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Managing Multilateralism with China: The test case of BRICS, an Indian perspective

Published onJun 02, 2023
Managing Multilateralism with China: The test case of BRICS, an Indian perspective

Multilateralism is generally understood as a system of collaboration between several countries in pursuit of common goals. While multilateralism is usually associated with the United Nations which has nearly universal membership of all countries, it also covers smaller international groupings of nations where countries coordinate elements of their national policies in pursuit of common goals. Such coordination provides influence to the many and promotes greater participation by them in global affairs, on the principle of sovereign equality.

I say this though multilateralism took the shape by which we describe it now, in the post World War II era when the world order was marked by great power asymmetries and polarization. Yet institutional structures of multilateralism were built among groups of countries based on common interests, commitment to reciprocity, and mechanisms for resolving differences. Thus in addition to the UN there were specialized frameworks like GATT for multilateralism on specific elements of state policies. Within the UN framework countries have set up coalitions for the Global South like G 77 which function multilaterally. The Non- Aligned Movement which aimed at providing an alternative to bipolarity, was also an exercise in multilateralism through participation of the many for promoting common interests on the basis of equality, and reciprocity in dealing with each other in regard to the group’s agenda.

BRICS brings together five of the largest countries in the world- not usually included in the “developed nations” category. Yet they constitute over 40% of the world’s population; 25% of global GDP and about 17% of world trade. Jim O’Neill of Goldman Sachs- who I knew as a Minister in the UK Govt, when I was in London- initially coined the acronym BRIC in 2001, noting that growth trends indicated that over the next three to four decades these four countries would individually have far greater economic space in the world- collectively even exceeding the G 7.

BRIC countries started as a group in 2006 during the Outreach at the G 8-(the erstwhile, and now again, G7) Summit in St Petersburg. The leading role of Russia in the evolution of the group is noteworthy. Thereafter more formally BRIC Foreign Ministers met at the UNGA to launch the new group. Yet it took till 2009 for the first BRIC Summit to be held at Yektarinburg in Russia, in 2009. In 2010 the Foreign Ministers of the four countries agreed after consultations to invite South Africa into the group, and BRIC became BRICS. The group has held together despite the challenges of the geopolitical and financial/economic crises since then. Fourteen Summit level meetings have been held and BRICS has set up institutions like the New Development Bank

There is an alternate view that the origins of the idea go back to Russian Prime Minister Primakov’s proposal for a Russia-India-China grouping put forward in December 1998. RIC meetings at ministerial level have been held since the early 2000s , but there have been only three Summits and the group does not have an institutional structure. In 1998 India was cautious about the proposal, but given its Russian provenance, took a look at it. (As recalled by a former senior official in the Indian Prime Minister’s Office. (1). China was however negative, and according to Susan Tapply of RFE/RL “appeared to quickly sink the idea”. (2) At that point China prioritized its relations with the US. China and the US had – a few months earlier- issued a Joint Statement on South Asia in which the two countries claimed to “ recognize our responsibility to contribute actively to maintenance of peace stability and security in the ( South Asian) region”. (3) India had then categorically rejected this attempt at a G2 as reflecting “ hegemonistic mentality of a bygone era, and completely unacceptable..” (4)

Even in the years before the BRIC leaders met in Yektarinberg, according to then Foreign Secretary of India, China, had sought clarifications to ensure a largely economic agenda for the group. (5) India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh nevertheless stated , in the context of the inaugural meeting, that BRIC had a role to play in promoting multilateralism and reform of institutions of global importance, including the UN, to reflect contemporary realities. This approach was reflected in the Joint Statement on the basis of consensus.

I recall this background, as there is in India not just official, but also intellectual support for BRICS as a multilateral institution which can influence the creation of a more equitable and multipolar world order. In his book ‘Powershift’, the scholar Z Daulet Singh argued that BRICS has the opportunity “to promote a narrative for the international community and the broader Global South that can break from the stale discourse on global governance and development that has been seriously discredited over the past decade” And further “the inclusion of South Africa in the 2011 Sanya summit has made BRICS an exemplary ‘transcontinental’ and multi-civilizational network of states”. (6)

By the time of the 2012 summit in Delhi, in which I participated, an emphasis on ensuring multilateralism, and reform of global governance, including the UN Security Council was clearly articulated; (India, Brazil and South Africa had all been members in 2011) amidst the growing agenda. At Delhi a joint working group to study The New Development Bank was agreed; NDB is seen as a success of multilateralism, as it is based on the principle of equal voting rights , even if initial contributions were not (China’s was the largest). The contrast to the Bretton Woods institutions was widely noted.

