The BRICS long-term vision challenge and the questions it raises about one for IBSA are intimately related and therefore provide a basis for assessing the comparative advantages and limitations of both. Both have arrived at a point of reflecting on the future.
The 5th BRICS summit convened in Durban ended the first cycle of ‘Leaders Meetings’ which restarts next year in Moscow. IBSA, meanwhile, is marking its tenth anniversary and is being jointly reviewed in terms of its achievements as a delayed summit awaits convening in India sometime in July. This raises speculation about where IBSA is headed and its future given its being overshadowed by the much higher profiled BRICS quintet resulting from the memberships of China and Russia.
There is an unwarranted notion that South Africa’s induction into BRICS was a case of China outmanoeuvring India, thereby making IBSA redundant but that’s another story. In any case, it is the Russian and Chinese dimensions of the BRICS collective that raise questions about whether or not a ‘long-term vision’ for this grouping can be anything other than what could come to be seen as a wishful thinking exercise of ivory tower intellectuals separated from reality in the ozone of academic theory.
The structural contradiction
The first reality is a structural challenge facing a long-term BRICS vision. This has to do with the different institutional and political-policy think-tanking relationships involving scholars in Russia and especially China, on the one hand, and scholars in India, Brazil and South Africa, on the other. Any long-term BRICS visioning exercise, to be credible, is going to have to reflect an autonomy from party-state/regime apparatuses which is not reflected in the fledgling BRICS think tank-academic network as currently constituted on the basis of the five symposium-cum-forums that have occurred.
In South Africa’s case, the Department of International Relations and Cooperation has abdicated its track two agenda-setting to a Department of Higher Education with an agenda all its own, oblivious of the country’s foreign affairs priorities. Indeed, the entire South African research sector await a thorough post-apartheid rethink and revamp. This is further reason for reflecting on the structural underpinnings of undertaking a BRICS long-term vision.
How is there to be a bridging of the different political cultures of public policy research in China and Russia on the one hand and India, Brazil and South Africa on the other as a means of making a long-term visioning exercise productive?
This does not rule out such an exercise as there are Russian and Chinese scholars who can engage with sufficient autonomy in such an exercise to make it worthwhile. But the current network structure tied to inter-governmental exercises of Leaders Meetings comes up short. This brings us to problematizing the draft BRICS long-term vision doing the vetting rounds and how it illuminates that ‘elephant in the room.’ Neither Moscow nor Beijing wants to mount this beast and this is a cause for pause.
The political contradiction
All one has to do in arriving at this caution is to consider the aspirational goal of a long-term BRICS vision on ‘global political and economic governance’ in carving out a ‘political leadership role’ for the group, including addressing that perennial boilerplate called ‘United Nations Security Council Reform.’
This is where some IBSA trilateral realism informed by the Russia-India-China (RIC) triangle (out of which BRIC emanated – not Wall Street!) might be in order to place in perspective a certain unwarranted strain of idealism emanating from some in BRICS.
Intra-BRICS comity aside at the Leader Meetings, there is nothing indicating that either Russia or especially China harbour inclinations entertaining a BRICS agenda promoting UN Security Council reform. So: end of that ‘long-term vision’ – beginning (or continuing, take your pick) of ‘long-term’ trilateral visionary revisionism on IBSA’s part.
UN Security Council reform is where the status-quo vested interests of Beijing and Moscow set the limits within BRICS on any aspirations entertaining global political governance reform and a ‘political leadership role.’ The crux of the problem here is long-standing Sino-Indian territorial contradictions. These show no signs of accommodation. They are symptomatic of Beijing and New Delhi’s rival geopolitical agendas in greater Asia. These range from the Indo-European geocultural corridor of central Eurasia to the Indian Ocean and Indo-Pacific tensions over South and East China seas where Chinese nationalism begets a resurging Japanese nationalism exploiting the umbrella of the US-Japan defence alliance.
If India has not been able to get a RIC buy-in to its coming onto the UN Security Council as a permanent member (which would mean bringing on Japan as well, among others), why would any be forthcoming over the short or long-term via BRICS? UN Security Council reform makes obvious politico-diplomatic sense on an IBSA long-term agenda but fails to compute in a BRICS calculus that will never likely extend much beyond the realm of global economic (rather than political) governance – which ultimately will determine the contours of global political governance anyway.
