Great expectations

One of the novelties of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) is that the grouping has no pre-summit sherpas of the kind we associate with, say, G20 or G8. That has some advantage and disadvantage. The disadvantage is that the easy option of prepositioning oneself by following the sherpas’ track leading to the summit is not available. On the other hand, the advantage is that the summit becomes lively and interesting since confabulations actually take place at the conclave between the big leaders who shape policy.

From the Indian perspective, the BRICS summit at Durban on March 26-27 is of special interest for three reasons. First, it is always an enchanting moment when a baby is born. That is how India will view the formal decision at Durban on the setting up of a BRICS development bank. The germane seeds were sown at the BRICS summit in New Delhi last March and there were anxious moments before the sprouts began appearing.

Of course, a long way lies ahead for the tender sapling to grow into a sturdy tree bearing fruits. Setting up a bank that would prompt a shamed World Bank to do soul-searching is not a small thing. Many issues, including some testy ones, remain to be sorted out. South Africa is, naturally, raring to go since the development bank will be a boon for Africa’s development. China too is keen, as the bank becomes an instrument of regional policy buttressing its dynamic diplomatic thrust in Africa. The bank’s capitalisation, voting rights, location, etc. – many issues are to be sorted out in the downstream of the Durban summit. Russia has aired the view that it may not be quite necessary at this stage to create bureaucratic superstructures and secretariats.
Russia is the initiator of the BRICS and has played a seminal role in choreographing the practices and culture of cooperation within the grouping. Quintessentially, Russia introduced a basis for working in concert on the basis of coincidence of interests. That is why, an entirely new concept that appeared in Moscow in the weekend takes the breath away. In an interview on Friday with the state news agency Itar-Tass, Russian President Vladimir Putin has proposed a momentous idea to transform the BRICS by adding new sinews to its strategic cooperation. He said, “We invite our partners to gradually transform BRICS from a dialogue forum that coordinates approaches to a limited number of issues into a full-scale strategic cooperation mechanism that will allow us to look for solutions to key issues of global politics together.” Putin’s idea involves a grand strategy to transform BRICS.

The leitmotif of BRICS so far has been largely economic. If it catches world attention, it is because the economies of BRICS member countries have become the leading growth centres in the world economy. If it irritates the west, it is because BRICS has become a vector of the emerging multipolar world order. If BRICS threatens the west, it is because it advocates an overhaul of the Bretton Woods system so as to make the international and economic architecture more balanced and just and reflective of the shifts in the locus of the world economy.

Security cooperation

The BRICS wetted its toes in the political sphere only recently by beginning to articulate common approaches on a few issues such as Syria, Afghanistan, Iran, etc. Meanwhile, Moscow is pushing for increased security cooperation and the discussions at Durban will cover counterterrorism and military threats in cyberspace. Moscow has barely disguised its interest in evolving the BRICS into an all-rounder rather than remain a night watchman – to use an analogy from the world of cricket. Putin’s proposal underscores that in the Russian estimation BRICS, which is celebrating its fifth anniversary at Durban, has or is steadily acquiring the maturity and requisite self-confidence – and, most important, inner harmony – to take on global political and strategic challenges as well. Interestingly, Putin unveiled this idea while Chinese President Xi Jinping is in Moscow on an official visit.

Prime minister Manmohan Singh’s meeting with Putin on the sidelines of the BRICS summit promises to be fruitful. New defence deals are in the pipeline. Also, the Russian telecom giant Sistema’s travails in the Indian market and the uncertainties that appeared on the path of India-Russian cooperation in nuclear energy have eased. However, what will give new verve to India-Russia partnership is the decision taken by the cabinet in Delhi on Tuesday to give nod to Kudankulam 3 and 4. The government decision granting administrative and financial sanction for the two new reactors paves the way for the signing of the general framework agreement (GFA) with the Russian companies supplying the nuclear equipment, which in turn will spell out the terms and conditions for building the two 1000 MW VVER-type Russian reactors at Kudankulam.
Equally, Manmohan Singh’s meeting with Chinese president Xi Jinping draws attention since this will be their first meeting and will set the tempo for the PM’s visit to China, which might take place in June. Xi’s recent statement during a media interaction on China-India relations proposed a 5-point plan to “bolster” cooperation between the two countries. The message that comes out is two-fold. One, notwithstanding the dim prospects for a settlement of the border dispute in a conceivable future, the two countries should continue with the present approach to “push forward” the overall relationship. Two, the countries should “accommodate each other’s core concerns and properly handle problems and differences.” Xi seemed to hint at China’s unhappiness over the Indian policies on Tibet.

China is in no hurry to settle the border dispute until a propitious climate appears in the overall relationship. To be sure, ahead of the meeting in Durban, Xi’s statement puts a dampener on any great expectations of a breakthrough in the India-China relationship that could enable BRICS to make the sort of quantum jump as a global troubleshooter that Putin visualises.
(The writer is a former ambassador)

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