India must consider BRICS as just an economic interest group and not allow China to use it for retooling global fora like the UN
In the last week of April, the Foreign Ministers of Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa (BRICS) held a video-conference to discuss BRICS’ handling of COVID-19. Around a week later, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) Chair, Estonia, criticised the council’s approach to COVID-19. The criticism comes at a time when the US and China have stalled any contagion resolution to be passed. BRICS members Russia and South Africa backed China’s bid to block discussions in the UNSC in late March. The events in the UNSC and the discussions in the BRICS are a mismatch. BRICS represents 43 per cent of the world’s population while the UNSC is the premier forum for all discussions and collective action against threats to peace and security around the world. COVID-19 has not spared any country, developed or developing, which begs the question, does China truly support multilateralism on the world stage?
In October 2019, US President Donald Trump in the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) said: “The future doesn’t belong to globalists. The future belongs to patriots.” The statement echoed what he said a year earlier while addressing the UNGA: “We reject the ideology of globalism and we embrace the doctrine of patriotism.” The US, under the Trump administration, has had a mixed history of aversion towards multilateralism, which started with Trump’s election campaign based on the notion of “America First” (also his campaign slogan).
The US has more than one million COVID-19 cases, which is the highest in the world. Trump has not shied away from criticising China, and also the World Health Organisation, (WHO) going as far as calling it “… China’s PR agency.” The statement came after the US decided to put on hold all funding for the WHO. The move has raised questions regarding US priorities in the competition against Beijing: America First vs multilateral cooperation. Critics of the Trump administration do agree that the WHO was deferential to China at the start of the crisis but holding out on the funding seems to defeat the purpose, as it gives China more sway in global multilateral forums. The suspension of funds might or might not be removed later but the Trump administration’s proposed budget for 2021 calls for voluntary contributions to be reduced by half for the WHO.
The US’ reason for stalling the UNSC resolution is that it wants “transparency” added into the French and Tunisian “compromise” resolution on COVID-19. The other way the US is considering for passing the resolution is a refashioned language formation on transparency along with dropping any reference to the WHO. China is using this opportunity to block any resolution on COVID-19. The US and Chinese Ambassadors to the UN were involved in a twitter spat accusing each other of irresponsible handling of the pandemic.
The Trump administration has questioned its global commitments, as mentioned above, which has led to China taking the lead. China has started contributing more to the UN and has used this to put its top Communist Party officials to fill its leadership posts. Chinese nationals now head a quarter of the UN’s specialised agencies. The US backing out of the Human Rights Council, suspending funding to the WHO, might lead to ceding ground to the Chinese. Although there is low confidence in China’s role as a global leader but in the future, a clash of liberal values with the Communist Party of China’s interest and values cannot be ruled out.
Can BRICS fill the void left by the US? There are two reasons as to why BRICS cannot fill the US’ shoes. The first one is, BRICS when it was formulated was seen as an intersection of South-South cooperation. The grouping was perceived to bring about noticeable changes to the existing security paradigm and bring notable changes to the world order. A grouping like BRICS fuelled hopes for a multipolar world, but it is not what meets the eye when it comes to China’s perception of a multipolar world.
China’s strategies and motivation are inspired by its rich history of internal warfare, strife, and foreign occupation. The Stratagems of Warring States (an ancient Chinese text of manipulation and warfare) explains that the natural world is hierarchical, and systems without a rule are transitional. This is the opposite of what Beijing claims when they say that they look forward to a multipolar world where the US is the first among equals. Chinese officials in the UN and other public forums since 2005 have spoken a lot about da tong, which has been translated as a “commonwealth” or “an era of hierarchy” but, the better translation of da tong is “an era of unipolar dominance.”
The second reason is the tensions on the India-China border. Multiple soldiers on both sides have been injured during a skirmish along the boundary in North Sikkim near the Naku La sector. Added to this, in late March, it was reported that China had deployed underwater drones and ships in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), which are capable of conducting submarine and anti-submarine operations. The takeaway from this particular incident is China’s increasing capabilities when it is looking to expand its presence in the IOR. In both cases, the Indian Army and the Navy respectively declined to comment to the press.
China’s credibility has been under the scanner as a future global leader due to the accusations of mismanagement of handling COVID-19. The aggressiveness on the Line of Actual Control and the IOR and the US aversion to multilateralism put India in a tight spot. During the G-20 video conference in March, Prime Minister Narendra Modi called for structural reform of the WHO. India has been approached by Taiwan to support its bid to participate in the World Health Assembly, which is the WHO’s parent organisation. China is not in favour of Taiwan’s participation in the WHO meeting in Geneva on May 18. The crisis created by COVID-19 has pushed liberal values to its limits and has led to an anti-globalisation wave worldwide. Taiwan has been able to push back against COVID-19 effectively. The methods and practices could be used globally but it might not be possible as China intervenes in global forums and opposes its inclusion.
The New Development Bank of BRICS has loaned $15 billion to boost the grouping’s economies. Further on, a Vaccine Research and Development Centre is being considered by the grouping to find a cure for COVID-19. The initiatives by BRICS are commendable but the problems between India and China, along with Beijing’s ambitions and interventions in global forums, curtail its effectiveness to provide alternate solutions, especially when BRICS is supposed to facilitate the Global South Cooperation. India should start considering BRICS just as an economic interest group, in light of recent events on the border and the IOR, while not allowing China to use the grouping as a strategic device to promote retooling of global fora like the UN.
(The writer is a Research Associate at the VIF. The views expressed are personal)