The only thing remarkable about this year’s summit of the BRICS forum in Brasilia is that it took place at all. During his campaign for the presidency in 2018, Jair Bolsonaro made no secret of his distrust of China and the strategic enthusiasm for President Donald Trump. If his recent predecessors promoted the BRICS as part of their left-wing agenda for Brazil, conservative Bolsonaro seemed ready to dissociate Brazil from that tradition. That he has chosen, instead, to stay with the BRICS, underlines the power of inertia in the conduct of foreign policy. Each member of the very diverse and geographically dispersed group finds some value — even if it is merely diplomatic — in staying with the BRICS. But the internal contradictions among the five member states — Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa — are real and not easily overcome. None of them are sharper than the contradictions between India and China.
It was Russia that helped develop the forum and sustain it. The Russian objective was to mount international opposition to the United States in the unipolar moment that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. As China rose in the 21st century and found new tensions rocking its ties with the US, Beijing found much in common with Russia in limiting US dominance of the world. Beyond geopolitics, Beijing also found the BRICS a useful forum to promote a global economic agenda that is in sync with its emergence as the world’s biggest exporter and the second largest economy all set to replace the US as number one. For both Russia and China, having three large developing nations — India, Brazil and South Africa — as partners in their enterprise makes eminent political sense.
But India’s gains from the BRICS are not obvious. Nor is it evident if India’s interests are in alignment with the declared policies of the BRICS. Consider, for example, the thundering BRICS declaration on defending multilateralism. Many of India’s problems in the multilateral domain are rooted in Beijing’s opposition — it stalled efforts to join the UNSC as a permanent member and the Nuclear Suppliers Group. On trade, while it is easy to demonise President Trump’s protectionist policies, Delhi’s biggest trade deficit is with China. India has cited China’s economic threat for not joining the Asian trading bloc — RCEP. On countering terrorism, which is a major foreign policy priority for India, China views the problem through Pakistani eyes. Delhi is also acutely conscious of two other factors. One is the eagerness of Beijing and Moscow to do bilateral deals with Washington. It is also aware of the profound imbalance of power within the BRICS. For, the Chinese economy is twice as large as the other four put together. India’s persistence with the BRICS says less about its ideological convictions. It is more about Delhi’s strategy to hedge against the many great global uncertainties of the moment.