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A Russian Role in Central Asia That America Can Live With

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The ongoing war in Eastern Ukraine casts a long shadow over areas of shared American and Russian interest, making the Obama administration’s 2009 “reset” in relations appear a distant memory. However perceptions have shifted in the intervening six years, common concerns still exist between Washington and Moscow; chief among them: terrorism. For this reason, U.S. officials can look with (quiet) approval to Russia’s pursuit of a more robust security presence in Central Asia. 

In April, the commander of Russia’s Tajikistan-based 201st Motorized Division indicated that Moscow would increase its deployments in the Central Asian republic from 5,900 troops to 9,000 by 2020.

The announcement proved timely. Just two months later, Tajikistan made international headlines. Colonel Gulmurod Khalimov, a senior officer in the country’s national police force left for Syria and defected to the Islamic State (ISIS) in a highly publicized video produced by the extremist group.

Then, on July 16, Kyrgyzstan’s GKNB security services killed six gunmen in two shootout incidents in the capital Bishkek. Kyrgyz police captured seven others in the aftermath. GKNB officials say the militants were ISIS members and believe they were planning attacks in Bishkek’s central square and at the Russian Air Force base in Kant. The impact of Khalimov’s defection and possible Islamic State activity in the region should not be exaggerated. Still, the Central Asian republics, Russia, and the United States should be prepared to contain ISIS before more episodes occur.

It is tempting to view Moscow’s heightened presence in Central Asia in the context of the Russia-West divide and the Ukraine crisis. However, Russia’s security interests in the region are longstanding. Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan have close relationships with Russia and are all members of the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). Russia’s ties to these states can allow it to play a constructive role in stemming militant activity. 

By boosting its military profile in Tajikistan, Russia is aiming to resolve a persistent issue in its post-Soviet security doctrine. For the Kremlin, the border between Afghanistan and the Central Asian republics is a gateway to Russia, even though these countries left Moscow’s control in 1991 and four of them do not even share a direct land border with Russia. This position is not without merit. After all, the Russia-Kazakhstan border was designed as an internal administrative boundary, not an international frontier.

Tajikistan represents a particularly problematic case for Moscow. One million migrant workers from the Central Asian republic live in Russia, according to the Russian Federal Migration Service. Only 10 percent of foreign laborers in Russia are working legally, meaning the number of Tajiks in the country may be even higher. Remittances from these workers totaled $4 billion USD in 2013, or 52 percent of Tajikistan’s GDP. Thus, for Dushanbe, what happens in Russia does not stay in Russia. Likewise, events in Tajikistan can roil the Russian Federation via the large migrant worker community there.

In that regard, it is notable that in his June video recorded by ISIS, Colonel Khalimov spoke in Russian. This is quite telling. The erstwhile security chief targeted his remarks at the regime of Tajik President Emomali Rahmon, even though many citizens (especially those born after the Soviet collapse) have at best a loose grasp of the Russian language. But most Tajiks fighting for ISIS are not lifelong residents of the Central Asian republic. Rather, they are migrant workers who have spent time in Russia. Exposed to poor working conditions and pressure from xenophobic elements, these workers become prime targets for recruitment by Islamic fundamentalist causes. In Russia, Central Asian laborers often find themselves involved with North Caucasus-based militant groups or with extremist organizations like Hizb ut-Tahrir.

If instability in Afghanistan spreads to neighboring Tajikistan, Russia will undoubtedly feel the impact. Such an eventuality is hardly unprecedented. From 1992-1997, the Islamist Tajik opposition, backed by Afghan militants, fought a bloody civil war against President Rahmon’s Russian-supported Popular Front. Already home to so many Tajik workers, Russia could make a convenient destination for refugees should violent unrest visit the Central Asian republic once more. Moscow therefore has an interest in containing violence south of the former Soviet frontier. 

The United States is likewise concerned about the spread of extremism in Afghanistan and Central Asia, which threatens advances made there by American-led forces at the cost of thousands of lives. The extension of ISIS influence to the post-Soviet space can also come back to haunt the U.S. and its allies in the Middle East.

