Francis Kornegay: BRICS long-term vision (cont)

The pygmy elephant in the room of the Overseas Research Foundation’s long-term vision (LTV) initiative for BRICS is a little focused on acronym, 'RIC' – as in Russia-India-China. They form the ministerial trilateral between the three Eurasian giants for sustaining a dialogue on their bilateral relationships within a sort of ‘strategic triangle.’ Hence: ‘pygmy elephant.’ It involves foreign ministers, not heads-of-state. But it is a pachyderm nonetheless, since this pygmy gave birth to that giant called BRICS. Forget about ‘Jungle Jim’ of Wall Street fame, the Tarzan of emerging market capitalism! Thus does RIC bear greater scrutiny than it receives. This is because within this triangle lay the contradictions that have a direct bearing on the BRICS potential as a vanguard emerging powers platform for advancing the developing world’s global governance priorities beyond a purely economic agenda. 

The RIC precursor to BRICS

Of course it doesn’t take much erudition to understand the real elephant caged within the RIC chamber. It is the ambivalent relationship between India and China full stop – the main contradiction that, by extension, will determine how far BRICS goes as well. There are Sino-Russian issues but these pale beside China-India issues and whether or not ‘Sino-India’ can actually become ‘Chindia’ - which, in turn, will determine the fate of BRICS and any long-term vision that might emerge therefrom.

In placing things in perspective, it should be stressed that at this point these concerns should be more of a track 2 preoccupation amongst the BRICS intelligentsia that has blossomed out of the think-tank/academic fora and symposia, than a concern at the official level of heads-of-state and their sherpas. At official level such geopolitical issues are off the table though there no doubt are undercurrents beneath the surface of diplomatic niceties.

BRICS is not considered an appropriate forum for ironing out geopolitical issues. Which is why the notion of BRICS assuming a global political leadership role is more than a bit fanciful. RIC is another matter. Therein lies the challenge to BRICSters of academic/think-tank vintage. At this level everything should be fair game. But if, because of the differentially structured research cultures of our five countries, this is constrained due to diverse political cultures determining the parameters of what is permissible at BRICS-track 2, then its value is called into question.

This is the inadvertent problematic ORF has introduced into such a learned sanctum. This may not have been their intention. But it is a good thing nevertheless. Why? Because there are a whole host of emerging power dynamics within minilateral frameworks in need of honest and open unpacking.

There is no reason why the overlap between BRICS and IBSA academics and think-tankers should not be openly addressing both BRICS and IBSA – and RIC – within the same context. The idea that either RIC or IBSA are beyond the pale within a BRICS discourse among academics is a preposterous notion if the intellectual integrity and autonomy of these exercises are to be deemed credible. Of course this begs the question of how much leeway the different academic delegations have in relation to their political principles. If there is very little leeway and/or it is unevenly balanced then the outcome of a long-term vision exercise for BRICS may be a waste of time. It should have policy relevance where track 2 BRICSters are able to interrogate and produce positions and recommendations, not just on BRICS but more broadly on IBSA and RIC as well.

Tripartite synergy?

This is not to imply that there should actually be a merger between BRICS and IBSA or that this should even be advocated. These two grouping must remain independent given the differences in their minilateral utility for their respective members at the heads-of-state level. Furthermore, there exist a measure of complementarity between them, including the RIC tri-ministerial, so that an open or tacitly ‘confederated’ relationship might be contemplated, especially if the RIC forum could be elevated to a heads-of-state level. At the track 2 level, there should be sufficient autonomy for placing such long-term vision options on the table. That said, what does the limitations of BRICS say about the RIC problematic and especially its Sino-Indian dynamic?

Given the fact that RIC is actually the precursor to BRICS, an interesting reflection has been offered by Prof. Varun Sahni of Jawaharlal Nehru University: “It may make a lot of economic and political sense for Brazil and South Africa to bring China and Russia into regular dialogue. It may also be in the interest of China and Russia for the BRICS to be strengthened. However, Brazil and South Africa must be willing to get entangled in the complex geopolitics of Eurasia.”

Much to dissect here in arriving at a clearer understanding of RIC-BRICS-IBSA dynamics. The last sentence is a throwaway at least in geopolitical terms, economically perhaps not.

South Africa’s giant coal-to-gas conglomerate, Sasol, for example, has a major presence in Uzbekistan. But unless one can contemplate unlikely ‘peace support’ interventions by South Africa and/or Brazil in the Fergana Valley, it is hard to imagine how these two southern oceanic powers could become entangled up north, Eurasia way. But by the RIC forum, on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) inviting in Brazil to make a geopolitical statement out of what had been a catchy Wall Street acronym, the strained and apparently futile three-way discourse within RIC did transform into something more positive.

Here, Prof. Sahni is on to something, not just in how the ‘B’ in RIC may have facilitated more of a Sino-Russian discourse (which, in fact, was already in play within the SCO), but how it has brought China and India into more regular dialogue. More on this later, because Prof. Sahni avoids this angle. About South Africa joining BRIC, he has this to say: “China’s invitation to South Africa to join the BRICS Summit at Sanya in 2011 was an initiative that was welcomed by the other three countries; indeed, it could be said that they had virtually no choice in the matter.”

In fact, they did have a choice in the matter which South African President Jacob Zuma did much to shape through a tireless BRIC diplomacy leading up to Sanya.

