The leaders of the Brics group of nations are meeting this year amid major shifts in the geopolitical order.
The group, which owes its name to the initials of its five member states – Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa – is holding its annual summit on Thursday (23), but without much fanfare or huge expectations.
Talks will also be held in a virtual format, for the third consecutive year. The last two were held during the Covid pandemic, but it’s not clear why the leaders chose to skip face-to-face meetings this year.
It’s in stark contrast to the Quad – which groups India with Australia, Japan and the US – whose leaders met in person in Japan last month amid the global media glare.
Some analysts say that this is also partly due to the fact that the Brics hasn’t really lived up to expectations over the years. When it was formed in 2009, the group was expected to reshape the global economy and create a new financial order to help the developing world.
Its success can be described at best as moderate, but its importance can’t be overstated. Brics nations have a combined population of 3.23 billion and their combined GDP is more than $23tn.
“The Brics may seem irrelevant because it hasn’t really moved the needle forward on its long-standing efforts to usher in viable global economic alternatives to the US-led existing system,” says Michael Kugelman, deputy director at the Wilson Center think-tank in Washington.
But he adds that writing the Brics off will be a mistake because of its collective economic might, “even though it often tends to punch below its weight”.
The economy has always been at the heart of the Brics but the Ukraine war is likely to loom large over the summit on Thursday.
The nations may not overtly mention the war, but it will definitely be discussed when Indian PM Narendra Modi, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Chinese President Xi Jinping, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro talk to each other.
Pratyush Rao, director for South Asia at the Control Risks consultancy, says Ukraine, without a doubt, will be the elephant in the room.
“A lot of people will be keeping an eye on the summit, especially on the dynamics between Russia and China over Ukraine,” he says.
While China has been more open about its support for Russia, India, South Africa and Brazil have tried to walk the diplomatic tightrope over the war. They haven’t openly criticised Russia but have advocated talks to end the war.
But a lot has changed since the war started. The economic impact of the war and the West-led sanctions is showing across the world – inflation is up in many countries, global supply chains have been disrupted and there are fears of food shortages.
Russian commentators have been talking about the importance of the Brics nations in blunting the impact of the sanctions.
Rao says some pushback against Western sanctions can be expected at the summit, and that will be comforting for Russia.
“But it should not be interpreted as an endorsement of Russia’s actions,” he adds.
However, Brics members would want to be seen as taking an initiative to help developing nations overcome the economic impact of the war.
“I expect the summit to underscore the group’s global importance because of its collective demographic and economic clout. I also expect it to help poorer and middle-income countries build resilience to deal with the economic impacts of the Ukraine crisis,” says Kugelman.
But then there will be challenges within the group. Beijing and Moscow might agree on taking tougher lines against the West, but Delhi would not like the summit to be used to openly criticise the US and more broadly the West.
Delhi takes pride in its “strategic autonomy” and the policy of non-alignment and has proven that it can be a significant member of even competing multilateral forums.
“India has an independent strategic policy and an independent autonomous voice on the global stage and it wouldn’t want to compromise on that,” says Rao.
Both Russia and China have criticised the Quad as “Asia’s NATO” but this hasn’t deterred Delhi from pledging its support to the group’s initiatives in the Indo-Pacific, which Beijing considers as its area of influence.
Analysts say that Russia and China will mostly likely overlook these irritants for the larger goal of establishing the Brics as a viable financial institution to help the developing world, and also stay relevant in the fast-changing geopolitical order.
Meanwhile, there are reported differences between Delhi and other members over the expansion of the Brics.
Bloomberg news agency recently reported that Delhi would push back against Beijing’s plan to include new members into the group.
“India wouldn’t want to see more members in a group where China plays a dominant role. India will fear more Chinese influence,” says Kugelman.
The success of the summit will also depend on how the two countries manage their differences over this and other issues, which includes their ongoing border disputes.
Both Kugelman and Rao believe that the two nations have the ability to overlook their differences when it suits their mutual interests.
They are partners in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, which is an alliance of eight nations, and have also co-operated at the COP26 summit to push back against accepting hard targets to cut emissions.
Against this backdrop, Ukraine can be a point of convergence for the Brics. It can serve as an opportunity for the group to convince the world that it can be a viable financial option against Western-led institutions like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.
So, some concrete announcements on financial aid and more investment into the Brics-led New Development Bank can be expected.
And analysts say that this would be a step in the right direction for the Brics to get more clout as a serious global player.
By Vikas Pandey