While Washington maintains important security links with the Central Asian republics, its policy toward the region is primarily a function of the War in Afghanistan. It follows that U.S. security assistance to the Central Asian states is declining as American military operations wind down. Indeed, under the National Defense Authorization Act, Washington provided Tajikistan with $15.4 million in military aid during Fiscal Year 2012. In the first half of FY 2014, Dushanbe received just $1.1 million. Other countries faced even more substantial cuts during the same period. Kazakhstan benefited from $8.7 million in NDAA aid in FY 2012 but received only $187,000 in the first half of FY 2014.

As the U.S. and NATO presence in the area wanes, Russia can act as a pillar of stability. President Barack Obama’s pledge to withdraw all American troops by the end of his term in 2017 adds a sort of time constraint to Moscow’s task of securing the corridor between Russia and Afghanistan.

Of course, some in the West will be prone to see Russian imperialism wherever Moscow acts. Russia’s actions in Georgia and Ukraine lend some merit to this view. However, Russian influence will hardly go unchecked in Central Asia, as Moscow is no longer alone in the region. The United States built strategic partnerships in the area during the War in Afghanistan, while China continues to champion massive economic projects and infrastructure developments. Chinese trade with Central Asia totaled $28 billion in 2010, while Russian trade reached just $15 billion. Beijing has even managed to break Russia’s monopoly on energy transit routes from the region with projects such as the Turkmenistan-China natural gas pipeline. 

In addition to its concrete security concerns, Russia does seek respect as the primary power in Central Asia. However, this objective rests on vague notions of influence and prestige, concepts that can be bent and accommodated by Beijing and Washington. The United States can even pursue low-level cooperation with Russia in Central Asia. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg already endorsed counterterrorism collaboration between Moscow and the Western alliance in the wake of January’s Charlie Hebdo attacks in France. Where political concerns prevent direct coordination, the two countries can undertake intelligence sharing and partnership by proxy through the republics in the region that share strong security relationships with both Russia and the United States.

It is highly unlikely that Moscow desires an extensive presence in Afghanistan itself comparable to the U.S. role after 2001, owing to Russia’s own limitations and memories of the failed Soviet war effort in the 1980s. Still, Russia will strengthen its ties with Kabul and the Central Asian states to Afghanistan’s north. The expansion of Russia’s military presence in Tajikistan, and even the potential return of Russian soldiers to the porous Tajik-Afghan border (Moscow stationed troops there until 2005) in the future, should be met with tacit acceptance and quiet support from the United States as this achieves an American objective—containing terrorist threats—in a region where Washington is reducing its presence. Respecting shared interests in one area may even provide the future basis for the United States and Russia to negotiate where their interests clash.

Evan Gottesman is an editorial assistant at The National Interest. You can follow him on Twitter at @EvanGottesman.

TopicsSecurity RegionsEurasia

Germany's Next Big Move: European Political and Fiscal Union?

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The Greek parliament has voted through the preliminary conditions of a third bailout presented as an ultimatum to Greek Prime Minister Alex Tsipras in Brussels last weekend. Unsurprisingly, the streets are restive.

But otherwise Greece's capitulation is complete.

With this victory (of sorts) up her sleeve, what will Angela Merkel's next move be?

Last week, I suggested elsewhere that, by pushing the European Union to breaking point over Greece, the German Chancellor had already failed the test of statesmanship. That judgment looks no less correct this week. On the contrary, Germany's reputation has taken a battering on both sides of the Atlantic.

But it shouldn't be taken to mean that Merkel doesn't have a plan, or at least a sense of what she wants. A long biography in the New Yorker last December described her as haunted by the idea of Europe's lack of global competitiveness: proverbially, "7 per cent of the world's population, 25 per cent of its economic output and 50 per cent of its social welfare".

Indeed, Berlin went into Sunday's summit apparently determined to impose its vision of economic rectitude on Greece or chuck it out of the euro.

Merkel took no prisoners.

In effect, Greece will become a Eurozone protectorate. Indeed, last night the Greek parliament made about the biggest surrender of national sovereignty it's possible to imagine one country demanding of another in peacetime. In an interview with The Guardian, Jürgen Habermas said that Germany had "openly made a claim for German hegemony in Europe."