Emerging powers and regionalism
Perhaps a BRICS long-term visioning exploring patterns of regional, transregional and interregional economic integration including needed harmonizing of overlapping geopolitical-economic agendas from central Eurasia to the Indo-Pacific might prove more compelling. Certainly South Africa must prioritize the integrationist imperative in Africa (and its potential to intersect with South Asia and the ASEAN via the COMESA-SADC-EAC tripartite trade initiative).
Brazil must do likewise in South America given recent emergence of the Asian ‘pivot’-aligned Chile-Peru-Colombia-Mexico Pacific Alliance. In fact, on the Atlantic side of this ledger, a non-governmental African affairs constituency push to make sure AGOA is not eclipsed by US-EU trade negotiations is proffering an Afro-transatlantic policy initiative which may force Itamaraty to rethink its fledgling South Atlantic and hemispheric calculus.
As global economic integration proceeds apace, the future of the international system will increasingly reflect an evolution from inter-governmentalism toward supranationalist patterns of geoeconomic federalism. Not that this will obliterate various and sundry inter and intra-state nationalist and sectionalist contradictions as anti-integrationist backlashes are predictably evident in the economically embattled Eurozone. But the increasing interdependence and interconnectivity of a world of 7, going on 9, billion people in an advance but conflicted stage of human reintegration is unstoppable.
Were BRICS to move into the forefront of charting the intellectual cutting-edge of this megatrend would be visionary indeed. But you can’t be visionary over the long haul and be wedded to Westphalian sovereignty at the same time. BRICS ‘great power’ intellectual conservatism in this regard will come up short on what some refer to as ‘the vision thing’!
Otherwise, a healthy dose of realism is in order in assessing the BRICS potential for global political leadership given divergences as well as convergences within the group. Russia is trying to join the OECD while perhaps the best take on China and India comes from Delhi University’s Madhu Bhalla. He notes that China does not view its rise as Asia’s rise but as its “own re-emergence to the global stage after a couple of centuries of decline.”
Beijing prioritizes non-negotiable ‘sovereign rights’ and ‘core national interests’ which are not subject to bilateral accommodation. While India may promote ‘Chindia,’ China selectively prioritizes Sino-Indian economic integration that best benefits its “border provinces of Sichuan and Yunnan in the backward western regions.”
Last but not least, while “India moves on the assumption of mutuality and reciprocity,” China operates on “the assumption that its interests alone must be jealously guarded.” Thus, as with Moscow moving toward the OECD, BRICS for Beijing is a means (important though it may be) to an end, not an end in itself.
Meanwhile, there is a long-term visionary (though not implausible) geostrategic calculus in the Indian Ocean-South Atlantic logic of IBSA which a long-term BRICS vision cannot accommodate. Yet, an IBSA-driven southern oceans initiative might well complement and reinforce the integrationist federalization of the global economy at a time when oceans governance is moving up the international agenda.
The challenge here, however, may likely rest on South Africa’s political will in moving such a maritime-ocean governance priority up the IBSA menu since it occupies the geostrategic fulcrum astride the southern sea lanes. President Jacob Zuma raised the issue of an Indian Ocean-South Atlantic dialogue in opening the October 2011 5th IBSA summit in Durban and may well want to revisit this in 2015 when next South Africa will host IBSA. Moreover, this issue may well point the way toward a carefully calibrated IBSA outreach strategy that brings into its trilateral domain other state actors. Why not experiment in some co-optive hegemony?
An Indian Ocean-South Atlantic nexus linking IBSA with Australia and Indonesia in the Indian Ocean Rim-Association for Regional Cooperation, on the one hand, and Angola and Argentina in the Zone of Peace and Cooperation in the South Atlantic, on the other, could become the nucleus for networked maritime plurilateralism. It could encompass both the Atlantic and the Pacific, while also factoring in Antarctica, thereby balancing maritime cooperation at both poles given the already functioning Arctic Council.
