India’s External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar while attending the 2023 EU-India Pacific Ministerial Forum declared that “a multipolar world is feasible only by a multipolar Asia.” India’s multipolar model demands an international political system where it can exercise greater agency and influence in different strategic regions, institutions, and negotiations. To achieve this goal, New Delhi has been pursuing a “multialignment” or “issue-based alignment” strategy, which aims to simultaneously participate and pursue its interests in multiple strategic and economic coalitions, such as the Quad and BRICS.
The key drivers of India’s multidirectional foreign policy reflect its key interests: economic prosperity, technology advancements, research and innovation, norm influencing, and strengthening security. In this endeavor, BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) and the Quad (Australia, India, Japan, and the United States) are the two strategic organizational platforms that have become a top priority for India.
Today, the Quad mostly tends to dominate Indian foreign policy discourse, especially after the 2020 China-India border standoff, which fractured bilateral relations. However, it’s important to dive deeper and try to figure out where exactly BRICS fits into India’s current geoeconomic and geopolitical strategy. What does BRICS bring to the table? And what is the strategic logic behind India’s continuing membership in BRICS?
Multipolar Asia or Multipolar World: Which One to Prefer?
During the 2023 BRICS Foreign Ministers Meeting, Jaishankar asserted that “the BRICS gathering must send a message that the world is multipolar, that it is rebalancing, and that old ways cannot address new situations.” As the international order incrementally becomes multipolar, principles of equality, mutual respect, and consensus will drive state interactions in multilateral institutions and coalitions.
Currently, BRICS seems to incorporate what India looks for in its development-focused diplomatic engagement. BRICS, which initially started as a consultative grouping of five developing economies, is now gaining political undertones with plans for its expansion. Countries like Saudi Arabia, Iran, Egypt, Bangladesh, Argentina, and Indonesia have registered their interest in joining BRICS.
BRICS’s development-focused diplomacy resonates strongly with India’s core interests – energy security, combating terrorism, and climate change financing. At the same time, its wider and deeper issue items and agenda separate BRICS from other strategic forums that India currently participates in. BRICS constantly emphasizes themes ranging from “promoting economic recovery,” “expediting implementation of 2030 agenda on sustainable development,” and “strengthening and reforming multilateral governance.” These further reflect the socioeconomic realities that developing countries face.
But more importantly, BRICS may be an equally vital geopolitical force in the future because of the grouping’s constant attempts to amplify non-traditional security threats and promote economic security within the forum. It has mainstreamed non-traditional threats as part of a broader security agenda, which is often missing in global discussions. Moving forward we will likely see politicization of non-traditional security and its implications on economies of countries.
BRICS also provides India with the agency and political support to push against what New Delhi sees as unfair coercive systems such as the EU’s Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism (CBAM) taxes, economic concentration, and unilateral sanctions. The CBAM in particular is expected to have an impact of $8 billion annually on India’s exports of steel, aluminum and iron ore. India has thus asked for a carve out for its small and medium enterprises during its negotiations with the EU. India is working with fellow BRICS partners South Africa, China, and Brazil to firmly oppose this.
Opposition from the current BRICS members becomes more critical as many developed countries are expected to join the CBAM bandwagon. The G-7 joint communique stated that the G-7 member states “will work together, and with partners beyond the G-7, to expand the ambitious use of carbon markets and carbon pricing.” This points toward India’s concern regarding carbon tax provisions, which not only affect India’s and developing countries’ economic interests, but also undermine the principle of “common but differentiated responsibility and respective capabilities” which addresses the contextual socioeconomic realities and climate justice issue.
Furthermore, provisions like the United States’ Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), with its green subsidy package, add to the worries of developing and less developed nations. These are manifestations of two broader trends: increasing mercantilist tendencies, and the erosion of principles negotiated and fought hard for by India and developing countries.
Often, assumptions about China-India relations based on their border dispute are used to prejudge the working of BRICS or negate its importance altogether. Such an approach fails to take into account nuances and complexity of their relations beyond the region, including cooperation on climate change or in multilateral institutions like the World Trade Organization (WTO) against subsidies programs. BRICS has continued to play a critical role in pushing for an “open, transparent, inclusive, non-discriminatory and rules-based multilateral trading system” that favors India’s and developing countries’ interests; there is also a rising demand for inclusiveness and fair institutions. This concern becomes more important as trade protectionism and anti-globalization sentiment is rising in the West. BRICS becomes a critical platform to counter the trend of strategic insularity proliferating in the Global North.
India’s global aspirations and interests, such as on reforms in multilateral institutions like the International Monetary Fund, WTO, United Nations, and U.N. Security Council are also backed by BRICS. BRICS gives India the opportunity to voice its developmental interests in a way that no other grouping can match. In addition, BRICS members are playing a greater role in shaping the global political landscape, an area where India finds itself standing against the likes of the United States, Japan, and Australia – fellow members of Quad. In the contemporary world, BRICS represents global socioeconomic realities that are often relegated to the periphery of international politics.
More immediately, the diplomatic calendar makes BRICS a vital forum to shape the discourse, agenda, and discussion items for the next few years. India is this year’s host of the G-20 summit, and Brazil will be hosting the COP30 and G-20 summit in 2024, followed by South Africa in 2025. With that in mind, BRICS will provide New Delhi an organizational platform to create consensus on key issues that directly impact India’s economic, food and energy security.
Nonetheless, New Delhi remains concerned about Beijing’s intention to shape the evolution of BRICS into a key non-Western geopolitical forum to expand its sphere of influence. These objectives may include adopting a common BRICS currency for intra-BRICS trade. Therefore, India remains cautious of any arbitrary expansion of BRICS and has asked for a standardized process to follow. New Delhi is also concerned about the potential hijacking of BRICS by China as an “anti-Western” grouping against G-7. Still, it is important to realize that disagreements between India and China will not always overshadow the larger prospects and interests of the grouping.
Indian strategic circles recognize BRICS’s primary role in shaping the international trade order, climate change policies, financing, and reformed multilateralism. New Delhi aims to play a larger role in international politics and negotiations, which would further emphasize the critical role of BRICS. While the focus would remain on promoting, protecting, and leveraging Indian strategic interests and raising its status, some would also argue that New Delhi should prioritize the Indo-Pacific region, given the rising status of the Quad in India’s strategic calculations. The choice seems to be between a multipolar Asia and a multipolar globe. The former reflects India’s regional interests, and the latter its global aspirations. Currently it’s not a game of either-or, but one of preferential diplomatic management.