The invitation was by consensus with Beijing only credited with a titular role as the rotational host though the bilateral closeness between Beijing and Tshwane certainly helped. The fact of the matter is that South Africa never should have been excluded from Yekaterinburg in the first place as the quartet at this meeting effectively ended the ‘Outreach Five’ caucus that had become an emerging powers staple at G8 summits with South Africa being among the five (along with Mexico). It was South Africa’s exclusion ‘at the creation’ that inspired this author to pen a ‘Global Insight’ titled ‘Will a BRIC Fall on IBSA.’ South Africa’s exclusion sparked debate about whether or not it should even clamour for membership, pursuing instead an independent and more manifestly pan-Africanist path in navigating relations with the BRIC quartet.

South Africa’s absence ‘at the creation’ sent a disturbing signal accentuating the prospects of Africa’s – not just South Africa’s – marginalization. This actually threatened to de-legitimize BRIC at a time when every BRIC except Russia was mounting a major scramble for Africa’s resources, competitively entering South Africa’s geoeconomic space. This ‘space’ is now taking off to boot! In the circumstance of Africa not being home to an equivalent aspiring great power megastate, South Africa, as the continent’s premier economy had to be accepted into BRIC, both for itself and for Africa. This is a uniqueness to South Africa’s membership in BRICS that has only sunk in with difficulty.

Can Sino-India become ‘Chindia’?

But back to the RIC dimension of BRICS: if this quintet is to gain momentum and, in the process, formulate a ‘long-term vision,’ Sino-India will have to gravitate closer to ‘Chindia.’ A transparent tripartite synergy between RIC-BRICS-IBSA will also need careful nurturing. Indeed, what stands out in this trinity is the letter ‘I.’ Just as South Africa is the ‘Gondwanan pivot’ in the Indo-Atlantic southern hemisphere, India occupies a central though complicated straddle position between global North and South.

It occupies the southern-most point of an Indo-European geocultural Eurasian corridor linking aspirational ‘Silk Road’ communications with an Indo-Pacific radiating west toward the eastern and southern African littoral on the one hand and east toward the ASEAN Australasian-Pacific. While it navigates a northern Eurasian agenda via the RIC ministerial, its undeveloped leveraging asset is the IBSA potential for elaborating a global South transoceanic governance architecture complemented by links being forged in the Asia-Pacific with Japan and Australia. Suggestions appearing in the Indian press that it should abandon IBSA because it has been made redundant by BRICS and/or that it must make a zero-sum choice regarding either of them on the one hand and Australian initiatives on the other are suspect in terms of Delhi’s aspirational great power leadership potential.

Because of India’s unenviable geopolitical encirclement in South Asia (thanks to Britain’s decolonizing partitioning of the Raj triggering an ongoing civil war of partition with a Pakistan allied to China), Delhi has to pursue a multi-axial strategy that is both Afro-Asian, via IBSA, and ‘Look East’, toward the Asia-Pacific. If China imagines Delhi pursuing a counter-encirclement containment strategy through such ‘Look East’ linkages, perhaps it has only itself to blame for the humiliating denialist strategy it employs in keeping India out of the SCO and out of the UN Security Council. BRICS is purely one among several means-to-an-end for Beijing, which is just as pleased in carving out a tacit ‘G2’ arrangement with Washington as it is in countering the US-led G8 ‘caucus’ within the G20 at the head of a  BRICS+6 ‘caucus.’

In fact, Beijing’s ‘carrot and stick’ ambivalence toward India is motivated by its ambition to be greater Asia’s sole superpower. Because of China’s short-sighted aversion to a power-sharing understanding with India, it plays into neo-cold war strategies that Washington ought to abandon, like bypassing the SCO in pursuing a regional cooperative security transition in Afghanistan. Were India and Pakistan members of the SCO, the US and NATO would have accommodated the SCO in stabilizing the Hindu-Kush which, in turn, might work in favour of an Indo-Pak rapprochement as well.

This would also be to America’s benefit instead of its ‘divide and rule’ cherry-picking tendencies to maneuver bilaterally. Northern Eurasia is a landscape of competitive regionalisms in need of harmonizing. Beijing’s strategic spitefulness of India results in lose-lose for everyone. But just as it is unlikely that South Africa and Brazil should become entangled in Eurasian geopolitics via BRICS, does India really want to become entangled in the Sino-Japanese geopolitics of the Asia-Pacific?

As the second coming of Shinzo of the Quadrilateral searches for a Strategic Diamond in Tokyo’s face-off with Beijing, the spectre of Delhi being drawn into a more overt Sino-containment strategy cannot be ignored. What this means is India being caught in the cross-fire of rival nationalisms between China and Japan, something that has already forced the Obama administration into recalibrating its Asian ‘pivot’ strategy. Indeed, a revisiting of Shinzo  Abe’s Quadrilateral was a recommendation that emerged out ORF’s partnership with the Heritage Foundation conference on the future of US-Indian relations in April in Washington. This would definitely have debatable implications for any BRICS long-term visionary global political leadership aspirations.

The geopolitical-economics of individual BRICS cannot be abstracted from the overall transforming of the global strategic landscape in its different multi-regional polarities. This is the matrix that BRICS (and IBSA) academics and think-tankers need to tackle head-on instead of the academic politeness that currently passes for track 2 engagements which avoid concentrating the minds of the political principals.

But ORF’s BRICS-LTV begs a lot of these questions and therefore serves as a fitting point of departure for taking BRICS track 2 discourses to a more dynamic level of cross-cultural intellectual engagement.

  • This analysis, BRICS long-term vision (cont): the pygmy that gave rise to a giant, is a companion piece to Long-term visioning for BRICS - and IBSA?, by Francis A Kornegay, SAFPI Brief 36, June 2013.  It can be accessed here.

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