Leaders from Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa (Brics) gather this week at what is often called the wealthiest square mile in the African continent. But the first in-person summit since 2019 of the grouping once seen as a credible counterweight to the western-led blocs begins with more than a sense of unease. China, the largest economy of the outfit, is pushing for a significant expansion of the group, and at least 22 nations — many of them in Africa — have requested entry. No-limits partners Moscow and Beijing are far more closely aligned than what was even imaginable when Goldman Sachs economist Jim O’Neill first coined the term Bric in 2001 (The S was added later, in 2011, when South Africa joined the grouping). The relationship between India and China has plunged since violent clashes in June 2020 at the Line of Actual Control, and tensions simmer over patrolling rights and disengagement at key points, as evident in the intransigence shown by Beijing in border talks. South Africa is caught in its own development and corruption quagmire. And, of course, the international climate has changed significantly from the early 2010s, the heyday of Brics, when it was seen as an emerging, and more representative, challenger to western groupings that were seen as shutting out developing countries from their boardrooms.
Whichever way one looks at it, the shadow of China looms large over the summit. If Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Xi Jinping meet on the sidelines of the summit in Johannesburg, it will likely make for bigger headlines than any outcome from the grouping. India and Brazil will have to carefully navigate China’s push for expanding the membership because several of the new countries are either allies of Beijing or are financially beholden to the world’s second largest economy. At the same time, New Delhi and Brasilia cannot be seen as shutting the door on developing countries at international institutions. This is a challenging tightrope walk, especially because it will need to factor in China’s push to make Brics an anti-western grouping, an outcome that cannot help India’s strategic interests. Though Russian president Vladimir Putin isn’t attending the summit, the meeting will help New Delhi gauge the political temperature before it hosts the G20 summit in early September, especially on the contentious topic of Ukraine. But if the outcomes are sub-optimal — after a lukewarm Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit — it will again raise the question: Are non-western alliances of any help to India?