Why IBSA and BRICS should not merge


Foreign Policy Research Center (FPRC) – www.fprc.in

FPRC Journal-11-“India and Latin America”



When China announced that it had invited South Africa to participate in the 3rd BRICS Summit in Sanya in 2011, thus adding a new member to the group that had come into being only a few years earlier, most Brazilian and Indian analysts welcomed the move. After all, South Africa’s inclusion was very much in line with both countries’ efforts to strengthen their presence on the African continent.
In addition, adding Africa’s biggest economy tipped the balance in favor of democracies in the BRICS group. From Brazil’s perspective, the expansion reduced Brazil’s self-perception as the outsider in the group. Until 2011, the BRIC group was made up of three Asian powers that shared a long history of intense cultural and economic relations and far-away Brazil, which struggled to find a common denominator with the other members. South Africa’s inclusion globalized the BRICS group and increased its capacity to represent the ‘Global South’, a move that found strong approval in Brazil.

Both the 3rd BRICS Summit in China and the 4th summit in New Delhi turned out to be a success – despite the continued insistence of European and US-American commentators that the BRICS have little in common – and the BRICS group is now an essential component of its members’ foreign policy frameworks. South Africa seamlessly integrated into the grouping, and for Brazil in particular the BRICS group is now an important vehicle that helps strengthen its partnerships with other emerging actors and consolidate its role as a speaker of those who seek to make global order more inclusive. China’s decision to add South Africa was thus generally seen as a great success that boosted the BRICS’ visibility in global affairs.

China’s interest in an IBSA-BRICS merger

At the 4th BRICS Summit in New Delhi, several delegates and observers noted how much the BRICS grouping had evolved – the agenda now included not only first-order geostrategic issues such as the global distribution of power and institutional responsibility and questions of war and peace, but also developmental and social questions such as education, universal health care and the environment – many issues that had previously be discussed between India, Brazil and South Africa at the yearly IBSA Summits. From a Chinese point of view, the ‘IBSAzation’ of the BRICS Summits is desirable as it may at some point lead to the merger of the two groupings. Such a move would eliminate IBSA, an attractive and potentially meaningful outfit that had deliberately chosen not to invite China.
IBSA, which was created in 2003, symbolizes the Lula administration’s early efforts to strengthen South-South relations and seek closer ties with regional leaders in the developing world. Celso Amorim, Brazil’s foreign minister under

Lula’s eight year-long presidency (2003-2010), traveled to Africa more often than any other foreign minister in history, a decision that initially faced stiff domestic opposition but which has found a growing acceptance by Brazil’s political mainstream thinkers. Aside from sharing knowledge about how to deal with common domestic challenges – such as inequality, education, health care, IBSA could rely on a series of common international interests.

Most importantly, however, the three IBSA members identified themselves as partners because they share a set of fundamental notions about global order. As emerging countries that are not yet fully integrated in today’s international structures, they all consider current structures to be unjust and in need of reform. While the degree of rejection of some institutions differs – for example, India is far more hostile towards the NPT than Brazil – all three agree that they deserve more institutional responsibility, including a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. On this front, they clearly diverge from the Chinese position. This can largely be explained by the fact that China is a much more established actor, and hence status quo power, than India, Brazil and South Africa.

In addition, all three IBSA members are democracies and are thus able to freely debate issues related to human rights and civil society – matters than cannot be discussed openly at BRICS Summits.

Finally, Brazil’s decision keep the grouping to a mere three members helped create an intimate setting undisturbed by at times strained bilateral ties – after all, relations between India, Brazil and South Africa are simply too incipient to hit any meaningful roadblocks or clashes of interest. This advantage is reflected in an argument made by Samuel Pinheiro Guimarães, a Brazilian diplomat and influential thinker during the Lula administration, who points out in his book Five Hundred Years on the Periphery, “despite the differences between Brazil and other large peripheral states, inasmuch as they share common characteristics and interests and are far away from one another, they do not have direct competitive interests and are therefore able to construct common political projects.” (Guimarães, Samuel Pinheiro, 1999. Quinhentos Anos de Periferia. Porto Alegre: Contraponto, 1999)

Some argue that despite a series of joint activities, including military exercises (IBSAMAR), development projects and regular meetings of a series of working groups, IBSA has yet to fulfill its real potential. Yet its greatest positive externality it creates is clearly an approximation in a more general sense – allowing think tanks, civil society, academia, public sector technocrats and foreign policy makers to engage and develop joint strategies to common problems. Seen from that perspective, IBSA has already been a success as it shifted its members’ attention towards their fellow emerging powers. And despite IBSA’s mixed record and arguably limited geostrategic importance, China can be said to have an interest in seeing IBSA become redundant given an ever more comprehensive BRICS agenda.

BRICS and IBSA: Synergies yes, merger no

Brazil, India and South Africa should resist such a move, even when there is an overlap between the debates at BRICS and IBSA Summits. Precisely China’s absence makes IBSA an interesting platform for debating global challenges in a different context- and also speak frankly about a challenge that cannot be addressed at BRICS Summits – namely, how to deal with the rise of China.
That does not mean that no synergies exist between IBSA and BRICS – quite to the contrary: Ideas and concepts developed at IBSA Summits should be brought into discussions at BRICS Summits and vice versa. Topics such as the environment, global governance, economic development, maritime security and how the international community should react to the uprisings in the Middle East should be dealt with both at IBSA and BRICS summits.
Both institutions play an important role in helping emerging powers not only sit at the important tables, but also articulate which topics should be discussed in the first place – that is, to turn into global agenda setters.


Read also:

The case for Stronger Brazil-India Relations

“Identity and the concept of the West: The case of Brazil and India” (Revista Brasileira de Política Internacional)

Responding to global development challenges: Views from Brazil and India

BRICS Summit: A Perspective from Brazil (Interview with AlJazeera)

Does IBSA matter?