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Interview with Amb. P S Raghavan on BRICS and India in the Multilateral Forum; By Sundeep Kumar S

Image Courtesy: CGTN

Article 63/2020

Amb. P S Raghavan 

Amb. P S Raghavan is a former Indian diplomat who has been India’s Ambassador to Russia, Ireland and the Czech Republic. He was also the Secretary in the Ministry of External Affairs, overseeing India’s external economic relations. He is currently the Chairman of the National Security Advisory Board of the Government of India.


The idea of a multilateral forum comprising major developing nations (Brazil, Russia, India, and China) began to find its roots with the turn of the new century. The main objective that led to the formation of BRIC in 2009 at Yekaterinburg (Russia) was to strengthen multipolarity by bringing together the four major developing nations around the globe and to democratise global economic governance by establishing an alternative to the G8 (now G7). South Africa was added to the forum at the Sanya Summit in 2011 and hence BRIC became BRICS. This inclusion was strongly backed by China and it ensured a representation from the African continent.

Some of the achievements of BRICS since its inception includes institutionalising annual summits with head of states, the formation of the New Development Bank (NDB), the Contingency Reserve Agreement (CRA) and the grouping identifying itself as a ‘Strategic Partnership’. Primarily a multilateral forum with the aim to make the international financial system more democratic, the BRICS finds itself functioning within a limited scope for cooperation due to its heterogeneity and bilateral differences between some of its members.

A paradigm shift in geopolitics since 2016 has further tested BRICS in fulfilling its purpose in the long run. The U.S-China trade war and the deterioration of ties between them over disputes in the South China Sea and the Indo-Pacific region have brought China and Russia closer than ever before in the post-war era. Indo-China relations have also been strained after the Doklam standoff in 2017 and the ongoing border confrontation in the Ladakh region. The COVID-19 global pandemic has forced nations around the world to look within to revive their economies which adds to the challenges faced by multilateralism. It is hence pertinent to look in and reorient some of our perceptions on BRICS in the current milieu of geopolitical dynamics. More specifically, it is important to understand the Indian agenda and view of BRICS.

Q & A

Q1. Will the US policy in the Indo-Pacific under Joe Biden’s presidency influence the functioning of BRICS?

Ans. For that, we should distinguish between what our interests are in the Indo-Pacific and what our interests are in BRICS. But I think of greater importance to us within BRICS is R I and C because B and S are outliers which you also wrote in your introduction and I have written it in my monograph which was published in 2016. BRICS actually started as an economic group, in fact, a grouping which sought to leverage the economic strengths of these countries and bring them together to achieve some economic goals for it in the international economic and financial architecture. Political connotations and political issues were added on to BRICS, as I noted it in my monograph, in 2012 when it actually got greater impetus and then onwards BRICS has been sort of pronouncing views on political issues of various kinds. But as again you have noted, as you see what is happening across the border with China, the bilateral commonalities are reducing and the bilateral convergence of views on political issues around the world is diluting. South Africa now is going its own way and Brazil also has completely changed its political orientation with the change of its leadership. So as you saw from this recent BRICS meeting also, it is very easy to produce a long communique and it is an art to put in language to paper over the differences and to only stress what you agree on.

Anyway, I have diverted a bit into that. Our objective in the Indo-Pacific is to try to see that the Indian and the Pacific Oceans do not come under the hegemony of any one power because it is very important for us. We are in the middle of the Indian Ocean, our entire foreign trade comes through the Indian Ocean, 90% of it in fact, and most of our energy supplies as well, and then you have a whole lot of issues over there, you have drugs, you have human trafficking, arms peddling and also we are sitting in a very strategic position there between two chokepoints of Hormuz and the Malacca. So our convergence with the US in the Indo-Pacific and therefore the QUAD is that China, as it rises to become a dominant global power, is also rising to become a challenge to America’s position as a superpower.

