The New Game Changers

Balaji Chandramohan argues that the BRICS are here to stay and examines India’s role in their alliance.

Brazil, Russia, India, China and the new entrant South Africa are not neighbors. Nor have they shared ancient history or cultural mutuality. Yet the first decade of the twenty-first century has witnesses these “middle powers” teaming up, sometimes to the frustration of the traditional Western order.

Although skeptics have dismissed the concept of the BRIC or the new BRICS as an alliance without cement, it makes sense for these countries to cooperate. While NATO is bombing Libya and the United States remain entrenched in two long wars in the Middle East, emerging powers are seeking security — particularly economic security. They seek a global balance of power that equally serves their interests as it does the West’s.

In 2008, America’s National Intelligence Council recognized the shifting trend, predicting that,

The whole international system — as constructed following WW II — will be revolutionized. Not only will new players — Brazil, Russia, India and China — have a seat at the international high table, they will bring new stakes and rules of the game.

During the most recent BRICS summit in China, India’s prime minister, Manmohan Singh, said that the challenge facing these nations was to “harness the vast potential that exists among [them].”

We are rich in resources, material and human. We are strengthened by the complementarities of our resource endowments. We share the vision of inclusive growth and prosperity in the world. We stand for a rule based, stable and predictable global order. We respect each other’s political systems and stages of development. We value diversity and plurality. Our priority is the rapid socioeconomic transformation of our people and those of the developing world. Our cooperation is neither directed against nor at the expense of anyone.

The “developing country” tag is one that unites not just the BRICS but countries as far apart as Indonesia, Malaysia, Turkey, even South Korea. While much of the Western world is struggling to recover from a recession that it home made, China has asserted itself more forcefully on the world stage; Russia has been reminiscing about its good old days as a superpower while Brazil and India are trying to finding a place for themselves as great powers.

India is mostly concerned about stability within its own region and the Middle East. From this perspective, it is not at all clear whether it would benefit from standing with the protesters demanding political reform in the Arab world; with China and Russia or with the current managers of the international system, NATO and the United States.

India’s initial response to the popular uprisings was a balanced one therefore. It has an economic as well as a strategic interest in supporting democratic sentiments across the world to foster and strengthen plural and secular societies like its own. But its foreign policy hasn’t been driven by self-interest alone nor by an unrealistically strict commitment to national sovereignty. While it hesitates to provide moralistic running commentary on world events, India is willing to help build a more liberal global system.

The BRICS is a game changer in international relations but the critics are right to point out one possible source of discord among them. Two of its members — Brazil and India — aspire to permanent United Nations Security Council membership while two others — China and Russia — certainly intend to guard their privileged positions as the only non-Western power brokers in the organization.