The BRICS agenda has expanded considerably from its initial focus on economic and global governance issues , with political and security cooperation, and people-to-people exchanges as pillars. Thus climate change, terrorism, food and energy security, telecommunications, agriculture, trade and WTO , labour and employment were all added to the agenda. During the Chinese Chair of BRICS in 2022 this resulted in over 160 meetings, including more than 20 at Ministerial level. The South African Chair plans equally large numbers of meetings.

In addition to expansion of the agenda there has been increasing intrusion of geopolitical differences into the BRICS debates, particularly in the last few years as China’s relations with the US deteriorated. In India there has been a growing sense of unease at China’s attempts to direct the grouping in line with China’s foreign policy priorities. News reports have emerged of disagreements between China and India over attempts to include in BRICS statements references to the BRI which includes elements that India regards as an affront to its sovereignty. Other members also viewed China’s desire to insert language on non-politicization of the origin of the Covid pandemic, as unnecessary and dragging BRICS into disputes outside the agreed work agenda.

The Chinese attack on Indian soldiers at Galwan in May 2020 has not only damaged bilateral relations , but according to analysts, increased India’s determination to resist Chinese attempts to dominate the agenda of BRICS. Writing on Sept 2, 2021 in ‘The Hindu’ former Indian Ambassador Rajiv Bhatia recalled the Indian External Affairs Ministers statement to the BRICS Academic Forum that “counter dominance instinct and principled commitment to multipolarity in all its forms is written into the DNA of BRICS”; and added that “ India officials rightly remind us that BRICS emerged from the desire to challenge dominance (by the US) in the early years of the century and it remains committed to the goal of counter dominance (by China) now” (7)

The other members’ views on the Chinese role are raised obliquely; however during the recent Raisina Dialogue in Delhi, discussions during a BRICS Think-Tank breakfast meeting suggest that many Indian concerns are shared by others. The panellist from Brazil ( Renato Baumann ) noted that with each Chair adding issues to the agenda, the original objective of influencing global governance gets blurred. There was not enough complementarity and mutual understanding -which is an argument against enlarging the group The argument made by some in favour was that it would reduce the relative weight of China; it is often mentioned that BRICS is China+4 ! (emphasis added by author) The Russian panellist ( Victoria Panova) also emphasized focus on the multilateral agenda; recalling that what has held up to now is that BRICS is not against anybody !

Examining these comments further, it appears that the experience of BRICS as a test case for managing multilateralism with China leaves much to be desired. Daulet Singh had compared US’ role in the post war multilateralism with that of China, saying “ the logic for stronger rising powers such as China to initiate a (similar) process of sharing power and authority to create durable institutions exists. “ (There is merit in this comparison as China’s economic strength within BRICS is almost preponderant: 18% out of BRICS 25% share of global GDP; about 12% of BRICS 17% share of world trade).

Daulet Singh noted that China “is finding it beneficial to invest in multilateral institutions where its relative economic weight may not yield immediate national payoffs”. He argued against the views of some observers that “this is a mere temporary expedience before China reverts to traditional geopolitical behaviour by steering BRICS to become a Chinese handmaiden” by noting that it should not be presumed that Moscow, Delhi, Cape Town and Brasilia lack the “agency and skill to defend the shared norms that underpin BRICS”. (8)

There is some evidence of this defence of norms happening- in an official document; viz the BRICS Joint Statement of May 20, 2022 following the meeting of Foreign Ministers in virtual format with China in the chair. (9)

The Statement includes the following reference in Para 1: “The Ministers agreed that facing the newly emerging features and challenges, the BRICS countries should enhance their solidarity and cooperation and work together to address them. In this regard they recalled the adoption in 2021 by BRICS Sherpas of the revised Terms of Reference for guiding BRICS engagement going forward on its working methods, scope of engagement and the Chair’s mandate”. (Emphasis added)

While no details of the terms of reference are available in the public domain, discussions during think tank meetings pointed to dissatisfaction at the failure to maintain consensus, on work procedures and on China’s attempts to insert issues reflecting its foreign policy priorities into BRICS agendas.

The BRICS Think Tank breakfast (referred to above) could not be attended by the Chinese delegate; the representative sent as replacement was a journalist who said she was a specialist on climate change issues, without expertise on BRICS matters. While the meeting itself was a non- official think tank dialogue arranged by ORF in India, speaking to other delegations one got the impression that the experience of last minute confirmations/replacements had been experienced even for official BRICS events. While ensuring participation in over a hundred meetings annually, is no easy task, BRICS must be given weight by its members, if it is to succeed. In informal conversation one participant noted that at the first Sherpas meeting during South Africa’s current Chair, the Chinese Sherpa left well before the meeting concluded.