Global south cooperation and securitizing gender
However, maritime security cooperation and oceans governance are not the only areas where a long-term vision might benefit the IBSA countries individually and collectively. There are any number of other areas within their sectoral working group format that are suitable. These range from ‘best practice’ sharing and collaboration in science and technology innovation to tourism and environmental management to south-south development cooperation and business interactions and gender equality promotion.
IBSA is already the foremost platform promoting South-South cooperation. This involves its IBSA Fund managed by UNDP’s Special Unit on South-South Cooperation in New York. While BRICS goes about setting up its development bank as a promised fast-track funding vehicle for infrastructure in the South, IBSA may want to rethink whether or not it wants to take over the fund incubated by UNDP and upscale it into a more robust development financing instrument. It could complement to the BRICS development bank.
Both the IBSA fund and the BRICS bank should respectively be subjected to long-term visioning among think-tanks and academics. How will they add ‘inclusive growth’ value in the developing world over the long-term? Here, emphasizing ‘market-led growth’ seems incongruent given the discrediting of the ‘Washington Consensus’, in what is proving to be an ongoing crisis of sustainable capitalism, North and South.
The IBSA fund, however, could also be explored in terms of its utility as a platform for developing a global South counterpart to the OECD aid effectiveness agenda. Why not something like an ‘organization for human security and development’?
BRICS, on the other hand, needs to come at these issues from the vantage point of transforming the UN’s woefully inadequate peacekeeping adhocracy into a more robust stabilization administration consolidating UNDP, UNICEF, UNHCR and ECOSOC.
A ‘stabilization and development administration’ under a UN ‘human security and development council’ would necessarily contain an agenda that would have to address the epidemic of violence against women involving mass rape atrocities that have occurred in such ‘no go areas’ as eastern Congo. Careful study and consideration of securitizing the combating of gender violence by forming all-female self-defence units at grassroots community levels may be necessary as one component in a more elaborated gender anti-violence strategy.
In India, for example, a ‘Red Brigade’ womens’ movement might be studied as a possible model of local grassroots anti-violence mobilization (offsetting corrupt and slow to transform law enforcement systems and patriarchal conservatism which many women as well as men are steeped in). This is why there may be a case to be revisited, of transforming IBSA’s gender forum into a sectoral working group, given the endemic crisis in violence against women experienced in all three countries.
This crisis is symptomatic of wider and deeper governance challenges in all of the BRICS countries. Perhaps a South African initiative to introduce something akin to the African Peer Review Mechanism as a ‘good governance’ instrument for long-term convergence in political cultures among all five countries may be placed on both the IBSA and BRICS research agendas. Governance reform is an urgently pressing issue in all five countries.
The point in all of these illustrative proposals is that both IBSA as well as BRICS are at a point where long-term visioning would go a long way toward developing their potential as strategically credible platforms of global reform based on their comparative advantages. But, for this to happen, there has to be clear-headed conceptualizing of where their limits as well as their strengths lie.
BRICS brings together status-quo and revisionist aspirational powers in a platform more geared toward a global economic, rather than a political agenda. IBSA is a revisionist collective. It has a vested interest in changing the global political and security architecture in a manner that BRICS will not accommodate.
BRICS cannot make IBSA redundant. South Africa should have been in what started out as BRIC from the get-go. Its ‘after thought’ inclusion was a consensus decision coinciding with China’s turn to host the 3rd BRICS Leaders Meeting in the rotational line-up that has been established. South Africa’s place and role in BRICS is as much about Africa as about South Africa, given the continent’s extreme fragmentation devoid of a great power mega-state. Yet the continent is economically on the rise. Thus, the days when Africa can be left out of global power equations are over.
South Africa is the continent’s default leader and wherever South Africa goes (providing it avoids a perfect storm of looming economic and political crisis), the African agenda will be on the table. Here, the proposed long-term vision for BRICS is on the mark. IBSA should take notice as well, with South Africa as the central ‘Gondwanan’ pivot between the Atlantic and Indian Oceans, in which humanity’s Motherland is strategically nested at the centre of the global South!
This article was originally published on the website of the South African Foreign Policy Initiative. SAFPI invites responses to this analysis: readers can either complete the comment form on their webiste for short comments, or longer commentaris can be emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org.