This will send a chill around the other capitals of Europe.

This is particularly true in the Mediterranean south where many countries still face the productivity and competitiveness challenges that lie at the bottom of Greece's travails within the euro.

Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European commission, cannot have understood the full significance of what he was saying when he described the bailout as "a typical European arrangement."

Comparisons have been made with the punitive 1919 Treaty of Versailles.

But a better analogy is probably the Council of the Public Debt imposed on the Ottoman Empire in the aftermath of the 1878 Congress of Berlin, when Istanbul appeared about to default on enormous debts to British and French banks. The Council managed Ottoman revenues in bondholders' favor until the resentment it aroused helped push the Porte to side with Germany in 1914.

A similar debt crisis brought British administrators to Egypt in 1882: what started as a temporary occupation lasted until 1952.

There's always been something quasi-colonial about the "European project."

During the Cold War, European integration was as much about consolidating liberal democracy and market capitalism in southern Europe—Italy, Greece, Spain and Portugal—whose corporatist and authoritarian traditions were but the flipside of locally strong Communist and left-wing movements, as about preventing the next world war.

But this was feasible only as long as it was seen as being voluntary and above all consistent with the democratic values it hoped to instill.

The German power play in Brussels left that in smithereens.

The "technocratic" governments installed (apparently at German insistence) in Athens and Rome in 2011 were tolerable inasmuch as they appeared as domestic crises driven by the pressure of the markets. But last Sunday's ultimatum came directly from the chancelleries of Europe—above all, Germany and the crescent of northern and central states grouped around it: Belgium, the Netherlands, Austria, Slovakia, Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, and Finland.

This reflects two long-term historical and geopolitical trends.

The collapse of Communism long ago removed any pressing need to indulge southern Europe's leftists. The massive increase of German influence in formerly Eastern-bloc and Soviet Europe that followed EU expansion now pits the interests of the new Baltic members against the old ones from the Mediterranean.

That Greece is still in the euro at all is being reported as the signal victory of France. And though since their own mid-2012 debt crises, Rome and Madrid have lived only by the (grudging) grace of the European Central Bank, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi is said to have told Merkel that "enough is enough."

That might have stayed Greece's expulsion from the euro. But that a Brussels official could describe German negotiating tactics as "waterboarding" reflects frustration with a German government insouciant about the dance of European unity that the European Commission has choreographed for six decades.

For there have always been two parts to the European project: the utilitarian and the mythic. By forcing the harmonization of fiscal policy across the Continent, Germany's actions at Brussels may ultimately strengthen the former. But they sound a death knell for the latter impossible to miss.

With Greece's surrender so many of the old EU myths have gone, and it's worth trying to take stock of what remains.

The euro is the D-mark by another name. The currency union France insisted upon for binding German power to European (read: French) goals after reunification has instead turned into an instrument for binding the rest of Europe to Germany. To compete in the 21st century, Germany intends to realize a leaner, more disciplined Eurozone—with Greece as a cautionary example.

Berlin will face resistance. But that resistance is more disunited and less well organized than its supporters.

Europe's "Franco-German" engine is dead. Paris can still mount a limited rearguard action. But Germany sets the limits of the possible, thanks in part to a ring of satellite states, more or less integrated into its export-based economy and aligned culturally and politically with it.

Meanwhile, Britain—Europe's second-biggest economy—is still lost somewhere in a North Sea fog.

The euro crisis long ago vindicated London's profound skepticism about the wisdom of the single currency. But this hasn't increased British influence. If London has an alternative to Germany's vision of Europe, now is the time to present it. (Indeed, as it prepares to vote on leaving the EU, Britain will have to.)

This all leaves pondering Merkel's next move.

Some have suggested that, with Greece humiliated and the rest of the Eurozone cowed into submission, Merkel should now push for European political and fiscal unification on German terms to set the euro on a sound footing.

If she did, Bismarck—who engineered a series of international crises humiliating Denmark (1864), Austria (1866) and France (1870) to bring about German unity under Prussian leadership—might even smile at the wiles of Germany's present chancellor.

