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Many Separate BRICS, No Single Wall: India and an Expanding BRICS

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Many Separate BRICS, No Single Wall: India and an Expanding BRICS

Much more than a new acronym, the BRICS grouping lacks a common denominator.

Many Separate BRICS, No Single Wall: India and an Expanding BRICS
Credit: Depositphotos

The global architecture, as constructed after 1945, lies on its deathbed, while BRICS is institutionalizing itself as a new basis of the multipolar world – or so one scholar argued four years ago. I will mercifully skip the academic’s name since, when I look around in 2024, I do not see a single shred of evidence that this is happening (especially the latter part of the process). If BRICS is a basis of a “new multipolar world,” when was the last time BRICS, as a group, involved itself in a military conflict? Solved a dispute? Saved a country from an economic crisis?

How about an easier set of questions: Where is BRICS’ headquarters, or a secretariat, located? Oh, right, nowhere, because BRICS is an annual meeting of heads of state without a permanent official structure. Does BRICS have an official website? It doesn’t seem to. Joint statements after each BRICS summit are published on the government websites of its member states. 

This may seem like a bad time to raise such BRICS-skeptical points, as January 1, 2024, marked BRICS’ first significant expansion. BRICS invited six states to become members: Argentina, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Iran, Ethiopia, and the United Arab Emirates. Argentina declined to join and Saudi Arabia’s status is unclear: In January a South African official said Saudi Arabia was joining, but the next day a Saudi official said Riyadh was still considering the invitation. Egypt, Iran, Ethiopia, and the UAE did join the grouping. Some form of an award should be announced to a person that comes up with a new, catchy acronym.

With such an expansion, it’s likely that the BRICS will institutionalize itself at last – it’s hard to imagine a group of nine countries (and maybe more in the future) holding summits without some form of a permanent office to coordinate the circus.

But the crux of the question remains the same. Even after new members are added to the equation, what is BRICS’ actual weight? Beyond the hype, much of which is created by pro-Russian and pro-Chinese sources, what is it that BRICS actually does?

It’s not a military alliance, for its members are not held together by mutual guarantees. It does not have any form of combined forces, it does not jointly act in any defense operations, it does not even hold joint drills (the last aspect is something that even the Quad and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization do – and these aren’t regarded as formal alliances either). It’s not an economic union, for there is no specific trade pact linking the BRICS states. The closest equivalent would probably be a form of an annual U.N. meeting – and, frankly, that’s not a high bar to reach.

Moreover, its recent expansion is likely to make BRICS even more like the United Nations (a non-Western U.N., so to speak), and even less like a military or political alliance. The more countries join, the less BRICS is united around common geopolitical goals. The rhetoric of the BRICS summits proves this – most of it consists of typical, diplomatic beating around the bush: general statements and few concrete suggestions. Unsurprisingly, BRICS statements avoid making references to the conflict zones of today’s world like the South China Sea or the Himalayas. In both cases, China would be certainly be happy for BRICS to make a joint declaration, but apparently not everyone agrees, even among the original BRICS five.

In 2023, as the Hamas-Israel crisis unfolded, the South Africa, for first time in the group’s history, called an emergency, virtual BRICS meeting but it was skipped by representatives of India, as New Delhi wanted to avoid joining the chorus of anti-Israel voices. Thus, in its current form, the group also cannot be understood to be an anti-West, or an anti-U.S. front, even though at least two of its members, Russia and China, would be glad to lead such an alliance. 

Much more than a new acronym, the BRICS grouping lacks a common denominator.

India’s presence in the BRICS is probably one of the best instances of this. Yes, New Delhi, does not want to be in alliance with the U.S., but the Indian government does not want to be in an alliance with Russia either – and definitely not with China, BRICS’ mightiest member but also India’s largest rival. For all its cooperation with Russia, India remains much more economically tied to the U.S., increasingly dependent on Western technologies, and more deeply engaged in cooperation with the West against Beijing than ever before. 

All of this does not mean that a new anti-Western military alliance is impossible. As mentioned, it is likely that Russia and China are attempting to create such a thing. But whatever form it takes, it cannot be based on BRICS in its current make-up (or, for that matter, even on the SCO). At least India, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia (if Riyadh ends up confirming its membership) would have to be left out of such a front – and likely most of the other BRICS member states too. I’m no expert on the foreign policies of Egypt, Ethiopia, and South Africa, but I doubt they would be eager to join such a union. That decreases the anti-Western common denominator of BRICS member states to three: China, Russia, and Iran.

Thus, the only future I see for BRICS, beyond diplomatic rhetoric, is a purely economic, politically neutral cooperation. Here, that future seems to shine bright. For all the talk about what the BRICS doesn’t have, what the grouping does possess is its own bank: the New Development Bank (NDB, earlier called the BRICS Bank). This is a achievement in itself, for it is rather rare for a non-formal entity to create a formal one.

But more importantly, there seems to be a massive scope for economic cooperation within the group, given that it brings together countries that have huge capital to offer as loans (such as China and the UAE) with developing countries that are in dire need for funds for development projects (this applies to most of the other BRICS members). 

Again, the case of India is instructive here. New Delhi may be wary to borrow from Beijing directly, but borrowing from a multilateral financial institution of which China is just one important member seems to be a safer bet (the same point likely explains India’s membership in the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank).

A quick summary of 24 New Development Bank-funded projects undertaken in India reveals these will amount to the value of as much as $8.8 billion borrowed. Such a sum may perhaps be overshadowed by the financial prowess of such giants like the International Monetary Fund (IMF), but altogether it is not an amount that can be ignored or taken lightly. Moreover, the NDB projects in India seem to cater to the country’s central needs – most are infrastructure development or ecological initiatives, while others were offered as emergency loans during the COVID-19 pandemic.

However, beyond valuable membership in the NDB, India’s membership in BRICS seems to mostly serve rhetorical purposes. It is likely that the same is true for the majority of the group’s members.