achieve progress in the political, economic and humanitarian fields.

During the five-nation bloc’s last meeting held under the theme “BRICS Partnership for Global Stability, Shared Security and Innovative Growth” – on November 17, the organization noted that much advance has been attained in streamlining the full-scale operational activity of BRICS.

With noticeable efforts, BRICS has consistently been pushing for diverse health initiatives, most especially vaccines, to halt the coronavirus pandemic that has shattered the global economy. There are Chinese and Russian vaccines, both reported as effective and safe, and currently getting ready to ramp up large-scale production.

Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, and these countries together account for one-quarter of the world economy. According to the World Health Organization, China with its 1.3 billion population currently managed to reduce virus infections to nearly 90,000 while India’s cumulative Covid-19 cases exceed 9 million. Brazil has more than 6 million and Russia more than 2 million cases this November. South Africa has the lowest among the BRICS, but the worst in Africa.

Besides the pressing need to find a quick and lasting solution to a global pandemic, the organization is keenly interested in increasing financial and economic cooperation among the member countries, effective industrial interaction and practical cooperation in developing and implementing new joint energy, telecommunications and high-tech projects among others.

According to official sources, Russia held 130 events at different levels, including several ministerial and interagency meetings and the last official XII BRICS summit via video and moderated from Moscow.

In his speech, President Vladimir Putin unreservedly expressed confidence that his colleague, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, would ensure continuity in the work of the organization and would further add new interesting projects and ideas of cooperation between the five countries.

While wishing every success to Prime Minister Modi, Putin reassured that Russia would provide all-round assistance to Indian partners in steering the organization until the next round of XIII BRICS summit in 2021.

Each BRICS member takes over the Chair for a year. Reminding that Russia previously chaired BRICS in 2015, held a summit in the provincial city of Ufa. Russia also presided over the group back in 2009, before BRIC turned into BRICS following South Africa’s accession.

In 2016, India held the Eighth BRICS Summit under the theme “Building Responsive, Inclusive and Collective Solutions” in Goa, India. In order to enrich understanding and engagement with countries in the region, it brought together an outreach summit of BRICS leaders with the leaders of the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation comprising Bangladesh, Bhutan, Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Thailand. As expected, the October summit adopted a joint declaration and endorsed the Goa Action Plan.

Now as India takes the helm of BRICS, effective from the start of January 2021, experts and research analysts are showing deep interest and are discussing possibilities of multilateral cooperation, existing challenges and identifying diverse priorities, the strength and weaknesses of BRICS.

Almost all experts interviewed for this article have acknowledged the trilateral platform – Russia, India and China (RIC) – that facilitates decision-taking on some issues. China, with its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), moves extremely faster investing and trading worldwide. India has its footprints with science, technology and trade. Russia is prominent with its fine-tuned diplomacy, for example advocating consistently for wholesale reforms, especially of the United Nations Security Council.

Professor Ashok Tiku, Head Amity School of Languages and Member of BRICS Centre at the Amity University stressed to IDN that India’s priority, as Chair of the BRICS, should be “to seek common grounds on United Nations Security Council reforms to enable South Africa, Brazil and India join this Security Council as permanent members. The biggest obstacle being China, but if other members persuade China, the reforms can move smoothly.”

Professor Ashok Tiku added: “As India is joining UNSC as a non-permanent member from January 2021, this should be India’s top priority. We feel UN will wither away without the necessary reforms. The second priority, of course, is an international conference on cooperation in fighting terrorism”.

But for Dr. Pankaj Kumar Jha, an Associate Professor at O P Jindal Global University in Sonipat, Haryana, China and India border conflict will continue influencing BRICS.

“China and India relations would have an impact on BRICS, and it has happened in the past too during the Doklam crisis and subsequently also when China has tried to put its agenda on the working of the BRICS. This has been strongly opposed by Russia and Brazil. Even bringing South Africa on board was a ploy of China to bring Chinese heft in the dialogue process,” Dr Jha told IDN.

However, India and China are cooperating to develop alternate financial structures, cohesive guidelines within Asia and the global south on many issues such as trade, investment and developing an understanding so that dominance of the of west could be reduced to a minimum in global financial architecture, he said and added, “the foundation of cooperation in BRICS brings potential resources and critical development requirements under one umbrella”.

Dr. Jha further pointed out that both Asian countries differ largely on many issues and have different foreign policy challenges, these differences have been there and would remain so especially when India’s entry into the East Asia Summit was opposed by China and Malaysia.

In addition, China has tried to limit ASEAN interaction and primacy to the ASEAN+3 process while India wanted to develop the ASEAN+6 process as a core dialogue mechanism. India has strong reservations to China building dams on the Brahmaputra and even on the Mekong. The stance taken by India with regard to Chinese assertive activities in the South China Sea and related maritime boundaries is well known, explained Dr. Jha.

However, on non-traditional security issues and developing better trade and investment linkages have given signs of cooperation but India is wary of Chinese exports gaining more market access in comparison to other countries getting access to Chinese markets, and therefore the negotiations and the role of origin aspects would be major nagging points in years to come, Dr. Jha explained.

On a more positive note, he said: “BRICS serves as a platform for discussion and dialogue but ASEAN is a strategic space where the two countries would try to influence the organization as a legitimate stakeholder.”

In an opinion article titled “Contradictions Grow Amid Another BRICS Summit” published by Observer Research Foundation, a private and non-profit public policy research NGO, Dr. Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan argues that India’s aim in engaging with BRICS may be an effort to demonstrate that it retains strategic autonomy and that it engages with all major powers irrespective of incongruences.

China and Russia have an anti-American political goal for the grouping, which sits very uneasily with Indian interests, considering India has invested significantly in building and nurturing its bilateral ties with the United States as well as engaging in strategic minilaterals such as the Quad and various trilaterals in the Indo-Pacific, Dr- Rajagopalan wrote.

That India works with China in the BRICS format, when the aim of India’s Quad and other such minilaterals is to restrict and restrain China’s ‘aggressive and bullying behaviour’, adds to the growing array of contradictions. Certainly, BRICS cannot be a military and security grouping given the significant differences between each of the players, most notably between India, China, and Russia.

She points out that the success of groupings such as BRICS will depend on the health of bilateral ties among those within the group. India-China relations in the backdrop of the Galwan conflict do not suggest that all is well on the bilateral front or even in the regional context.

As contradictions keep piling up, questions about the future of BRICS as anything other than an ineffective talk shop are bound to grow, concluded Dr. Rajagopalan

The BRICS member countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) collectively represent about 26% of the world’s geographic area and are home to 3.6 billion people, about 42% of the world’s population and a combined nominal GDP of US$16.6 trillion. [IDN-InDepthNews – 29 November 2020]

*Kester Kenn Klomegah is a frequent and passionate contributor to IDN. During his professional career as a researcher specialising in Russia-Africa policy, which spans nearly two decades, he has been detained and questioned several times by federal security services for reporting facts. Most of his well-resourced articles are reprinted in a number of reputable foreign media.

Photo credit: Indian Express.

IDN is flagship agency of the Non-profit International Press Syndicate.

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