For if an analogy with a Treaty of Versailles must be found, that of 1871—when a united Germany was at last proclaimed—is a better bet. Germany's ascendant position in Europe today recalls Prussia's in Germany on the eve of the French defeat at Sedan in 1870 and the European sovereign debt crisis of 2010-15 has left Merkel with a tidy record of humiliations of her own: Greece, Ireland, Portugal, Spain, and Italy.

The next German federal election is due in 2017. Could Europe be united on her watch?

Perhaps Merkel could go to the brink on Sunday because Greece's fate has been secondary all along.

The main aim has been to encourager les autres.

Matthew Dal Santo is a Danish Research Council post-doctoral fellow at the Saxo Institute, University of Copenhagen. Follow him on Twitter at @MatthewDalSant1. This piece first appeared in ABC’s The Drum here.

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Revealed: The Real Reason China Freaked over Its Stock Market Dive

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China's GDP data for the second quarter of 2015 was released Wednesday. The headline number of 7% growth was perfectly in line with China's growth target for 2015, and was unchanged from the first quarter. These headline numbers indicate how much the economy has grown from a year earlier. Quarter-on-quarter growth picked up from 1.4% in the first quarter to 1.7% in the second quarter.

My Twitter feed filled up with more skepticism than usual about these numbers. Notably, during the press conference that follows the data release, the Financial Times asked the Chinese National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) about the quality of the GDP deflator. FT had reported on concerns about the deflator in June. For what it is worth, I think such concerns are probably overdone.

In any case, there was a different number that caught my eye. According to the NBS, 60% of GDP growth was accounted for by consumption in the first half of the year, up 5.7 percentage points from last year. Until this point, China has moved at an almost glacial pace toward more consumption-driven growth. We may be witnessing the start of a more distinct shift. These numbers reflect changes in volumes, rather than prices. I've written before about shifts in prices, and why falling commodity prices may see the share of consumption in GDP increase.

But we need to be careful. Financial services, some of which are used in consumption, contributed significantly to growth in the first and second quarters. Financial services grew by 17.4% over the first half of the year, compared to the first half of last year. The next best industry was 'Other Services', at around 9%. Booming stock markets contributed to the growth, as turnover in the Shanghai and Shenzhen bourses increased. However, that boom is finished. The markets are now a shadow of their former selves. It will be interesting to see how this is reflected in the next GDP release.

The recent plunge in stock prices has attracted many headlines. We've seen falls of around 25% in the last few weeks. But this correction isn't close to the worst falls seen in China over the last 10 years. There was a bloodbath in 2007-08, when the Shanghai Composite Index fell from 6000 to 2000. Yet that bloodbath had little material effect on the economy.

The stock market does not look to be of systemic importance to the Chinese economy. It is relatively small, it is not a major source of finance for firms, and stocks are not widely held. The stock-market falls will likely see some effect on GDP numbers because there will be lower financial-services demanded in the economy, but I don't anticipate the recent ructions precipitating any sort of crisis. Some estimates I've seen suggest something like a 0.2 percentage point subtraction from growth in the third quarter—small stuff.

There is, nonetheless, something disconcerting about recent events in the Chinese stock market. The Chinese authorities have moved to aggressively support equity prices, even though stocks still appear over-valued. This is a far cry from the rhetoric that came out of the Third Plenum in 2013, where market forces were championed. If the stock market is not a systemically important part of the Chinese economy, why intervene like this? It has me a little confused.

One explanation focuses on the boom that preceded the bust. There were many cheerleaders who talked breathlessly of the boom in stock prices, even though it looked to be fueled by unsustainable margin lending. Some of these cheerleaders included state media. It looks like authorities staked some of their prestige on the boom, and cannot countenance the bust. If true, that's concerning.

This piece first appeared in the Lowy Interpreter here.

Image: Flickr. 

TopicsEconomics RegionsAsia

Legal Face Off: Is China Making a Big Mistake in the South China Sea?

