BRICS: 'United by Bloc, Divided by Agenda’, Modi-Xi’s Recipe for Reconciliation

It's clear from the outcome that India didn't get its way or else, it'd have definitely shaped the final list.

4 min read
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After much consultations and confabulations, the five-member BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) grouping has decided to dramatically expand their membership to 11.

According to an announcement at Johannesburg, six countries – Argentina, Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and UAE have been invited to become full members of BRICS as of 1 January 2024.

Just what the new acronym for the expanded outfit will have is something we will leave to the imagination.

Modi-Xi Dialogue

Another major development is that of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s formal meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping that failed to materialise.

However, both were seen engaged in conversation on television and there are suggestions that they may have had a more substantive meeting at the Retreat on 22 August.

A news flash late on Thursday, 24 August has suggested that this indeed happened and the two leaders have agreed to an "expeditious de-escalation” in Eastern Ladakh.

Later, a Chinese press readout was issued which said that President Xi stressed that "improving China-India relations… is conducive to peace, stability and development of the world and the region.” Further, that the two sides should "handle properly the border issue so as to jointly safeguard peace and tranquility in the border region.”

Meanwhile, briefing the media Foreign Secretary V M Kwatra said that the Prime Minister had conveyed to President Xi India’s concerns on the “unresolved” issues along the LAC and that the maintenance of peace and tranquility in border areas was essential for the normalisation of India-China ties.”

The two leaders last met in a formal summit in Chennai in 2019. They met last year for the 19th time at the G20 summit in Bali in November 2022 but this was an informal manner, though later, there was some controversy over its outcome.

They are now likely to meet again at the G20 summit in New Delhi between 9-10 September. Whether this could yield a formal meeting between them can only be speculated.

It may be noted that India and China are working on a three-stage process that seeks to disengage forces at what India calls "friction points” in Eastern Ladakh though the Chinese have blocked Indian patrols, to be followed by the de-escalation by some 50,000 troops both have brought up near the border.

India Is in Favour of BRICS Expansion

The Prime Minister’s speech to the BRICS summit on Wednesday, 23 August was carefully nuanced. He went out of his way to list a range of suggestions on areas of technology and development to which India could contribute.

Among these, the first to be listed was 'cooperation in space'. Coming on the day that the Chandrayaan-3 made history by landing on the moon, this was not surprising.

As for the subject that has garnered a lot of attention – BRICS expansion –the PM made it clear that "India fully supports the expansion of the BRICS membership. And welcomes moving forward with consensus in this.”

BRICS does put itself forward as a unified face of the emerging economic powers, but the reality is that within the organisation which is not a trade or military bloc – there is jostling between the two big Asian powers – India and China.

Expansion was one of the issues where this shoving and pushing has been playing out. Anywhere up to 40 countries are said to be potential members, though reports are that some 22 nations have actually formally expressed interest in joining the bloc.

With six countries that have been formally admitted, there will be disappointment in countries like Cuba, Congo, Indonesia, and Kazakhstan.

Some hint of the jostling comes from the fact that last week, President Ebrahim Raisi of Iran spoke on the phone with Prime Minister Modi. According to the official spokesman, they talked about "regional and bilateral matters” as well as issues like the expansion of BRICS. The two leaders have since met in Johannesburg as well.

On Thursday, too, there were reports that there were “eleventh our negotiations” over the potential new members. Reuters claims that an agreement was meant to be adopted on Wednesday, but it was delayed by India’s introduction of new criteria for membership.

It's clear from the outcome that India did not get its way otherwise which it would have definitely shaped the final list.

Consensus Is the Key for BRICS To Work

This seems to have become a focus of the attention of the Western media where it is being posed as an 'India versus China' issue. Perhaps it is so.

BRICS works by consensus and all five members would have had to agree on the six new members.

Neither India nor China can alienate countries like Saudi Arabia, Iran, or UAE but on the others, there must have been some give and take.

Earlier this month, the Indian official spokesman clarified that the actual position is that BRICS expansion would take place through “full consultation and consensus” among members of the bloc and that the “BRICS members are internally discussing the guiding principles, standards, criteria, and procedures for BRICS' expansion process on tea is of full consultation and consensus.“

Clearly, in some areas, the decisions may have come down to the wire.

The Indian position has been that while it was all for expansion, there was a need to develop and standardise mechanisms to consider the applications and move with them.

It is not as though the candidate members can be pushed by one or the other country.


The Caveats

With an organisation that functions on consensus, its degree of difficulty in getting things done increases with the expansion of its membership. Now, with eleven members, things will be that much more difficult.

The BRICS countries have economies and geopolitical profiles which are hugely divergent which makes consensus-based decision-making hugely difficult.

BRICS’ most substantial achievement has been the establishment of the New Development Bank in 2014, which is headquartered in Shanghai.

All five members have equal shares in it. It has disbursed some USD 32 billion, with USD 7.6 billion in 2021 alone.

It remains to be seen whether the shareholding pattern will remain the same. In any case, countries like Saudi Arabia and the UAE will have no problem, and having them within the BRICS tent will be a great advantage.

(The writer is a Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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Topics:  BRICS    South Africa   Xi Jinping 

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