Last year, South Africa hosted the 5th summit of the India-Brazil-South Africa (IBSA) Trilateral Dialogue Forum. In 2013 it is India’s turn.
This will mark the 10th anniversary of the Brasilia Declaration that led to the trilateral build up toward the summits of heads-of-state of the three countries that have occurred over the last several years. Meanwhile, all three countries have become members of BRICS, the symbolic vanguard among emerging powers leading the non-Western ‘Rest’ through a transition of relative rise amid Western relative decline.
BRICS has garnered considerably more attention than IBSA and is taken much more seriously as a revisionist actor given the great power status of Russia and China compared to the ‘middle power’ profiles of India, Brazil and South Africa. Russia may be something of a ‘has been’ as the former superpower competitor of the US when it was the Soviet Union. But it remains at least a regionalized great power nonetheless. China on the other hand has effectively emerged.
In some eyes, IBSA has been rendered redundant
Given perceptions of Sino-Russia as strategic competitors of ‘lone superpower’ America, BRICS carries a weight that middle power IBSA will never carry. And, it has been gaining momentum to a point where former Indian envoy Rajiv Bhatia, director-general of the Indian Council on World Affairs was moved recently to question what he interprets as IBSA’s relevance.
Not only was BRICS giving IBSA stiff competition, but there is that ever present wonderment about the staying power of IBSA now that its troika are also in BRICS. In some eyes, IBSA has been rendered redundant. It should simply go out of business. Fair or not, given the tendency for perceptions to take on the substance of reality, IBSA seems to have arrived at a crossroads where stock-taking becomes the order of the day as the 6th summit approaches in Delhi next year.
The fact that India will be next year’s IBSA host establishes a potentially important linkage with the summit that took place in Durban last year. This presents New Delhi with a unique challenge. It is one that arrives on a wave of growing global attention focusing on the maritime realm at a time when both India and South Africa have assumed important leadership roles in Indian Ocean affairs: India chairs the Indian Ocean Rim-Association for Regional Cooperation (IOR-ARC); South Africa chairs the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS).
Now, apart from the fact that both South Africa and India are showing an increased interest in the Indian Ocean, the fact that they are members of IBSA along with Brazil illuminates something else about this grouping which has the potential to lift it off of the margins and establish it as a prime-time strategic player: its maritime initiative, IBSAMAR.
On this plane, BRICS which tends to be conflated with China and its challenge to the West, cannot compete. For the Indian Ocean and the South Atlantic represent IBSA’s comparative strategic advantage as a complementary geopolitical factor in the BRICS equation which neither China nor Russia can claim. Their comparative strategic advantage revolves around their northerly hemispheric Eurasian co-leadership of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO).
IBSAMAR, therefore, is IBSA’s ticket out of oblivion in the sweepstakes of geostrategic relevance – that is, if they have the political will to do something about it. The pregnant question in need of urgent answering, most of all by India, is whether or not the IBSA troika have the strategic vision and motivation to make something of IBSAMAR beyond a periodically symbolic coming together of their navies and other maritime fleets in exercises once every few years? Will Delhi carry the ball thrown out by South African president Jacob Zuma at last year’s summit?
Francis A. Kornegay Jr. is a senior research fellow at the Institute for Global Dialogue.
On that occasion he said that “I wish to focus our vision on possible future areas of cooperation for IBSA. As you know, the scourge of piracy has been manifesting in both the Indian and Atlantic Oceans. I am specifically contemplating a maritime security cooperation dialogue and possible framework which could further include non-security functional cooperation areas of engagement. We can reflect more on this and make proposals.”
Thus, the ball is now in India’s court to take further reflections and proposals to deepen IBSAMAR. For the need to deepen IBSA’s initiatives was the point made by Ambassador Bhatia although he had other areas of engagement in mind, none of which would carry the weight of IBSAMAR (such as the IBSA development fund at a time when BRICS is moving into the realm of south-south cooperation via the proposed BRICS bank given the name of ‘south-south development bank’ by India when it hosted the 4th BRICS leaders’ meeting in March 2012).
So the question is whether or not India, as it searches around for a theme, will link the 5th and 6th IBSA summits by establishing the continuity of “reflections and proposals” on developing a framework for maritime security and functional cooperation in the Indianand the South Atlantic oceans?
