There has been a certain amount of discomfort in the Western world over the with the addition of six new members — Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, Argentina, Ethiopia and Iran.
Not surprising, since this expansion is seen as expanding China’s clout in the Global South, something which the West would like to prevent.
One such Western concern has been expressed by two academics, former Indian chief economic advisor Arvind Subramanian, and Josh Felman, principal with a human resources consulting firm, in an in Project Syndicate.
They argue that India should probably quit BRICS because it has become more political in its orientation, and also because BRICS, originally conceived by Goldman Sachs as the new growth engines of the world economy, now houses more fading stars like Argentina and Egypt, and fossil-fuel dependent economies like Saudi Arabia or the UAE.
India is the lone bright spot (apart from China).
Subramanian and Felman write: “Argentina is teetering, yet again, on the edge of financial collapse, and South Africa remains saddled with astronomically high unemployment and profound governance and fiscal challenges. Egypt needs support from the IMF to ensure any semblance of macroeconomic stability, and even Saudi Arabia and the UAE are living on borrowed time: a concerted global push on climate change will leave them stranded with devalued hydrocarbon assets.”
The authors offer two other reasons for India to quit BRICS. One is that it will become more political, and more China-dominated, which makes it less possible for India to be as non-aligned as it would like to be.
Also, barring two countries among the new inductees, most of the other four are autocracies.
The other reason is global governance and the search for a new global order, which, the authors say, cannot be delivered by China, Russia or Saudi Arabia.
They write: “Among other things, the other BRICS members aspire to dethrone the US dollar as the world’s dominant currency, and to provide alternative development resources and emergency funding to poorer countries. But these objectives imply that a better world would be based on renminbi dominance, Belt and Road Initiative-type lending, and a greater reluctance among official creditors to write-off debts when poor countries face crises.”
There is an easy way to rebut these arguments.
First, India’s leverage with the West comes not from joining that camp entirely, but from its ability to take an independent stand based on its own interests, which can sometimes coincide with that of BRICS, even one dominated by China.
Second, the fact that some or most of the BRICS countries are autocracies does not mean common ground cannot be found.
If America can live with an Islamist Turkey within NATO, if it can keep providing a failing state like Pakistan with endless resources, and if it could even promote Chinese interests (till recently) in the name of containing the former Soviet Union, surely India can live with autocracies within BRICS.
Till its recent fallout, Saudi Arabia was one of the USA’s staunchest allies in West Asia.
Asking India to quit BRICS because it does not align with Western interests is like asking China to give up its UN permanent seat since it wants to create its own new world order.
China will always remain in global forums like the UN, NSG (Nuclear Suppliers Group), or WTO.
This is not because these organisations will toe the Chinese line, but because it gives China the ability to block any moves against it in these fora.
India must remain in BRICS for the same reason: it is the only way it can block China from dominating this organisation forever.
Third, the attraction of BRICS is not only that it is an anti-Western alliance, or that China has the money to help many countries in the Global South, but because India is a part of it.
It is foolish to believe that any country would want to enter an alliance where only China’s voice counts.
It is the existence of India in BRICS that emboldens countries to seek an entry or remain in it.
In fact, even Russia, which has fallen into a deep Chinese embrace due to Western sanctions after the Ukraine war, would want India to be in BRICS in order to provide a counter-weight to Chinese hegemony.
Fourth, sometimes exiting an organisation gives you less clout than remaining in it.
Take our own SAARC, for example. India has no use for the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation where Pakistan’s only purpose is to get in the way of a consensus, and prevent India from dominating it.
India can promote freer trade and closer economic cooperation with the other south Asian neighbours without SAARC, but remaining in this moribund organisation is needed for a negative purpose: preventing Pakistan from inviting China into it, or organising our remaining neighbours into an anti-India alliance.
Fifth, India’s presence in BRICS is what gives the West the incentive to take it more seriously, giving it more political and economic space to grow based on its own understanding of core national interests.
Today, the West is okay with giving India a permanent seat in the UN Security Council because of its proximity to Russia and antagonism to China.
This is what made the West accept India’s nuanced stand on Ukraine.
If India had dumped BRICS or aligned itself fully with the West, we would have lost all leverage with the West.
We would be struggling with even costlier oil, when Russia was willing to give us discounts.
Consider how few options the European parts of NATO have had in developing a more nuanced response to the Ukraine-Russia war — which has cost them more than the US.
India is not in this position because it has strategic options it can use by being part of many groups, including BRICS.
Sixth, Subramanian and Felman believe that BRICS wants out of a dollar-dependent world, the substitute for which would be a renminbi-dominated one.
Actually, India does not want either a dollar- or renminbi-dominated world.
It wants a multipolar world, where there is space for even rupee- denominated trades.
India’s presence in BRICS will ensure that the world does not suddenly shift from dollar to renminbi dependence, with damaging consequences for India.
India’s membership of BRICS helps us carve out strategic space for ourselves. Asking us to quit BRICS is like China asking us to quit the QUAD, the US-India-Japan-Australia alliance to counter China. We need to ride both boats for what they are worth.
Subramanian and Felman are wrong. If we quit BRICS, we would be giving China a free ride to global dominance.
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