Does IBSA matter?

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When IBSA, a trilateral alliance of India, Brazil and South Africa, was created in 2003, few analysts believed the outfit had much potential. Bringing up the  issue with policy makers in the United States or Europe would draw blank stares. For two years, no academic bothered to publish an article on the matter.

Yet eight years and five summits on, the IBSA bloc has turned into an accepted platform for the three emerging powers to engage, allowing them to debate, coordinate and articulate a range of domestic and geopolitical issues. Contrarty to most alliances, the link between the three countries is not geographical, but situational, turning it into one of the more innovative constructs in international politics in the last decade. Its key motivation is the joint belief that, aside from their increasing individual importance in global affairs, all three IBSA members' opinions on several  issues overlap, pointing to mutual benefits through cooperation. Summit declarations have included issues as varied as climate change, trade policy, nuclear policy and military intervention. In addition, 16 working groups areas such as energy have been set up.

At the same time, IBSA is not without its critics. After last week's summit, sceptics have argued that national interests diverge too much for the three to agree on what matters. The working groups have yet to produce any tangible results. It is true that the Tshwane Declaration contains many truisms, but little to impress international observers. While some had hoped for a breakthrough on the project to launch a joint space satellite, the final document merely noted that India had agreed to host more meetings to debate the matter. Similarly, the three failed to make any significant progress in their attempt to create a free trade area (FTA).

Yet despite the rather low-key declaration and no big breaktrough, IBSA matters, and this years' summit was of particulary importance given that the three countries all hold non-permanent seats in the UN Security Council, providing their voice with additional weight at such a momentous time of global economic turmoil and political uprisings in the Middle East. Dilma's mention during her opening speech that "while there was been a lot of talk (...) of the right to protect, there is little said about the responsibility while protecting" may seem insignificant and did not enter the final declaration, yet in essence means that if carried out in a responsible manner, Brazil could in principle, support intervention in the UN Security Council in the future. Neither India nor South Africa are fundamentally opposed to this idea.

All three fast-growing economies, bustling democracies and aspiring leaders in their region with global ambitions, IBSA holds significant potential - if the three were able to align their positions regarding topics such as trade. Considering their different regional contexts, their difficulty in doing so is natural, but should not count against the institution as such. China's decision to include South Africa into the BRICS can be regarded as a subtle attempt to eventually replace IBSA, yet the three democracies should seek to protect their space for dialogue from China.

At the same time, IBSA is a necessary vehicle to close the gap that exists between civil societies in the three countries, and an important platform to exchange expertise in areas in which they face similar challenges. The Indian government has probably been most active in promoting societal links between the three, but efforts are still negligible, for example when compared to China's strategy - for example, there are now Confucius Instiutes across all IBSA countries.

In order to increase IBSA's importance, economic ties, still low, need to be strengthened. The fact that trade links have increased despite the crisis are laudable (they are about to reach $20 billion), but far from enough. An FTA would be a crucial step in the right direction. Visa waiver programs, like the one that exists between Brazil and Russia, would facilitate cooperation further and strengthen tourism among the three. Transport links also need to be improved.

As IBSA approaches its 10th anniversary, it has established itself as an important platform to facilitate communication between three rising democracies. Rather than making grand statements about the future of global order, as heard so often during the BRICS summits, IBSA will quietly contribute towards stronger cooperation between India, Brazil and South Africa.

Read also:

Why IBSA and BRICS should not merge

India: The Next Superpower?

Seeing India through Brazilian eyes

Photo credit: AFP