New Delhi: With a large number of developing countries clamouring to join the BRICS countries, India is wary about the dynamics of an expanded bloc and has indicated that it will give preference to its “Strategic Partners”.
BRICS initially consisted of Brazil, Russia, India, and China – an acronym coined by Goldman Sachs in the 1990s to promote investment in emerging economies. South Africa was the first non-original member to join the group, making it fitting that the African nation chairs a summit focused on expanding the group.
Last year’s Beijing Declaration mandated the five member states to hold “discussions” to clarify the “guiding principles, standards, criteria and procedures for this expansion process through the sherpas’ channel on the basis of full consultation and consensus”.
Although all members have generally agreed to the idea of expansion, determining the criteria went through prolonged negotiations due to differing visions among members regarding the group’s future composition. On Wednesday, South Africa’s Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor said that the group had reached an agreement on the criteria and that an announcement would be made in the summit’s final declaration on Thursday.
Given the 23 official applicants, geographical quotas and economic strength would most likely also play a role in the qualification process.
As per Indian sources, the BRICS leaders’ retreat on Tuesday evening witnessed “significant development” on the issue of expansion.
“India took the lead in forging a consensus on membership criteria and the selection of new members,” an Indian official said. India’s efforts were “guided by our objective to incorporate our Strategic Partners as new members”, added the officials.
The next day, the Indian prime minister asserted at the BRICS plenary that India “fully supports” expansion, adding that it “welcomes moving forward with consensus in this”.
Given BRICS’ decision-making process is reliant on consensus, the addition of nations more inclined toward China’s perspective would be diplomatically challenging.
India has a ‘strategic partnership’ with at least nine of the applicants, ranging from the UAE to Argentina and Vietnam. However, there is no clarity regarding whether the term ‘Strategic Partners,’ as used by Indian sources above, pertains to the formal standing of the bilateral relationship or serves as an evaluation of the country’s significance to India.
Here is The Wire’s evaluation of how India likely views the 23 countries who have applied for membership to BRICS.
India’s stake: With a history of working together in the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), India’s relationship with the North African state has largely been free of any irritants. However, Algeria’s economic relationship with China has grown by leaps and bounds. Algiers claims that China was the first non-Arab country to recognise Algeria’s provisional government in 1958. China has since become the most important economic trade partner of Algeria, displacing the former colonial countries of France and Italy.
India’s stake: India has had a strategic partnership with Argentina since 2019, which is a barometer of its interest in the country. Ahead of the BRICS summit, Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva supported Argentina’s inclusion in the group. For Argentina, access to the New Development Bank, also called BRICS Bank, is particularly attractive as it struggles with depleted foreign reserves, high inflation and debt repayments to the International Monetary Fund.
India’s stake: For India, Dhaka’s candidature would be a relatively easy pick. Bangladesh, under the Sheikh Hasina government, has been India’s closest neighbour. While China remains a top donor and also a source of investment for Bangladesh, New Delhi continues to have substantial confidence in Dhaka – as long as the Awami League is at the helm. The relationship is not officially termed as a strategic one, but the 2022 joint statement said that the state of bilateral relations “transcends even a strategic partnership”.
India’s stake: With Bahrain having signed the Abraham Accords to normalise ties with Israel, Bahrain is certainly in the good books of Washington and other Western capitals. Given Manama’s proximity to Riyadh, it was also perceived as Saudi Arabia’s attempt to maintain ties with Israel without direct ties. Its close ties with the US and Saudi Arabia – as well as hosting the US Navy’s fifth fleet – contribute to its significant strategic standing in the region.
India’s stake: As Russia’s closest ally in Central Asia and also a target of Western sanctions due to the Ukraine war, it won’t be a surprise to expect Belarus to toe the anti-West line in BRICS. While Russia and China are likely to back Belarus, India may remain more ambiguous.
India’s stake: Bolivia has been using its vast Lithium reserves, estimated to be the biggest in the world, to attract investors from large economies as it struggles to ramp up production on an industrial scale. Lithium-ion batteries are key components to store solar, wind and other renewable energy sources.