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The Hague hearing on jurisdiction and admissibility of the South China Sea arbitration case has come to an end on July 13 after a weeklong process without China’s participation. The hearing has become a heated headline for medias, governments, and scholars for the past week. Questions include whether the Arbitral Tribunal will issue a decision on the jurisdiction and admissibility on July 13, who the decision might favor, to what extend the Tribunal may render its jurisdiction, if there is any, the reaction of China and the Philippines might be, and what might be the take-away for countries who sent observers to the hearing, including Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand, and Japan.

China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman has reiterated China’s position of “no accepting and no participating” in The Hague process, and accused as usual the Philippines’ of violating its commitment through the 2002 Declaration on Conduct (DoC) to solve the dispute through negotiations. Most traditional Chinese media stories repeated Chinese government’ position through various forms of interviews. Social media such as Weibo and Wechat invited discussions and debates among young people whose interests range widely from symbolic nationalism to geopolitics and security. Scholars of international law support China’s position by elaborating on the December 7, 2014 Position Paper of the Government of the People’s Republic of China on the Matter of Jurisdiction in the South China Sea Arbitration, arguing that the Tribunal manifestly has no jurisdiction.

Despite the overwhelming support in China of its position, experts and the general public also have concerns. First, the case presented by the Philippines constitutes, at its core, a land territorial sovereignty dispute and the relevant maritime delimitation, which is excluded from the third party compulsory dispute settlement mechanism under UNCLOS, through China’s 2006 declaration. However, the way the Philippines presented its claim–it has cleverly attempted to de-link its claims from the terms of “territory,” “maritime delimitation,” and “historic title,” with the support of the experienced legal team from the United States–might have a substantial impact on the Arbitration Tribunal. China, may in turn, miss the chance to express its position in a professional legal way, as it did through the December 7, 2014 position paper. It is also questionable whether the messages that China intends to convey through amicus curiae (“friends of the court”) publications reach the five arbitrators and how much weight these may carry as effective “replies” to the Memorial of the Philippines.

In addition to the specifics of the legal debate, China’s international image is another key issue that is worrisome to many. The international media has been skewed in its writing about the escalation of the South China Sea disputes, and often depicts China’s growing assertiveness in pursing its maritime claims. China’s refusal to participate in the Arbitration is often cited by media as disrespecting the value of international law, despite Beijing’s efforts to convince itself and the world that the Tribunal does not have jurisdiction.

The interests shown in the hearing by other countries, including Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand, and Japan also send signals to China as it considered possible future international litigation or arbitration of the complex territorial and maritime dispute in this region. The decision by the Tribunal, be it “no jurisdiction,” “partial jurisdiction,” or “full jurisdiction” on the Philippines’ claim, will allow other countries in the region to draw conclusions about the possibility of resorting to a third party forum for maritime dispute settlement. The position taken by China in this legal battle with the Philippines might not be a standard solution that works best for it if additional cases are brought in the future.

The Statement on the South China Sea issued by the Taiwan authority on July 7, 2015, is a timely response to the hearing at The Hague. In addition to reiterating the  ROC’s position on its sovereignty claim over the four archipelago groups in the South China Sea, the statement focuses mainly on the legal nature of Taiping Island (Itu Aba), the biggest naturally formed feature in the Spratlys. Taiwan holds that Taiping Island indisputably qualifies as an “island” according to Article 121 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), and can sustain human habitation and economic life of its own. Taipei’s statement that “[a]ny claims by other countries which aim to deny this fact will not impair the legal status of Taiping Island (Itu Aba) and its maritime rights based on UNCLOS,” is obviously a firm response to the claims by the Philippines’ legal team that deems Ita Aba a “rock.” Though there has been no official comment from Beijing on Taipei’s statement, which implies that the two governments across the strait share the same claim in the South China Sea, the declaration has defused China’s concerns that the Taiwan government might change its position on the South China Sea due to pressures from the United States. Interestingly, the Taipei’s statement did not mention the U-shaped Line, which is also a major part of the Philippines’ case. Whether this is a signal that the Taiwan government may abandon this line or deliberately overlook it remains a question, and one that will be especially salient following the “presidential campaign” in Taiwan in 2016.

