At its summit meeting last week, the BRICS bloc – a multilateral group comprising the world’s major emerging economies – announced that six new member nations would be added to the forum.

This BRICS expansion, mainly driven by China amid its intensifying great power competition with the United States, is being seen by observers as Beijing’s attempt to turn the group into an anti-West platform. This creates a tricky situation for India, whose relations with the West are strengthening, observers say.

In addition, China’s possibly greater influence over the expanded BRICS is also a matter of concern for Delhi, they note.

An expansion driven by China

Brazil, Russia, India and China – the major emerging economies predicted to dominate the global economy by 2050 – created the informal group in 2006. South Africa was included in 2010. BRICS has since become a forum for them to discuss economic issues concerning the non-Western world. Over the years, BRICS has created the New Development Bank as an alternative to Western-dominated institutions such as the World Bank.

There has been considerable interest among emerging nations about joining BRICS. South Africa, which held the group’s presidency this year, said that at least 22 of the 40 nations had applied to join.

Argentina, Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have been invited to formally join BRICS in January. Moreover, while the criteria for including new members were not made public, the doors were kept open for further expansion.

Observers have viewed this BRICS expansion process as having been largely steered by China. “I would read the pace and volume of expansion as artful negotiations by China,” Ziyanda Stuurman, senior Africa analyst at think tank Eurasia Group, told the Financial Times on August 25.

Sushant Singh, senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, said that this Chinese strategy was driven by Beijing feeling isolated in the Indo-Pacific because the United States has partners like India, and allies like Japan and Australia.

“They are trying to somehow show that they still have friends,” Singh told German state-owned broadcaster Deutsche Welle on August 24.

Modi at the BRICS-Africa Outreach and BRICS Plus Dialogue. Credit: Prime Minister's Office
Modi at the BRICS-Africa Outreach and BRICS Plus Dialogue. Credit: Prime Minister's Office

Harsh V Pant, vice president for studies and foreign policy at the Observer Research Foundation, said that Beijing views BRICS – with its members from the Global South – as a geopolitical counterweight to Western-dominated forums such as the Group of Seven.

“I don’t think there’s any great mystery about Chinese intentions,” Pant told Scroll. “Both China and Russia, in whichever platforms they belong to, would like those platforms to emerge or take positions against what they perceive to be the Western agenda. Certainly, China would like the BRICS to emerge as a geopolitical counterweight to the West, to the G7.”

Therefore, Pant added, “There’s certainly a danger that BRICS can become that sort of a platform.”

Tricky situation for India

China’s desire to turn the expanded BRICS into an anti-West bloc creates a tricky situation for India. This is because Delhi’s strategic and economic relations with the West, especially the United States, have strengthened significantly in recent years. “This is precisely the kind of scenario that India fears,” Ankit Tiwari, a researcher at Delhi-based Council for Strategic and Defence Research, wrote in The Interpreter on August 22, referring to Beijing possibly giving the bloc an “‘anti-Western’ flavour”.

The strengthening of India’s ties with the West is evident from the fact that New Delhi, in recent years, has become an almost-permanent invitee to the G7 summits.

Therefore, Pant explained, “India...has no real interest in making this an anti-West platform.”

However, Pant added, “India’s presence there moderates [the chances of BRICS becoming an anti-West platform] to a certain extent. But, whether India will be able to do that individually – that remains to be seen.”

In a similar vein, Atul Mishra, associate professor of international relations at Shiv Nadar University, said that while China, Iran and Russia may “lend an anti-Western inflection” to the expanded BRICS because of their anti-West postures, the forum may not necessarily act as an anti-Western platform. “That’s unlikely given the international orientation of others like Egypt, UAE, Saudi Arabia and Argentina, and the preference for non-alignment by Brazil, South Africa and India,” Mishra told Scroll.

Modi with Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi at the sidelines of the BRICS Summit in South Africa. Credit: Narendra Modi/Twitter
Modi with Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi at the sidelines of the BRICS Summit in South Africa. Credit: Narendra Modi/Twitter

China’s greater influence a possible concern

Further, there are concerns that Beijing’s greater influence over the new BRICS members may lead to Delhi losing some of its influence within the bloc.

Mishra said that India has not lost its voice in BRICS because the forum is, so far, a “hardly institutionalised” platform for airing views. “But, given China’s considerably greater capabilities relative to India as well as its greater influence over some of the newly inducted members, it’s not unreasonable to assume a shrinking of India’s turf,” Mishra said. “This is a challenge for India’s diplomacy and international political acumen.”

Ashok Kantha, India’s former ambassador to China, similarly said that Delhi must be careful about the BRICS taking on a geopolitical agenda having “Chinese characteristics”, referring to Beijing’s anti-Western position.

“While India has good relations with all six new members, the ability of China, the largest economy and most influential country in the grouping, to drive the agenda and future direction of BRICS should not be underestimated,” Kantha wrote in The Indian Express on Tuesday.

Kantha added, “Looking ahead, India will have to guard against BRICS emerging as an anti-West grouping and as an instrument in China’s power play. India will have to devise a careful strategy to ensure that the grouping is not dominated by China to advance its strategic agenda.”

However, while it is unclear how India will navigate these new dynamics within the BRICS, Pant said that at least in this round of expansion, Delhi had managed to retain leverage within the group to a certain extent. “In this round, India has done relatively well by asking for clear guidelines and consensus, and ensuring that those who have entered into the BRICS as the six new members – almost all of them – are reasonably close to India and have great ties with India,” Pant said.

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