In 2019, then Indian President Ram Nath Kovind travelled to Bolivia, where the countries agreed to “work together for exploration and extraction of the vast Lithium deposits”. Five years later, Bolivia announced in June this year that it has signed deals with Russian and Chinese firms worth $1.4 billion to develop lithium extraction. While relations with the US were especially hostile under the Evo Morales presidency, there has not been substantial improvement in ties under Louis Arce either. Besides Russia and China, Bolivia has strong relations with Cuba, Iran and Venezuela. Bolivia had abstained from voting in UN resolutions regarding Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
India’s stake: India’s historical rapport with Cuba has endured, although the degree of intimacy has waned compared to the peak of the relationship during the NAM era. In this context, India’s priorities might be swayed more by the sensitivities of the US – which has recently raised an alarm about China’s spying operations in Cuba, which was vociferously denied by the latter two.
India’s stake: With relations with Egypt having been rekindled recently, India will certainly back Cairo. The choice is made easier as India and Egypt also signed a strategic partnership earlier this year. But, with a number of other applicants from the Gulf with whom India has a strategic partnership, it may not be easy for New Delhi to give its backing to all of them at once.
India’s stake: India has always looked at Ethiopia as one of the key African countries, especially as the seat of the African Union (AU). It has also supported Ethiopia’s position at the UN on issues from the Tigray crisis to the controversy over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. With India advocating for greater AU representation in the G-20 and UN, it would make all the positive noises, even with Ethiopia having also deep ties with China.
India’s stake: Earlier this year, the central American state established formal ties with China, after breaking diplomatic relations with Taiwan. Soon after, Honduran President Xiomara Castro travelled to China for a six-day visit and publicly talked about applying for BRICS. India has minimal engagement which is borne out by its administering diplomatic relations with Honduras through its embassy in Guatemala. Similarly, Honduras’ embassy in Kuwait is accredited to the Indian government.
India’s stake: With the size of its economy and its strategic position, Indonesia has long been cited as an ideal candidate for an expanded BRICS. New Delhi has been judicious in courting Indonesia, the largest economy in ASEAN, over the years. India had signed a strategic partnership with Indonesia as early as 2005, which was upgraded to a comprehensive strategic partnership in 2018. Jakarta has also similarly accommodated India’s requests, whether to change the G-20 hosting year or facilitate the UNSC listing of Maulana Masood Azhar. It also did not make too much of a diplomatic fuss over the criminal cases that were lodged by police in India against Indonesian nationals who arrived for the gathering of the Tablighi Jamaat at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.
India’s stake: India’s relationship with Iran has through its ups and downs – especially after the US-India nuclear deal and imposition of sanctions on Tehran, despite the fact that they have had a strategic partnership since 2003. India had cut down its crude purchases from Iran and tried to devise payment mechanisms to circumvent sanctions over the years. Iran remains a highly crucial partner due to its proximity to Central Asia and its borders with Afghanistan and Pakistan. A determined candidate, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi spoke with the Indian PM about the expansion on the phone ahead of the BRICS summit.
An Iranian membership in BRICS would certainly be seen as cocking a snook at the West by Russia and China, just as it was perceived when the country was granted entry to the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO).
India’s stake: Kazakhstan remains India’s largest trading partner in Central Asia and is key to its plans for closer connectivity with the region. While China’s Belt and Road Initiative has a strong presence in the Central Asian nation, there have also been domestic concerns about its large footprints. While Kazakhstan has always been a reliable ally for Russia, the Ukraine war has seen a shift as it has distanced itself from the Kremlin on key issues like territorial integrity and non-recognition of Donetsk and Luhansk. Since the Ukraine war, Kazakhstan has deepened ties with China and even looked beyond to strengthen relations with the European Union.
India’s stake: There has always been potential to improve ties with Kuwait, but as experts have observed, it has not kept pace with India’s growing engagement with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries. There have also been sensitivities when Bahraini social media users had flagged Islamophobic tweets by Indian residents in the Gulf. There also had been a diplomatic protest over the remarks of a BJP spokesperson related to Prophet Mohammed.
India’s stake: Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation, was the seventh largest source of oil for India globally and the top destination for crude from the African continent. In fact, Nigeria is India’s top African trade partner. During Manmohan Singh’s visit to Abuja in October 2007, India and Nigeria declared a “strategic partnership”. Nevertheless, just like in other parts of Africa, China has an edge not just over India but other Western countries in comprehensive influence. During the recent presidential election earlier this year, the opposition had accused the ruling party of using Chinese technology for surveillance.
