Despite efforts by some of its members to convert the group into an instrument of bloc politics, BRICS has remained neutral. Despite similar efforts directed at causing disharmony within the 2023 G20, the proceedings have gone on smoothly, writes Prof. Madhav Das Nalapat
The XV meeting of the BRICS Big Five (one of them attending virtually) that took place during the week in Johannesburg drew international attention on a scale not seen before. The reason was the perception in international media that the association would change from its present neutrality to a stance that opposes the Atlanticist powers, specifically the United States. This did not happen. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has thereby ensured that the autonomy of India where foreign (and domestic) policy is concerned remains intact.
Despite the fault line created within the UNSC and the G20 (to name just two international bodies) by the intensification since February 2022 of the conflict in Ukraine, India has remained on the best of terms with both the Russian Federation as well as the United States. Within BRICS, India was clear that the bloc politics of Cold War 2.0 needed to be avoided, and that the platform should continue to remain neutral. As a corollary, it was made clear that any new member should be carefully and unanimously chosen, so that bloc politics did not creep into the selections.
All six of the new members are on good terms with India, and among them only Iran, partly as a consequence of the scrapping of the nuclear deal under President Trump and partly because of its clerical regime, can be considered hostile to the Atlanticist powers. Efforts made by some in the group aimed at bringing in additional members, at least two of which were closely aligned to Cold War 2.0 bloc politics, was put aside in deference to the view of the Indian side that BRICS needed to remain a neutral platform even after it was expanded by six new members to BRICS Plus.
Both Brazil and South Africa, the other two members of the Global South within the current BRICS framework, were on board with the Indian stand that the platform ought not to become an instrument of bloc politics and recrimination.
PUTIN ACTS AS A FRIEND
India’s success at maintaining a balance within BRICS between the two competing blocs in the new Cold War has been unwelcome news to the PRC, which under its present leadership seeks to dilute the friendly relationships that India has with the powers (the US and Russia) that are the principal protagonists in a conflict in which Ukraine has become a proxy for NATO. It had been informally sought by an important country in Asia that President V.V. Putin come in person to the G20 Summit that is to take place in less than two weeks at Delhi.
His physical presence at the conference venue would have resulted in the 2023 Delhi Summit being at risk of setting at naught the immense work done by several delegations in the preparation of policy briefs intended to better promote growth across the board, and across the globe, and not just in the nineteen countries that are part of the G20 together with the European Union. Brazil and South Africa joined hands with India to champion the cause of several other countries as well, most of them being in the Global South. Instead, the 2023 Summit would have witnessed a cacophony of accusations and counter accusations by the two sides at each other, given the passions that the Ukraine war has ignited within both the G7 as well as the Russian Federation.
A malicious trope had been assiduously spread that President Putin had avoided going to the BRICS Summit in South Africa “in order to prevent his arrest under the international warrant issued in his name” thanks to the efforts of the G7 countries.
The fact is that there is no way that the President of South Africa, Cyril Ramaphosa, would have detained the President of Russia, a country that together with India had always stood by the African National Congress during the dismal years when South Africa was in the grip of apartheid. However, the very presence of Putin in Johannesburg would have shifted international media focus away from the work being done by BRICS to the visit of the President of the Russian Federation. In order to avoid such a diversion, he disappointed troublemakers, and made sure that his presence would only be virtual.
Interestingly, the very country that had informally lobbied to ensure that President Putin avoided going to the BRICS Summit in South Africa had been hyperactive in seeking to ensure his physical presence at the New Delhi G20 Summit in September. Once again, immediately after Moscow’s clarification regarding the physical absence of President Putin from the Delhi Summit, the same malicious trope has been spread that this decision was because of the possibility of arrest once President Putin arrived in New Delhi. In actuality, there was no way that the Russian President would be at risk of arrest in a country that is not even a signatory to the international convention that calls on international arrest warrants of the kind issued against the Russian President, unlike South Africa, which has.
As a consequence of his longstanding friendship with Prime Minister Modi, the Russian President resisted powerful voices, especially from an influential nearby country that sought to ensure that he go to Delhi for the G20 Summit. Instead of obliging such voices, the Kremlin publicly communicated to the Indian side that Putin would, instead, of coming to the Summit, remain in Russia. Being a man whose words need to be taken seriously, it is likely that there will be a spurt of activity on the Ukrainian front during the period when the 2023 G20 Summit is taking place.
The ostensible reason given by Moscow for Putin’s absence is after all his “preoccupation with the Special Military Operation” in Ukraine. By his statesmanlike decision to skip the meeting, perhaps even virtually, President Putin has shown that despite efforts by the G7 to terminally weaken him and in the process his country, he maintains to the extent present circumstances permit Russia’s independence in foreign policy, especially where friends such as India are concerned. It needs to be said to the credit of another friend of Prime Minister Modi, US President Joseph Robinette Biden Jr, that he had confirmed his physical participation at the G20 Summit much before it was officially stated by the Kremlin that President Putin would not be making the visit to India, at least not at this time.
OUTCOME DOCUMENT NOT CRITICAL
There has been speculation about whether there will be an outcome document signed by all the members at the Summit. The fact is that the 2023 G20 mechanism created by India has ensured the completion of several policy papers that would serve as guideposts for the future. An outcome document would be icing on the cake, but would not be critical in judging the success of the 2023 Indian Presidency of the G20. At the New Delhi Summit, India is likely to present the case made by Prime Minister Modi earlier, that the African Union (AU) be included as the 21st member of the group, following the precedent created by the admission of the European Union to the G20, which in reality comprises only nineteen countries, the EU being the twentieth member.
There has been intense diplomatic activity by the Indian side led by the Prime Minister and assisted by the External Affairs Minister to try for the admission of the AU into the G20, perhaps in the 2023 Summit itself. The expectation is that the Modi Initiative will be supported by President Biden. The G20 would thereafter become the G21. Africa is a continent with enormous future potential, and the admission of the AU at the request of India would strengthen the G20, just as the admission of South Africa strengthened what till that time was simply BRIC but then became BRICS and will be BRICS Plus by January 2024.
In a year when high explosives are literally going off with abandon in significant parts of the globe, the fact that India was able to navigate its way through such a minefield in both the BRICS as well as in the G20 without an implosion is a feat that may not be welcome to hostile powers, but is evidence of the success of the Modi government in weaving through the obstacle race that international relations has become since the onset of Covid-19 and the Ukraine war.
Despite efforts by some of its members to convert the group into an instrument of bloc politics, BRICS has remained neutral. Despite similar efforts directed at causing disharmony within the 2023 G20, the proceedings have gone on smoothly. India has in 2023 shown that it is the UNSC that is the loser when the country with the largest population on the globe continues to be kept outside the list of Permanent Members of that now fractured body.