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Rahul Bhonsle

Jan 11, 2013

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BRICS: Towards Political and Security Muscle?

 The first tentative moves by BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) to find a political voice and influence security discourse were evident in New Delhi on 10 January 2013, with the BRICS Meeting of High Representatives (HR) on National Security.  Briefing the media India’s National Security Adviser (NSA) Shiv Shanker Menon outlined importance of the occasion as the first stand alone meet of the NSAs/HRs as previous occasions were essentially held as a preparatory to BRICS summit. Even the Delhi NSR/HR meet could be called as a preliminary for the Durban Summit in March 2013 however the theme was no doubt different. Going by Mr Menon’s words, there were some weighty global issues that were discussed in particular the hot spots of Syria,  Libya and Mali as well as contemporary and emerging threats such as terrorism, piracy and cyber.

Conversion of a bilateral relationship with these countries which are on the fault lines of instability due to varied factors such as intervention (Libya), civil war (Syria) and expansion of international terrorism (Mali) to common multilateral approach of stability was possibly the most contentious issue that was discussed during the meet. While BRICS countries have some influence in these troubled states apart from Russia that has political and military weight to be an agent of change, others remain by standers. Thus most of the discussion is likely to add to an understanding of various points of view rather than evolution of a common policy.   

BRICS are also clearly steering away from bilateral issues such as recent conflagration on the Line of Control between India and Pakistan or China’s spats with its neighbours in East and South East Asia. Possibly in the bilateral between the NSAs/HRs these issues may have been discussed.

Thus what new perspective has emerged from the deliberation is not clear. At least on the Syrian imbroglio, it is apparent from responses by Mr Shiv Shanker Menon in the media conference that BRICS countries have reiterated their positions on the issue condemning injection of terrorist groups and looking for a political solution where none is in sight in the near future. A stronger response could have been evolved.

For a group as disparate as BRICS which has been triggered by Goldman Sachs rather than a natural alignment of likeminded forces, entering the political and security arena is highly significant. While the commonalities of BRICS are well known there are many disparities as well which may militate against evolving a viable common minimum political agenda. While BRICS population is over 40 percent of the World its contribution to the global GDP is just about 20 percent plus or half of that figure. It is obvious to pull its weight BRICS has the people mass but lacks the economic mass without which political weight in today’s world cannot be attained.

The differential power configuration of the grouping where in Russia and China is permanent members of the UN Security Council while Brazil and India are seen as possible contenders to the high table and regional powers. South Africa is seen by many as a laggard even in its own continent.  There are differences in perception as well with India and Brazil seen aligned with the West on many issues while China and Russia have maintained their unique status. This was more than evident when during the initial stages of the Syrian civil war; it was a mission from IBSA (India, Brazil and South Africa) rather than BRICS that went to Damascus to initiate dialogue with Mr Assad while China and Russia stayed away. Given these incongruities how far BRICS can gravitate towards a common agenda in the political and security spectrum remains to be seen. For now perhaps well begun could be just about done.

Gathering from a summary of the meet of NSAs/HRs to generate momentum BRICS needs a permanent mechanism as at present there are only Sherpas, expert and adhoc working groups for specific issues. Sherpas or adhoc groups obviously have other jobs to do thus their attention to BRICS despite the best intentions remains adhoc. Without a stronger institution to support the deliberations, BRICS may find it difficult to develop momentum particularly on political and security issues which require sustained follow up by governments unlike economic where track two interests of business lobbies also act as triggers. Institutionalisation of BRICS thus assumes priority and may take some time given that this is not on the agenda for the Durban summit.

Mr Menon the ever pragmatist summed it up best when he said in response to a question, “So, there is a long list of things that we think we should be looking at as BRICS. But if you ask me today what have you done, I will say what we have done is take another step forward on this rather long road which we will keep walking on”.

For BRICS to move from the one concrete idea on the horizon, a BRICS infrastructure bank to something more substantial there is a long road ahead indeed.

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