Right from 2000 onwards one of the strands of the India-US relationship with India being a democracy in Asia is a natural partner for the US in the region, although expressions such as balancing or counterweight to China or containing China are never used. But it is understood there is a convergence of views on China. This is the strategic underpinning to the India-US relationship besides all the other aspects of the relationship. This has been the underpinning since 2000 onwards since the time of Clinton, George W Bush, Obama, and Trump. To that extent, Biden will also continue the US policy in the Indo-Pacific. The US policy in the Indo-Pacific essentially is to try preventing China from totally dominating the Indo-Pacific, thereby extending support to US allies in the region who are Japan, Korea, Australia, New Zealand. The QUAD and the Indo-Pacific initiative with India is essentially to see that India also joins in this effort to prevent China’s hegemony in the region. What is likely to happen is Biden will not use the same kind of language that Trump uses, and the US is likely to be less aggressive with China. Where that balance falls is what we need to see. We felt, for example, that during the second half of the Obama administration when the US was less forceful with China and China got away with a lot during that period. With Trump, probably the correction went to the other end of the spectrum.. So if we can go somewhere between the two we can still hope to have cooperation with the US and other countries in the Indo-Pacific with the view to protecting our economic and security interests in the Indo-Pacific.

Having said that we also have a huge continental interest. The Indo-Pacific interest covers the maritime domain, but we also have very very strong continental strategic interests. If you go just a little above Afghanistan you have Tajikistan and if we look at Tajikistan, I am just mentioning one of the Central Asian countries, it is separated from Pakistan occupied Kashmir (PoK) by just a sliver of land. So if tomorrow Biden continues with Trump’s policy of leaving Afghanistan, the fallout of that is something that India have to manage and the American partnership, at least as of today, is not going to be much helpful in managing that situation. That is where our continental partnerships come in. We have a RIC dialogue and an important organization which is very underrated is the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO). It is not as important as an organization itself, as for the opportunity that it gives to India for a stronger presence in Central Asia, alongside Russia and China You can see whether you can monitor what they are doing and also whether you can stamp your own influence in a region that is in your extended neighborhood and can impact on your strategic well being.

BRICS is somewhere there because it includes Russia, India, and China. Though BRICS started and is continuing with a momentum that it has, its core importance is within the RIC and the SCO for this region. So if I have answered your question, we need to balance both the maritime strategy and the continental strategy. And therefore with the BRICS, RIC, and SCO on one side and the QUAD, Malabar, Indo-Pacific strategy on the other side, we need to be balancing the two.

Q2. BRICS has consistently emphasized an “Afghan-led, Afghan-owned” peace process. On that note, how will BRICS position itself in the Afghanistan question once the ongoing implementation of the peace deal that was signed in February 2020 is completed?

Ans. The answer for this is already there in my earlier answer. BRICS cannot position itself to do anything on Afghanistan because BRICS have no common position on Afghanistan and the intensity of interest among BRICS countries is not the same. Brazil and South Africa are not as interested in Afghanistan as Russia, India, and China. Therefore, I think when you are talking about the position on Afghanistan, you should look not at BRICS but SCO. As I said you need to deemphasize the political significance of BRICS as we go along and focus on its economic significance and what it can do, where there is a convergence of interest and Afghanistan I don’t feel is one of them. There are various subjects like Afghanistan, cross-border terrorism, India’s claim for permanent membership of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). On all these, you don’t expect BRICS to have a common position and it cannot have a common position. So we should not try to impose on BRICS what it cannot do.

Q3. What are the common grounds for cooperation in the current scenario for India and China within the scope of BRICS?

Ans. Again, we should not confuse multilateral relationships with bilateral. In fact, whenever we join any international organization, we are always saying that we should not bring bilateral issues into an international organization. We said bilateral issues should not come into SAARC. Similarly, when we joined the SCO, we said bilateral issues should not be brought in SCO. Right from the beginning, BRICS has said very clearly that it will not deal with bilateral issues. Because bilateral issues can only be dealt with one to one, based on the leverages we have with each other, and the issues we have with each other. So BRICS is a reverse, in the sense, if bilateral relations deteriorate beyond the point, BRICS functioning will be affected. As you see SAARC is an example, when India-Pakistan relations became really bad, SAARC became completely non-functional because anything that India said Pakistan opposed. Now we don’t want BRICS to reach that situation. Of course, BRICS, as I have noted in my monograph, has actually been a very mature organization. It has steered clear of bilateral differences. There are bilateral differences between Russia and China too, but they have steered clear of that. So it should continue to have the maturity of steering clear of differences. But if India-China differences become acrimonious, then that will have an impact on BRICS. But there is no indication that this will happen in the immediate future.

Q4. So BRICS cannot be a platform for India and China to ease the current tension in the border even on the sidelines?

