Guest post by Sumantra Maitra
Among other interminable dross that were churned in the recently concluded 5th annual BRICS summit in South Africa, was the idea of a Development bank, by the five ever-rising economic powers. Although the details are vague, like any other diplomatic summit declaration trying to obfuscate the deep fissures within this coalition of unequals, the fact that India agreed to this disaster in the making is a new low in the foreign policy of a country, which is not much known for rational and realistic choices. The idea behind the development bank is indeed noble, “to address…the infrastructure gap in developing countries…”, especially in Africa. But the intention to make it successful or meaningful or the national interest of each member of the coalition is not clear. One thing, which is however clear, is Indian ambivalent skepticism about bandwagoning with any power simultaneously coupled with the Nehruvian idea of being a “messiah of the mass” and trying to be a leader of the third world, which reflects the mindset of Indian bureaucracy and ruling elite, is increasingly drawing India into a dilemma.
The BRICS is not an alliance. It is an arbitrarily formed group, mentioned in passing by an ex-banker, which was so captivating to the ruling elite of the grouped nations that they thought of formalizing it in an institution. Initially starting as rising economies, a perceivable counter balance to the G-8, these economies are no longer rising, with deep structural and institutional flaws, different modes of governance, deteriorating law and order situation and freedom of expression and censorship issues, different economic fundamentals and most importantly, absolutely different and divergent world view and interest. Joshua Keating pointed out why the BRICS couldn’t be more different than each other. The last addition to this coalition, South Africa, is the messiest of them all. The selection of South Africa is ofcourse controversial and political, regarded often as a quota position from the African continent, as it leaves out far more competent and growing economies like Indonesia, Turkey and South Korea. This comes when BRICS are accused of neo-imperialism, and banners like “don’t carve out Africa” were found everywhere near the summit in Durban.
It is well known, that the primary drivers behind the ideation in the BRICS are Russia and China. Russia wants to bandwagon with China to balance the influence of United States. The motivation and Great power nostalgia of Russian elite is simple enough to fathom. The Chinese interest is however far more complex. As a growing hegemon, China actually has interest in Africa, both geo-politically and economically. The resources of Africa are mostly still unexplored, and the market potential of cheap Chinese manufactured goods is enormous. This however comes at a time, when China is increasingly viewed with suspicion in Africa. The last couple of years have seen the murder of Chinese engineers by disgruntled and exploited African labourers, incessant strikes in Chinese operated industries and mines, and the now infamous op-ed by Lamido Sanusi, the governor of Central Bank of Nigeria, where he accused China of having neo-colonial ambitions. China now wants to portray itself as a benevolent and altruistic force, and therefore wanted to soothe Africa under the BRICS front. India, for all its independent and non-aligned foreign policy, is legitimizing Chinese actions.
It is puzzling to fathom why India is following Chinese and Russian lead. For a start, Russia is not what it used to be. It clearly views China as a far superior partner than India, and a market for superior weapons and technology, ironically at the same time when India received massive aid grant from Japan. India and China are not really partners, and as I wrote here before, will probably not be in the near foreseeable future. Nor is Indian business interest in Africa that important, scalable or maintainable. For example, assuming that India invests in some African country under the BRICS development bank, tomorrow if there is some kind of unrest, is India capable or willing to defend its business interest? India never showed any willingness to aggressively promote or defend its business interests, be it Afghanistan, Maldives, or South China Sea, and there is no reason to believe India would do that in Africa. India also lacks such far off power projection capability. Which brings us to question the wisdom; do the benefits of Indian investment in Africa outweigh the cost? What is the incentive of pledging tens of billions of dollars, all Indian taxpayers’ money, in a region which is beset by uncertainty, instability and conflict, or starting a monetary organization, potentially rival to IMF/World Bank which will not be of any direct benefit to the already slowing economy and growth rate?
On the other hand, India will eventually be viewed as just another neo-colonial resource grabbing power like China, if it continues to be with the BRICS. The respect that India enjoyed in Africa, and the goodwill as a potential democratic competitor of China will fade away, with India just being a satellite of Chinese ambitions, a satisfied mid level power in an institution guided by Russian and Chinese geo-political interests. Nor is Indian interest, in the BRICS assisted conflict resolution in Central African Republic understandable. Again, the question is geo-political, what IS India’s interest? Tomorrow if Russia leads the BRICS into conflict resolution in Syria, will India be willing to commit its resources?
As this Economist essay explains, India is utterly confused about its growing clout and new found respect as a rising power, lacks a political will, strategic culture, a status-quo bureaucracy, and timely and fast decision making infrastructure. Added to that is the notorious ambivalence towards aligning with the West, even though being perfectly aware that in the great scheme of the game, China stands as the largest potential rival. This ambivalence and skepticism stems from the utterly discredited NAM mentality which is still somehow widely followed among the Indian foreign policy circles, and the moral, altruistic, socialist Nehruvian world view, without any long term planning or Realist Raison D’etat. With the BRICS now attracting countries like Egypt, a slow and painful repetition of the outdated Indian NAM policies are in the process. Everyone knows how NAM turned out. One can only hope that India’s policymakers realize soon where her interests lie.
(Sumantra Maitra is a freelance journalist from India and a tutor of New Zealand Foreign Policy and Theories of International Relations, at the University of Otago, New Zealand. You can follow him on twitter @dailyworldwatch.)