There are two possible scenarios after the hearing. No matter which party wins the case, the award will be legally ineffective for resolving the disputes presented. If China loses the case, its claims will remain the same and its preference for solving the South China dispute through negotiations will not change. If the Philippines loses the case, it can be expected to drop this particular legal case against China. But it will not drop its objections altogether, due to the unresolved core territorial and maritime disputes between these two states. These will still need to be addressed between the two governments through negotiation.

The Philippines has been widely praised for setting the precedent of resorting to  a third-party compulsory settlement mechanism to deal with the multiple overlapping claims in the South China Sea, and the value of the compulsory dispute settlement mechanism provided by UNLCOS should not be underestimated. The impact of the arbitration case on regional security, however, should also not be overlooked, given the complex nature of the disputes involving both sovereignty and maritime delimitation. In the short term, the arbitration case has increased tensions in the South China Sea and has delayed both cooperation and progress towards an agreed Code of Conduct. Over the long term, it may clarify some legal issues, but this comes at the risk of undermining the international dispute settlement process. The South China Sea arbitration case has proven to be a typical example of a political game of international law.

This piece first appeared on the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative's website here

TopicsSecurity RegionsAsia

From Cold War to Hot Peace: Why the Mighty BRICS Matter

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As BRICS leaders met in Ufa, Russia, for their annual meeting recently, there were expectations and anxieties galore. The group met as tensions between Russia and NATO rose, Europe's circus of the absurd (the Greece crisis) continued, impending global agreements on sustainable development and climate action were being negotiated, and celebrations for the 70th anniversary of the UN approached in New York. All of this at a time when the liberal international order was shown to be inept at managing radicalism, barbarism, parochialism and illiberalism across the world.

The BRICS member states are also experiencing their own specific political moments. Russia is struggling to cope up with the dynamics of the energy sector economy and is involved in an intractable conflict in its neighborhood. Brazil seems to have lost the 'Lula mojo' and is fighting economic and political inner demons. South Africa and its enthusiasm for being the gateway to Africa has suffered a body blow with reports of a series of fatal attacks on African migrants. India is pre-occupied with rewriting its story under the tireless outreach of Prime Minister Modi, who is exclusively focused on reshaping India's economic trajectory. And then there is China, which is putting together the plans and institutions that might soon constitute the 'Beijing Consensus' that could dominate the geo-economic landscape over the next few decades.

The 77-paragraph outcomes statement from the summit was inevitably going to be a list of ideas that would cater to different expectations and aspirations of each of its members.

What BRICS means for Russia

For Russia, the political takeaways are the key. If one was to go through the list of Russian proposals on BRICS cooperation in the months leading up to the summit (some at the official level others at track II dialogues), you would detect an aspiration to create a political aggregation among the BRICS collective. These proposals included an ambitious agreement on cyber security, cooperation on outer space, peace and conflict treaties, a proposal on planetary defense, a new agreement on non-aggression and peaceful co-existence, non-proliferation arrangements around new technologies and even a new arms control and export control regime.

As Russia's global legitimacy shrinks, the role of BRICS as a legitimizing platform becomes more important for Moscow.

For many Russians, the world has moved on from the Cold War of the last century to the 'Hot Peace' of the current one. To them, BRICS must be a force for stability, and one that can counter what they see as the eastward expansion of the Atlantic alliance. That the official statement covers some of these Russian ideas (watered down, no doubt) is Russia's gain.

What BRICS means for China

The import of BRICS for the Chinese is starkly different. They are in the process of resetting some key rules that have defined postwar geo-politics and geo-economics. To them, BRICS may be another platform that will institutionalize and promote those facets of global engagement that benefit China. While confrontation between Russia and NATO is something from which Beijing would wish to keep a healthy distance, China's leaders realize that a beleaguered Russia offers them a chance to consolidate their 'March west' agenda, through the central Asian and Eurasian landmass and into the heart of the EU.

Still, never in their wildest dreams would China's leaders have imagined the servility Russia is now demonstrating.

