The BRICs held their first summit in 2009 in Yekaterinburg, Russia, at the behest of Russian Foreign Affairs Minister Sergey Lavrov, who had already indicated his intention to make the new coalition an anti-West war machine. But this objective was part of a larger plan, as is evident from the final resolution, which called for "a more democratic and just multi-polar world" and a commitment to "multilateral diplomacy with the United Nations playing the central role in dealing with global challenges and threats". This juxtaposition reflected the member countries' desire to find their place in the sun within the UN system, and in particular within the World Bank and the IMF to reflect changes in the global economy. But in several multilateral arenas, the BRICs appeared to be primarily interested in blocking Western initiatives.
This motivation had crystallized within the World Trade Organization even before the BRIC was formed. The emerging powers joined forces in reaction to the declaration on agriculture, signed in 2003 by the United States and the European Union. Brazil and India immediately drafted a counter-proposal demanding that rich countries reduce subsidies for agriculture and open up their markets more to agricultural products from developing countries. Twenty countries signed this text — including China. Subsequently, the Doha Round was bogged down largely because of the increasing weight of emerging countries who rejected Western proposals.
India has relied on a similar coalition to defend its position against the Europeans in another multilateral context: the talks on climate change. During the 2009 Copenhagen summit on climate change, Brazil, South Africa, India and China came together to form what became known as the BASIC group, so as not to commit to measures for environmental protection advocated primarily by the Europeans. These measures were seen by this group as an obstacle to their growth and should, at the very least, be financed by the so-called developed countries, whom they held responsible for the accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
A certain radicalization marked the third BRICS (note the capital "S") summit, held in Sanya, China, in 2011. First of all, the political dimension of the coalition was affirmed with the official admission of South Africa into the club. The co-option of this country, which could not be explained by economic criteria, was indicative of a desire for greater political representativeness: the group needed to include an African state. Second, the BRICS's resolutions themselves were more political, as evident from their attitude vis-à-vis the Syrian crisis. Even as Syrian demonstrators were enduring a fierce crackdown, all five BRICS — who were all members of the UN Security Council — refused to support any resolution against the regime of Bashar al-Assad. In the New Delhi summit of 2012, as the death toll neared 30,000, the BRICS reaffirmed that Syrian sovereignty should be fully respected.
The sovereignism exhibited here has roots in the trauma of past Western imperialism. Such a legacy had already explained, to a great extent, the foreign policy doctrines that the nations formed in the wake of decolonization, in the 1950s and '60s. Nehru's doctrine of non-alignment, the Sino-Indian panchsheel, as well as the non-interventionist principles of the Brazilian Baron of Rio Branco, are among the many converging traditions (that can be summarized as peaceful resolution of disputes and non-intervention in the domestic affairs of others) that led the BRICS to reject the Western notion of interventionism — which has too often invoked moral principles to conceal less noble intentions. In the 21st century, the Bush doctrine of "preventive war" was interpreted by emerging powers as a return to the neocolonial drifts that they had tried to protect themselves from.
But the emerging powers' sovereignism today can also be explained by their desire to settle, well away from the public eye, delicate issues in which human rights (and even people's right to self-determination) are often at stake, such as with the Tibetans, Uighurs, Chechens.
Hence the question: is it in India's interests to be part of a coalition where two of the dominant members, China and Russia, display such a shallow commitment to democratic values, while it gets closer to the West — at least, since the 123 agreement with the United States? The response may be "yes," if realpolitik prevails and if for India the BRICS represents more than an anti-West force of inertia.
The stakes are especially high in the domain of financial reforms. At the fourth BRICS summit held in New Delhi in 2012, impatience was expressed with the IMF's slowness in implementing quota and governance reforms, approved in 2010, in favor of increased weightage for the BRICS. The final communiqué called for the creation of a Southern development bank, an idea already put forward by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, but whose funding would largely come from China.
The fifth BRICS summit in Durban last week enabled member countries to make progress in this direction. An agreement has been reached on the establishment of a Southern development bank. Only the future can tell whether this is a serious initiative or not. But the Durban summit has shown not only that the BRICS are much more resilient than many observers expected, but also that they have projects on their agenda that go beyond their old obstructionist policy. Their solidarity may be reinforced by the West's reluctance to give them their due share in multilateral arenas and their attempt to develop alternative financial institutions may gain urgency if the sanctions imposed on Iran prevent China, India and others to trade with that country.
The question for India may then be whether it makes sense to be part of a coalition where China occupies a dominant position. China's economy is larger than those of the four others — and continues to grow at a quick pace, partly at the expense of the others, as is evident from their trade deficits vis-à-vis Beijing. Chinese expansion in the Indian Ocean may also make New Delhi think twice about this partnership.
The new Chinese president, Xi Jinping, seems to be aware of these issues. Not only did he articulate a five-point formula to strengthen Sino-Indian relations immediately after taking over this month, he also elaborated on it during his meeting with Manmohan Singh on the sidelines of the Durban summit. He suggests that both countries continue to develop their economic ties while putting the border disputes on the backburner. Will that be sufficient?
Besides the old bones of contention (Arunachal Pradesh, Chinese dams on the Brahmaputra, etc.), India may diverge from China in its use of the BRICS as a "minilateral" grouping. For China, the BRICS is the right coalition at the right time: Beijing is in the driver's seat of a promising grouping at a moment when it cannot turn to anybody else. For India, it's a different story and we may wonder why the country should take the risk of playing second fiddle to China when other potential partners (including Japan) are knocking at its door. Certainly, China's economic support may be important. But it will also create new forms of dependence. And certainly India, through the BRICS, cultivates its tradition of non-alignment — rechristened strategic autonomy — in order to be friends with almost everybody. But does this policy apply to China? After all, you need two to tango. At the least, India should resist Chinese pressures for merging the IBSA with the BRICS. The former can offer New Delhi a platform that is more effective and more comfortable: after all, the other member countries are democracies too. In the latter, India will only be a junior partner.