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Twenty years on, value of BRICS forum largely symbolic

Though lacking strategic agenda, BRICS forum still affords nuanced read of tripartite relations between its Eurasian members

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Former Russian President Dmitri Medvedev attends a previous BRICS Summit. 

Former Russian President Dmitri Medvedev attends a previous BRICS Summit.  (AP photo)

TAIPEI (Taiwan News) — India’s recent chairing of the 13th BRICS Summit, virtually attended by leaders of Brazil, Russia, China and South Africa, gave us a chance to take stock of what the grouping of developing world economic heavyweights means in the 2020s.

Despite the hype surrounding BRICS having faded significantly over the past two decades since former Goldman Sachs chief economist Jim O’Neil coined the term in 2001, the diplomatic forum remains an important platform for taking the geopolitical temperature of its Eurasian members — India, China, and Russia.

Sino-Indian release

With a focus on development and economics, BRICS mechanisms can act as a release valve for pressure in the Sino-Indian relationship.

Sino-Indian strains have tightened as a result of a nine-month stand-off across the Line of Actual Control (LAC), which included a violent clash between soldiers from both countries in the Galwan Valley in Ladakh in which 20 Indian soldiers were killed.

As a result, India has shed its reticence vis-à-vis “the Quad” grouping and has joined with the U.S., Japan, and Australia in beefing up security cooperation in the Indo-Pacific. The first in-person summit of leaders from all countries will be held later this month and will be attended by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi who is visiting the U.S. to join the United Nations General Assembly around the same time.

Yet in the midst of tensions between India and China in December last year, the New Development Bank (NDB), the BRICS investment bank, approved five investment projects for India. After a thaw between New Delhi and Beijing in February this year, when both sides agreed to disengage from Ladakh, China extended its support for India hosting the 2021 BRICS Summit.

Clear the geopolitical air around Afghanistan

The timing of the summit was crucial, coming in the wake of the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, and it was held just days after the announcement of the Taliban’s interim government.

The stakes are high for India, China, and Russia, each country having overlapping and somewhat conflicting interests in Afghanistan. Moscow and Beijing favor engaging the Taliban, which India has been cautious to do so far, though there have been some changes in approach in recent weeks.

On Tuesday (Aug. 31), the Indian envoy to Qatar, Deepak Mittal, met with Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanekzai, head of the Taliban's Political Office in Doha, who was sworn in as the country’s deputy foreign minister. This was the first meeting with the Taliban that India officially acknowledged.

While China has assured Afghanistan humanitarian assistance of approximately US$30 million, India too has expressed concern about the humanitarian crisis and the need for global assistance. Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin took the opportunity to criticize the withdrawal of U.S. troops and stressed Afghanistan should not pose a threat to its neighbors.

The summit also served as a point of respite from the current Afghanistan moment, as it gave the three powers a chance to focus on other issues. While the joint statement released at the end of the meeting pitched in favor of an “inclusive” Intra-Afghan dialogue and flagged the threat of using Afghan territory as a “terrorist sanctuary,” Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) was more guarded during his remarks and tried to highlight BRICS achievements in other areas rather than focusing on the beleaguered Central Asian country.

Tripartite nuance

The meeting provided three key takeaways on where India, China, and Russia stand in relation to each other as well as to the U.S.

Firstly, it signalled that while India is strengthening ties with the U.S., it still accords priority to Moscow when it comes to its immediate regional security.

Secondly, while BRICS provides India and China an avenue for cooperation amidst tensions, it also gives China a platform to project its economic and strategic importance globally.

Finally, while strains with Washington may have moved Moscow closer to Beijing, BRICS is important for Russia to assert its own relevance and show its foreign policy is not dictated by China.

Given the varying strategic priorities of India, China, and Russia and overlapping membership in other groupings, tangible security policy outcomes from BRICS summits remain unlikely for the foreseeable future.

However, with members accounting for 41% of the world’s population and 24% of global GDP, the group remains symbolically important. It is also an important vector for understanding the complex interrelatedness of India, China, and Russia in an age where the new geopolitical realities of Eurasia are rapidly transforming the global order.


Updated : 2021-09-21 10:43 GMT+08:00