A Russia that once killed the opportunity to integrate with Western Europe because Moscow was unwilling to play anything less than 'big brother' now seems willing to play second fiddle to the Chinese dragon. Such was the level of kowtowing to China's ambitions and agenda that many at the track II meetings over the past couple of months remarked that Russia had officially replaced South Africa as China's 'B Team' within BRICS. One Russian proposition went so far as to suggest that the New Development Bank (NDB; a joint BRICS development bank but one which is strongly influenced by Beijing) must support and lend to the Chinese One Belt One Road initiative. This was reminiscent of the concentration of all financial flows in the past century serving to reinforce US power.

But for Beijing, BRICS could offer three key benefits vital for its national project. First, BRICS offers a truly large economic landscape on which the experiment to internationalize the Renminbi could begin. The NDB, the trade cooperation agreement and the economic cooperation pact among BRICS could facilitate this. The second key advantage has to be diversification of the Chinese product market by moving towards an eventual BRICS Free Trade Zone, seeds for which were planted in Ufa.

The final advantage of BRICS for China is the affirmation it gives to the legitimacy of the Chinese system, something no democratic bloc has accorded Beijing before. Outside the BRICS context, it's hard to imagine Brazil, South Africa and India discussing, defending and promoting the Beijing Consensus, which is premised on everything these three democracies otherwise abhor. BRICS gives the Chinese dragon the license to drive a wedge in the liberal order.

What BRICS means for South Africa

South Africa is a BRICS anomaly; it is dwarfed in demographic and physical size by the others in the group. Yet it is this anomaly that makes the BRICS gambit so important for South Africa – effectively acting as its ticket into the big league. Pretoria has been promised a regional hub of the BRICS bank, which means South Africa will be the node for BRICS into Africa. This puts a potent tool in South African hands but also saddles it with the responsibility of reconciling its differences with other African economies and polities.

What BRICS means for Brazil

Brazil is struggling to define its role in BRICS, with its attendance reduced to the mundane. Much of this has been due to the Government being bogged down by domestic problems, leading to a loss of the momentum that President Lula had injected. For a country that is still searching for its place in the world, the Lula vision was to move Brazil from being merely 'that big country on the left of the map' to becoming a critical partner in the Asian century. BRICS provided it a free ride to undertake this ambitious plan. But it remains to be seen how and when Brazil will overcome its inertia.

What BRICS means for India

Finally we have India, in many ways the proverbial swing state for which BRICS could offer the flexibility it needs and without which the BRICS would not just lose its 'I' but also a fair part of its identity. For a country that is slowly but surely exhibiting signs of becoming part of the liberal order it once opposed, BRICS is the rhetorical, normative and tactical vehicle to affect its transition from 'trade union leader' to 'global manager'.

The BRICS rubric also allows for sustained engagement with China, which could build multiple dependencies. It enables India to demonstrate muscularity on its border dispute with China while concurrently embracing it. For example, the New Development Bank and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank enable India to participate in Beijing's ambitions and benefit from it (it needs huge doses of commercial loans and development finance) without being socialized into 'Pax Sinica'.

BRICS will be beneficial for India if it opts for pragmatism over ideology and sees the Beijing Consensus as means of shaping the discourse of the 'east' until it is able to script one of its own. On the other hand, if Delhi chooses to play the ideological card, it will end up on the wrong end of the bargain as it did with the Washington Consensus – staying out and consequently being excluded from the mechanisms and institutions that shape global development and direct global capital.

BRICS is also the last hand India has to play with Russia, given the dwindling interdependence between the two states. India fears continental encirclement, owing to increased Russian engagement with Pakistan (visible in the diluted treatment of counter-terrorism in the BRICS outcomes statement) and what it believes is a Russian slide into China's orbit. Consequently, it will be through the normative processes as well as the economics of the BRICS grouping that India can maintain a serious balancing play with Moscow.

Finally we must acknowledge that for all the talk of a rising democratic India being welcomed with open arms by the great powers, India's acceptance into the Western-led global order has been lukewarm. A deeper integration into BRICS, as the outcomes statement promises, will give Delhi far greater bargaining power in negotiating its place within the global political and economic governance institutions currently dominated by the West.

This piece first appeared in the Lowy Interpreter here.

Image: Office of the President, Russian Federation. 

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