Ans. No, the short answer is no. Neither BRICS nor SCO nor any other multilateral organization, none of them can be a platform for solving or even toning down the India-China problem. As you know, we keep on telling every country that we don’t need any mediation, you have no locus standi to mediate. We do not trust mediation and we do not think there is any need for mediation. So no international organization can be a platform for resolution of India-China issues or India-Pakistan issues.

Q5. Will the COVID-19 pandemic influence decision making of BRICS in economic, financial and health affairs?

Ans. Very difficult to say. Sharing of experiences in upgrading health infrastructure and vaccine research are theoretically areas where BRICS countries can actually work together. In my monograph, written in 2016, and, there have been significant developments since then. one of the unintended and unexpected successes of BRICS has been the intra-BRICS cooperation. Intra-BRICS cooperation on economic and social issues have proceeded much better than political issues. BRICS parliamentary exchanges and the meetings of National Security Advisors of BRICS have all been going on, but far more successful have been the economic and social collaboration and the institutions that have been created. These, if they work below the radar, can actually have a great deal of impact.

There is already health collaboration, public health collaborations that has been going on for a few years now. Similarly, in the agriculture sector too. And surely for vaccine development, for example, research, biomedical research, epidemiological research, exchange of researchers, are the kind of things that can take place successfully within BRICS without it being overlaid by the political relationships between countries. So, intra-BRICS cooperation in these areas can be very effective. Whether it will be or not depends on the commitment of the five countries. Again, it will eventually depend upon the commitment of RIC countries within the BRICS. The RIC should be considered as the core within BRICS.

Q6. Is there a necessity for India to rethink and renew its primary interests in BRICS?

Ans. No, as I said BRICS started off with certain objectives and it kept adding on. To put it very brutally, the BRICS got carried away by the attention that it received from the world. When it first came up, the world was watching BRICS and they said here is this very powerful grouping and it can achieve a lot, it can be a great force in global politics. The BRICS hype finally far exceeded its realistic possibilities. The changes in global geopolitical environment also altered the equations among the BRICS countries. So, BRICS, in a way, has come down to earth. Actually, you can observe that by the international attention that BRICS summits gather today. A few years ago, even in 2016 when the Goa summit took place and the summit before that, the world media was watching with avid interest. This has tapered away as the realization dawned that it is not quite the political force that people thought it could be.

If you look at it from an Indian perspective, yes, it sought the democratization of economic and financial architecture of the world. But who benefited from it? China benefitted most from it naturally as it is a bigger economy. If you say democratization of global financial and economic architecture, then you are arguing for a power which is commensurate with your economic weight. China’s economic weight is huge and therefore obviously it gets more. So it has really benefitted China. It has also benefited India, again I have noted in my monograph a few areas that we have also quietly benefitted. We continue to benefit from this BRICS collective effort in ways which are not greatly hyped or publicized, but in many ways, our influence in global economic and financial institutions have improved and is improving.

We should be realistic about what we ask of BRICS and we should be very pragmatic about what we cannot get from it. You know you will see a lot of commentaries which have started coming in the media that BRICS has not supported us on this, that or the other, and therefore, why should we be in BRICS. But we need to understand that we didn’t join BRICS for support in this, that or the other. So be realistic, look for what we can get out of it, and maybe if the equation between Russia, India and China interstate relations change, the BRICS possibilities may also improve. We should not fix it for all time to come in today’s situation. If tomorrow, to take an example, US-Russia and US-China relations change in tone and content, it will have an impact on Russia-China relations and if it has an impact on Russia-China relations it will also have an impact on India’s relations with Russia and China. In turn that will also have an impact on BRICS. Because BRICS is not independent of the global events around it. So when you talk about a Biden administration that is the other thing you need to look at. How will it calibrate US relations with China, and with Russia? The shape of that triangle, the configuration of the US-China-Russia triangle is very important and will also have an impact on BRICS.

(Interview conducted by Sundeep Kumar. S , a PhD scholar in international relations at the Department of Politics and Public Administration, University of Madras. He is an Associate Member of the Chennai Centre for China Studies (C3S). Sundeep also teaches Theories of International Relations and Introduction to Diplomacy for 1st year Masters students in University of Madras. The views expressed are interviewee’s own and does not reflect the views of C3S.)

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