It is rare for economic groupings to establish international political clout (the Group of Seven, or G-7, is an exception). It is rarer still for the idea of any power bloc emerging from an investment firm. Yet the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China) concept, germinated by Jim O’Neill of Goldman Sachs, has not only become reality, but in its 10th year has, with the inclusion of South Africa, expanded to BRICS.
This primarily economic bloc, which might enlarge to include Indonesia, Turkey and possibly others in due course, also has the potential to transform into a political force that could in time rival or even replace the G-7. One reason is the recognition among these countries that further economic integration between the existing members and the inclusion of new ones will depend on political decisions.
There is, however, a reluctant realization that such political decisions will have to be preceded by a modus vivendi on the serious differences within BRICS, notably between China and India, China and Russia, and China and Brazil.
These differences notwithstanding, BRIC has sought to develop a political voice and entity since the inaugural 2009 summit in Yekaterinburg. The 2010 summit in Brasilia discussed Iran and nuclear weapons in addition to the usual talk on the global economic situation and reform of financial institutions. The 2011 summit in Sanya also pronounced on the use of force.
A recurring theme in all these summits has been the issue of global governance, particularly the reform of the United Nations (UN) and the UN Security Council (UNSC). The UNSC reform had significant resonance in the 2011 summit, given that all five BRICS are currently members of the world’s most exclusive decision-making body.
Yet Russia’s and China’s support for permanent UNSC memberships of Brazil, India and South Africa is both less wholesome and significant than that of the US (at least in India’s case). As any enlargement of the UNSC will have to be approved by the parliaments of the five permanent members, the votes of those members with genuine parliaments will clearly be weightier than the others’ (especially the Russia’s and China’s). Thus, if the veto-wielding members of BRICS are serious about UNSC reform, then they should also use their power of persuasion to garner the support of other non-BRICS permanent members.
In this context, the current debate between BRICS and other powers on the use of force is significant. While the categorical assertion in the Sanya Declaration that the BRICS “share the principle that the use of force should be avoided” is commendable as a tenet, ruling out the use of force under any circumstances cannot be a viable policy option. Indeed, at the regional level all the BRICS countries have resorted to force at one time or another when other means of persuasion have failed. India’s interventions in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and the Maldives are evidence of this pragmatism.
In fact, even before the use of force was categorically dismissed in the Sanya Declaration, India and the other BRICS nations supported the unanimous UNSC resolution on Cote d’Ivoire, which authorized the use of “all necessary means” (including force) to protect civilians. In addition, China, India and Russia have also committed warships to the ongoing anti-piracy operations off the coast of Somalia. Despite its stated abhorrence to use force, India has not abjured this option during these operations.
For BRICS to realize their promise of becoming serious political players on the global stage they will have to sort out their own differences, develop a common strategic vision, and establish clear guidelines on issues such as the international use of force. Otherwise, they risk become just bricks in the wall preventing the emergence of a new world order.
W Pal Sidhu is senior fellow at the Center on International University. He writes on strategic affairs every fortnight
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