This will entail moving from the rhetoric of pronouncements on the need for the West to make way for emerging powers and developing countries in the manifold realms of global governance through effecting reforms in the multilateral system to actually taking the initiative in driving those reforms and/or proposing and implementing new architectures of cooperation aimed at strengthening the international system. Can IBSA do this beyond putting out communiques that are quickly forgotten?
This implies an agenda-setting role for civil society in the 3 countries to lobby IBSA to live up to its potential. In this regard, the decision taken on the 23rd of November by the Hague Institute for Global Justice and the Observer Research Foundation to make global cooperation in preserving the maritime commons (as part of the larger UN ‘Health of the Oceans’ initiative) one of its priorities dovetails neatly into making this a priority item on the 6th IBSA summit agenda.
The fledgling Delhi-Hague initiative on building global cooperation could do worse than encouraging India, Brazil and South Africa to transform IBSAMAR into a platform for engaging the world’s other major actors in working toward the establishing of a Global Oceans Maritime Symposium.
Such an undertaking could serve as a multilateral framework for security and functional cooperation in the southern oceans extending from the South Atlantic and Indian Ocean into the Indo-Pacific. Not only would it, among other things, serve to pre-empt great power rivalries in the southern oceans, perhaps it might even have a moderating influence on the South China Sea tensions.
A global civil society-IBSA initiative of this nature could establish the dialogue parameters for supporting the ‘Health of the Oceans’ initiative as well as related agendas being developed such as that involving the Atlantic Basin Initiative of the Center for Transatlantic Studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.
With specific reference to the Indian Ocean, over the past year, the US has joined China in becoming a ‘dialogue partner’ in the IOR-ARC. This could conceivably lay the ground for what could develop into a US-IBSA maritime security and cooperation dialogue given the dovetailing of aspects of IBSA and the IOR-ARC.
Such a dialogue would be infinitely preferable to what amounts to an anti-China ‘divide and conquer’ proposal that the Barack Obama administration embark on separate bilateral South Atlantic and Indian Ocean initiatives with Brazil and India outside of the IBSA-BRICS equation.This is what is recommended in Global Swing States: Brazil, India, Indonesia, Turkey and the Future of International Order by Daniel M. Kliman of the German Marshall Fund and Richard Fontaine of the Center for a New American Security released on the 27th of November.
Regarding Brazil, this report recommends that the defense establishments of the US and Brazil “begin to evaluate the feasibility of a Brazilian-led, US-backed South Atlantic Initiative that would bring together regional navies and coast guards to address drug trafficking, human smuggling, piracy and other forms of maritime-based transnational crimes.”
With India, it is suggested that the US State Department’s Policy Planning Staff and India’s Ministry of External Affairs explore how existing Indian Ocean institutions such as the IOR-ARC and IONS can be more effectively linked while engaging in similar activities recommended in the case of Brazil.
Given these separate bilateral initiatives, South Africa would be left out of the US strategic maritime calculus in spite of its chairing of IONS, is an increasingly active member of the IOR-ARC, is geo-strategically central as the linchpin in IBSAMAR and has the status of a bilateral strategic partnership with the Washington as does India and Brazil (and fellow BRICS members Russia and China).
As a counterpoint, not only should any Brazilian or Indian regional maritime initiative be made conditional on Washington entering into a trilateral dialogue including South Africa, the US for its part can coordinate at the bilateral strategic partnership level with each IBSA countries in structuring a US-IBSA maritime security and functional cooperation dialogue. Such a dialogue could conceivably dovetail into India’s transformational plans for the IOR-ARC for promoting “sustained growth and balanced development of the region and its member states, and create common ground for regional economic cooperation.”
Herein lay the potential linkage between the 5th and 6th IBSA summits if India takes up President Zuma’s call for “a maritime security cooperation dialogue and possible framework which could further include non-security functional cooperation areas of engagement.” IBSA’s future could hinge on whether this idea is taken further when the three countries meet next year in Delhi. It is not in the interest of BRICS that IBSA disappear. But that’s another issue to be joined in 2013!
Francis A. Kornegay Jr. is a senior research fellow at the Institute for Global Dialogue and a public policy fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.