Veeresh Kanduri

On June 1, the Foreign Ministers of BRICS—a grouping of five nations spread over four continents including Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa—held the annual meeting virtually online, as it is now a pandemic norm for intergovernmental meetings. The group was established in 2006 as a bloc of five major emerging economies and marks its 15-year anniversary in 2021. The five leaders issued a joint statement espousing the need for “Strengthening and Reforming the Multilateral System”, while reaffirming the groups “shared values of peace, freedom and rule of law”. 

Pictured : Foreign Ministers of Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa during BRICS Meeting (Source: Twitter @Itamaraty_EN)

The group’s 15-year survival and economic development in an era of geopolitical blocs and alliances is evidence of successful economic governance among nations belonging to the global south. However, geopolitical ground has significantly shifted under the BRICS bloc over the past year and this holds greater strategic implications for the coherent existence of the bloc. The previous BRICS foreign ministers virtual meeting in 2020 was held on April 28 under the Russian chairmanship. While the majority of the participating leaders—except for the Brazilian Minister of Foreign Affairs Carlos Alberto Franca who replaced his predecessor Ernesto Araújo—remained the same, the intra-BRICS dynamics as well as the external geopolitical environment changed monumentally and fundamentally. 

Between the two BRICS meetings, India and China engaged in escalated skirmishes along the poorly demarcated Himalayan border that stretches over 3,488-km length in three sectors —Western, Middle and Eastern. On June 15, 2020, the unforeseen and unprecedented act of bloodletting in the past four decades—with the loss of 20 Indian soldiers. As well as at least five Chinese soldiers in the Galwan Valley in Indian Ladakh along the Indo-China border “profoundly disturbed”(video) the New Delhi-Beijing bilateral relations. In 2017, the Xiamen BRICS Summit facilitated an India-China reset following the border face-off at the Doklam tri-junction of India, Bhutan and China, with bilateral relations further normalizing at the Wuhan informal summit in 2018. In contrast, the upcoming India chairing BRICS Summit in 2021 is very unlikely to reset India-China relations, especially following the skirmishes in Galwan and Beijing’s continued disregard for the “Moscow Agreement” of September 2020. The agreement is a five-point consensus between Indian External Affairs Minister (EAM) Jaishankar and his counterpart Wang Yi. The bilateral relation cannot prosper until troops from both sides disengage and ease tensions at all friction points, which hinders intra-BRICS cooperation and its survival.   

At such critical crossroads of India-China bilateral relations, Beijing’s bellicose trade campaign against Canberra and belligerent maritime campaign near Senkakus/Diaoyu Islands against Tokyo tilted the geopolitical balance in favor of revived Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad). In addition, with the advent of a globalist Biden administration, with “America is back” leading the way in the international order and factor of certainty and credibility is once again installed in its allies and partners. Also, upgrading the ministerial-level Quad meetings to a summit meeting in March bolstered “(t)he Spirit of the Quad” states to emerge as a formidable strategic balance to China in the Indo-Pacific region. 

In a five-day state visit to the United States on May 24-28, Indian EAM met top statedefencetradeintelligencenational security, and business officials in Washington DC to exchange and strengthen cooperation on a wide-range of issues. What stood out covered vaccine supply, regional security order, Indo-Pacific cooperation and Quad. Immediately after, Indian EAM’s engagement with BRICS FM’s on June 1 reaffirms India’s commitment to strategic autonomy and balanced diplomacy with proportional diplomatic investments in BRICS and Quad, despite countering US voices to disinvest in BRICS. However, Beijing’s choices will define the scope of cooperation among BRICS states. A continued Beijing belligerence against India may further tilt New Delhi towards Quad, while not completely abandoning the BRICS space for Beijing. 

The proposed Quad Vaccine Partnership to produce at least one billion vaccines in India and the Sinovac-ledBRICS vaccine research and development center in Beijing. Alongside the United States indicating a Quad infrastructure initiative in the offing to balance Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative further antagonizes China’s existing anxieties, which escalates BRICS-Quad strategic competition. Beijing will obliquely campaign against New Delhi, which is emerging as a lynchpin for the Quad and its new strategic initiative in the Indo-Pacific region. India has to further fine tune its statecraft to maintain its strategic autonomy while balancing its economic and security interests.

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