Expansion of BRICS with new members is presently high on China’s agenda and is being pursued despite lack of consensus. While BRICS has a long tradition of Outreach, this is traditionally limited to the summit meetings with leaders of other countries or groups invited for discussions. However during the Chinese Chair, in the virtual meeting of Foreign Ministers in May 2022, China unilaterally got Foreign Ministers from nine other countries for an outreach! At the 2022 Beijing BRICS summit no consensus could be reached on the subject of expansion, as other members took a cautious view; and the Beijing Declaration (10) concluded ‘We stress the need to clarify the guiding principles, standards, criteria and procedures for the expansion process through Sherpas channel on the basis of full consultation and consensus”. (Emphasis added).

This takes the story back to the origins of BRICS in the early 2000s, and the multilateral alternative it was meant to provide to the existing (western dominated) world order and the globalization impulse of that order. China was then a net beneficiary of both, and till a few years ago its thrust was to continually increase its weight and role in major structures of existing world order. (China which declares itself a developing country, associated itself with the G 77 group of the South in the 1990s but chose the path of a forum titled G 77 And China!). In 2012 China spoke of a “New type of Great Power relationship” with the US, leading to speculation about a G2 as the aim.

It is after its differences with the US got exacerbated that China sought to dominate BRICS using it as counterweight. In a RT op-ed Fyodor Lukyanov ( Research Director of the Valdai International Discussion Club) wrote “ There is much debate in America about the last few decades and there is complaining that it is China that has gained most from the interaction. Criteria may vary but it is hard to disagree that Beijing has been the primary beneficiary- at least in terms of transformation of the country and its place on the international stage. So much so that it was extremely difficult for Beijing to understand that this super favourable advantageous situation would come to an end”; and “China’s attempts in the late 2010s and early 2020s to slow down the American pressure have run up against Washington’s firm intention to move the relationship into the category of strategic competition. “To be fair, China’s assertiveness and self confidence were also growing but if everything depended on Beijing alone the period of beneficial cooperation would have lasted several more years”.(11)

In conclusion the BRICS experience of managing multilateralism with China has been mixed. Following a relatively collaborative experience in the first decade, today the BRICS test case is very discouraging. The present world scene of geopolitical disorder, nuclear tensions, global challenges of food and energy security, and developing countries’ debts, requires BRICS to function effectively with real multilateralism and support for a peaceful, and balanced global order. I say real multilateralism since a recent G20 meeting could not agree on “reformed multilateralism” or “reinvigorated multilateralism” as the way forward! BRICS can choose either, but it can work only if China acts in the spirit of multilateralism with equality and reciprocity in taking forward the agenda of the group.

Ranjan Mathai.

Former Foreign Secretary of India (2011-13). The views expressed in this paper are personal.


1. Conversation with former Indian Ambassador Prabhat Shukla who was Joint Secretary in the Prime Minister’s Office in 1998..

2.Susan Tapply (RFE/RL, 23-12-1998) wrote: China appeared to quickly sink the idea. Beijing Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhu Bangzao ‘ discouraged the suggestion of a three sided special alignment saying that China is ready to develop diplomatic relations with all countries in the world.’ (

3. US-China Joint Statement on South Asia. June 27, 1998. Para 8: “ Responsibilities of US and China.”

4. Govt of India’s response to the US-China ‘Joint Statement on South Asia’. June 27, 1998. “ India categorically rejects the notion of these two countries arrogating to themselves joint or individual responsibility for ‘maintenance of peace, stability and security in the region’. This approach reflects the hegemonistic mentality of a bygone era in international relations and is completely unacceptable and out of place in the present day world”.

5. Conversation with Mr. S. Menon Foreign Secretary of India, 2006-9.

6. Powershift by Zorawar Daulet Singh :Macmillan 2020; pgs 161-162

7. Rajiv Bhatia: Its time to build BRICS better : Gateway House/ The Hindu; 01-09-2021

8. Powershift; pg 164

9. BRICS Foreign Ministers meeting May 2022. BRICS Joint statement on Strengthening BRICS Solidarity and Cooperation.

10. XIV BRICS Summit Beijing Declaration (para 73)

11.Fyodor Lukyanov: ‘China is finally stepping up to its role as a superpower’ : .RT March 4, 2023.

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