India’s stake: Although India has usually backed Palestine’s participation in multilateral platforms, it’s uncertain whether Palestine will fulfil the economic requirements that might be set to attract bigger economies or those with more diplomatic influence. Traditionally, BRICS has supported Palestine in the conflict with Israel but it has not been a major player. With China wading into the long-standing dispute flush from the success of its Iran-Saudi rapprochement, it will certainly have more leverage with the nascent quasi-state.
India’s stake: With Saudi Arabia diversifying its diplomatic relationship away from the West, it joined the SCO as a dialogue partner. Therefore, its move to apply for BRICS would be in line with its current trajectory – and also give it access to emerging markets. India signed a strategic partnership in 2010 and created a strategic partnership council in 2019, which indicates the concentrated effort by New Delhi to woo the Gulf kingdom. It’s very unlikely that Saudi Arabia’s application will face any objections – unless it’s about the number of countries from a certain region.
India’s stake: In 2021, Senegal hosted the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC), which indicated the commitment of the West African state to ties with Beijing. India had also wooed Senegal, which held an AU presidency last year, when the Indian Vice President visited Senegal and signed MoUs. But China’s influence is clear. Senegal was among the eight African members that voted against a resolution that sought a debate on the treatment of Uyghurs in the UN human rights council last October.
India’s stake: Both countries view each other as the ‘gateway’ to their respective regions. While there have been political irritants, there are also challenges due to the slow progress of connectivity projects and common concerns about Myanmar. Bangkok walks a careful balancing act between the US and China, taking a more neutral position on policy issues. In February this year, Thailand voted in favour of the UN General Assembly resolution calling for an end to the Ukraine war on the one-year anniversary of its inception. This was a change from its earlier abstention on another UNGA resolution on Ukraine last year.
India’s stake: After the Abu Dhabi Crown Prince visited India as the chief guest for India’s Republic Day celebrations in 2017, India and the UAE upgraded their relationship to a “Comprehensive Strategic Partnership.” This stands as one of India’s most robust partnerships in the region. In 2021, India participated in a quadrilateral meeting alongside the UAE, which has since evolved into the ‘i2u2’ grouping. Demonstrating a practical foreign policy, the UAE normalised relations with Israel through the Abraham Accords, while also doubling the trade volume with China compared to the US. India’s political differences with UAE, just like with Saudi Arabia, is over the role of Iran and China – but that has not been a hindrance to expanding ties.
India’s stake: The Latin American state had been a major source of oil for India but imports were drastically reduced after the US – under the Donald Trump administration – imposed unilateral sanctions on Venezuela. The country’s vice president Delcy Rodríguez was in India earlier this month when she claimed that “the largest reserve of the planet at the service of this important block (BRICS)”. Over the years, Venezuela has been diplomatically active at multilateral forums with its avowed anti-West position.
While India doesn’t have any strategic partnership with Latin American applicants besides Argentina, New Delhi could very well give the lead in the region to Brazil – which has extended support to Venezuela.
India’s stake: This is an easy decision for New Delhi since India and Vietnam signed a strategic partnership as early as 2007. This was elevated to a “Comprehensive Strategic Partnership’ in 2016. China’s influence in South East Asia – and its presence in the South China Sea – has long been the prism for India’s long-term view of its relationship with Vietnam. While Vietnam has historically been wary of China and seeks to maintain a balance with India, it’s important to note that its trade volume with Beijing is approximately 15 times greater than its economic ties with New Delhi.
India’s stake: Following South Africa’s assertion that Morocco had applied for BRICS membership, the Moroccan foreign ministry vehemently denied the claim, stating, “the Kingdom has never formally applied for membership of the BRICS group”. Morocco’s strong reaction was primarily due to sensitivities over South Africa hosting BRICS, since Pretoria and African Union recognise the Sahrawi Republic, which was invited for the outreach event. However, it is learnt that Morocco had definitely applied for membership through a letter. In fact, a day after the initial angry statement, Moroccan foreign minister called up his Indian counterpart for a conversation that included “the Kingdom’s relations with the BRICS”. India does not recognise the Sahrawi Republic. Morocco and India have a strategic partnership, so New Delhi’s considerations primarily revolve around accommodating the North African country while maintaining regional and geographical balance.
Note: This article has been edited since publication to add Morocco, following new developments.