The Russian government announced last week that the annual five-nations BRICS Summit will be held virtually on November 17. Russia is chairing the BRICS this year; the meeting will bring China’s President Xi Jinping and India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi face-to-face for the first time since the military standoff between the two countries in Ladakh started more than five months ago. Given the virtual format of the meeting, it is not known whether the two can have a side meet which could facilitate a diplomatic resolution of the ongoing crisis, something that looks more remote with each passing day.
The BRICS is widely derided, especially in the West, where it is variously described as a talk shop among apparently incongruent powers and a meaningless investment-banking acronym long past its sell-by date. And there is more than a germ of truth to this. It is difficult to consider China as an emerging power anymore. To put that country and South Africa at the same table makes for manifestly curious optics, given that the Chinese economy is roughly 36 times bigger that South Africa’s. Brazil and Russia, beyond both being commodities exporters, have as much, or as less, in common as Brazil and Nigeria, for example. And then, of course, there are India and China, whose geopolitical rivalry now threatens to erupt into overt military hostilities.
And yet, the BRICS persists. For more than a decade, the leaders of the grouping have met annually, issuing (carefully negotiated) joint statements touching on a range of political and economic issues, along with side meetings of their foreign ministers and national security advisors. The BRICS’ New Development Bank (NDB), established in 2014, continues its activities, which included advancing a loan of $1 billion to India in May to fight COVID-19-induced costs. Add to this numerous side-activities, including at the non-governmental level, and you’d also be left wondering why the grouping soldiers on dispute it being written off with predictable regularity by commentators in the United States – and India.
This presents something of a puzzle, both for analysts as well as theorists of international relations and multilateral institutions. I’d argue that there are essentially four reasons why India continues to back the BRICS.
Scholars have suggested one of the factors behind the persistence of international institutions is because of “sunk costs” – efforts expended to set up an institution that can not be recovered, therefore binding the actors involved in setting it up permanently. As John Ikenberry has argued, institutions persist since the costs of setting them up are often much higher than that of dissolving them. While the BRICS itself remains an informal institution without a charter, unlike, say, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), the NDB – as a multilateral bank – is, by definition, a rigidly formalized institution. Therefore, even if the BRICS were to dissolve, or vastly dilute its activities, the Bank itself will ensure that the five countries are permanently bound through a single institution.
But beyond this is the issue of the BRICS itself. Assume India decided to pull itself away from that grouping by refusing to attend one of its annual summits, for example, as it has done with the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation since 2016. That would signify India’s move away from its self-ascribed role as an emerging powers leader, and act to directly snub Russia, which has traditionally reposed a lot of interest in the BRICS. And then, there is also the question of domestic politics. New Delhi has often equated BRICS with its participation in other “Western-led” groupings such as the Quad, in order to signal to domestic constituencies that its commitment to strategic autonomy and multi-aligned foreign policy remains intact. Under such circumstances, the “cost” India would pay from dissolving the BRICS is far higher than simply playing along, despite its diminishing dividends from participation in that grouping.
The BRICS also allows India and China to modulate their rivalry within the setting of a small grouping, even when bilateral relations remain rocky. This was clear during the Doklam standoff of 2017, when both sides remained engaged through BRICS throughout the entirety of the crisis; this has also been the case so far during the ongoing Ladakh standoff. Groupings like the BRICS and the SCO afford both India and China the opportunity to “decouple” their strategic contest from the other dimensions of the relationship. (While this has been the formula through which both sides have engaged each other for more than three decades now, there are signs from the past few months that India is increasingly uncomfortable with it.)
Another aspect here is the role of Russia. As close observers of the India-China standoff in Ladakh will attest, Moscow continues to play an important though discreet role in bringing both sides to the negotiating table. India’s dependence on Russia weaponry is deep enough for New Delhi to be not able to offend Russian sensibilities directly. The very fact that Russia is chairing the BRICS this year almost axiomatically implied that India would participate in the BRICS activities despite everything else.
As many scholars of Indian foreign policy have persuasively argued, a lot of India’s behavior in the world stage can be explained by its quest for international status. While this was most pronounced during the Cold War, when a materially enfeebled India continued to lecture the West and sought to lead motley Third World coalitions, status-seeking hasn’t disappeared, despite the country’s newfound advocacy of a realist foreign policy. BRICS is a case in point.
As India’s External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar recently described it, BRICS provides India a transcontinental reach by virtue of Brazil and South Africa’s presence. While one can rightly litigate what, in fact, has concretely materialized from this reach, the fact of the matter is India’s presence in BRICS looks good, presenting the country as a truly international player. In fact, New Delhi’s participation in a variety of informal arrangements is a low-cost way for it to signal its aspirations as a global power, even though – in the strict material sense – its equities, say in South America, remain limited.
This brings us to the fourth reason behind the BRICS’ persistence. India is a proudly revisionist power when it comes to the extant structure of international organizations and the United Nations system. It continues to maintain that the international system does not recognize the country’s economic and political heft and demands top-down reform, beginning with the U.N. Security Council (UNSC) where it seeks permanent membership. Even a casual look at RICS joint statements from the past reveals that reform of the international multilateral architecture remains the key political issue for the BRICS.
New Delhi is not naive enough to believe that China, for example, would substantially advocate a greater role for India especially where it matters – the UNSC. But that said, the BRICS’ repeated calls for reform boosts India’s own assertions in this direction, acting as a multiplier to the country’s own demands for reform.