BRICS: How far have equations changed after the summit?

President of Brazil Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, President of China Xi Jinping, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi and Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov pose for a BRICS family photo during the 2023 BRICS Summit at the Sandton Convention Centre in Johannesburg, South Africa, on 23 August, 2023

I had written a column in Prothom Alo on 26 June this year with the heading ‘Is joining BRICS an economic or political decision?’ We have by now come to know the outcome of this decision to join BRICS. Six countries have been given membership, but not Bangladesh.

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Bangladesh took the decision to become a BRICS member quite out of the blue. We hadn’t heard from any quarter that Bangladesh would stand to gain either economically or commercially by joining BRICS. And so it was quite clear that the government had taken the decision on ‘political’ grounds. And this ‘political’ reason was the forthcoming election in Bangladesh.

Whether we like it or not, regional and international geopolitics has become entwined in Bangladesh’s next election. In that sense, it is not just ‘politics’ that has played a role behind this decision of Bangladesh, but ‘geopolitics’ too. The government was well aware that the western countries would not be pleased at Bangladesh joining BRICS. Bangladesh had probably thought that if it became a member of BRICS, then its importance would increase in geopolitical equations and a stand would be taken up to counter the pressure from the US and the western countries for a free and fair election.

Also, China’s encouragement and support probably influenced Bangladesh regarding joining BRICS as a member. China’s interest in getting Bangladesh to join BRICS was possibly to assert its own strength within the grouping. China is the most influential country in BRICS. With China’s support in mind, the government had most likely taken it for granted that it would gain BRICS membership. According to a report of Prothom Alo, Bangladesh took no special diplomatic initiative to get BRICS membership other than to submit its application.

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The stance of the global superpowers is quite clear concerning Bangladesh’s election. The US and countries of the west have taken up a policy to keep pressure on the government to ensure a free and fair election in Bangladesh. They are taking all sorts of steps on the issues of the election, democracy and human rights.

According to reports in the media, China and Russia were in favour of increasing the number of members in BRICS, but India and Brazil were opposed

China and Russia have a different stand. The two countries at various times have made their support towards the Awami League government quite clear. They view the activities of the western countries as interference in Bangladesh’s domestic affairs. They maintain that they do not interfere in the election process of any country. But the fact remains that issues such as elections, democracy or human rights are totally overlooked and questionable in these countries. So it is only natural for them not to be bothered over the election process of any country.

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According to reports in the media, China and Russia were in favour of increasing the number of members in BRICS, but India and Brazil were opposed. India was in favour of fixing certain criteria to determine membership before expanding BRICS. According to Reuters, India had said that the criteria for membership should be that none of the interested countries could be target of international sanctions and they must also have a minimum per capita GDP requirement. However, it can’t be concluded that membership was provided on this basis as this does not quite tally with the six counties that were given membership.

There really seems no reason for China and Russia not to give support to Bangladesh’s BRICS membership. Then again, India is Bangladesh government’s closest friend. This was proven in the last two elections. These three countries are certainly the most powerful in this five-member grouping. But even so, Bangladesh was not given BRICS members. We have been unable to discern from BRICS or any other sources why this was so. What is clear, however, was that there was either no strong support for Bangladesh, or there was strong opposition to Bangladesh joining the bloc.

From the very outset Indian had been wary of expanding BRICS membership. Certain foreign policy analysts of India have said that China wants to bolster its own camp within BRICS by increasing the number of members. In no way does India want BRICS to emerge as an anti-West grouping in accordance to China’s wishes.

The Delhi-based think-tank Observer Research Foundation (ORF)’s foreign policy expert Professor Harsh V Pant has highlighted certain discomfort of India regarding China’s role and position in BRICS. He told Bangla Tribune (23 August 2003), “China has been trying to give an anti-Western orientation to BRICS for quite some time now. Russia, cornered by the Western world due to the war in Ukraine, is also tuning in to that tune. But for good reason neither India nor Brazil can match it. Moreover, it should be remembered that India itself is a member of the Quad (Australia, Japan and India – a security alliance of these four countries). So Delhi will try to keep a balance between the two.”

The question now is, is the issue of Bangladesh not getting membership in any way linked to India’s efforts to keep BRICS free from any ‘anti-Western orientation’? Or has Dhaka been dropped as part of Delhi’s efforts to strike a ‘balance’? Or would China’s camp grow strong if Bangladesh was given membership? Would that be singing to China and Russia’s ‘tune’?

Bangladesh’s foreign secretary gave an explanation as to why Bangladesh did not receive BRICS membership. He said, alongside political and regional considerations, there may have also been the matter of balance. The answer to those questions lies in the foreign secretary’s words.

Bangladesh wanted to become a BRICS member in its own political and geopolitical considerations. And it is geopolitical considerations that eventually worked against Bangladesh getting the membership. In short, this was the China-India geopolitical calculations and conflict at play.

Now the question is, has Bangladesh’s geopolitical equations gained a new dimension in election politics after BRICS? After all, the BRICS summit has made it clear that Bangladesh’s three close countries and declared friends can adopt different stands when it comes to standing by the government.

During bilateral talks with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in Johannesburg, Xi Jinping reiterated his country’s opposition to outside interference in Bangladesh. And on 7 September the Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov will be coming to Dhaka. This visit probably is to assert more firmly Russia’s political support to the Awami League government which is under western pressure. After that Sheikh Hasina will go to Delhi to attend the G-20 summit. She is scheduled to hold bilateral talks with the Indian prime minister Modi there. The eventual outcome of the post-BRICS equations will perhaps then become clear.

The BRICS summit experience indicates that China and Russia’s support for the Awami League government may not be on the same lines as India’s support. Will India still work on striking a China-Russia and US-West balance over here too?

* AKM Zakaria is deputy editor or Prothom Alo and can be contacted at [email protected]

* This column appeared in the print and online edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten for the English edition by Ayesha Kabir