SatelliteAs the Durban BRICS heads of state summit at the end of March 2013 approaches it is timely to review these two formations given their overlapping memberships. I was recently interviewed by John Fraser of IPS on the subject. In brief I am of the view that IBSA retains a relevance that is often not appreciated by casual observers, but this relevance is overshadowed by the fact that the BRICS formation includes China.

Central to IBSA’s relevance is the relative geographical proximity of India, Brazil, and South Africa. South Africa is obviously central to this, and hence well-placed to serve as the fulcrum for maritime, shipping, aviation, and broader trade linkages amongst the three. These links will continue to grow rapidly albeit off relatively small bases, and particularly if South Africa is able to cement its economic gateway status to Southern Africa through the South African government’s much trumpeted infrastructure drive. Unfortunately that drive – at least in the transportation space – seems to have barely got out of the starting blocks, but hopefully the pace will accelerate in the coming months. Perhaps the ANC’s new Deputy President, Cyril Ramaphosa, will bring part of his vaunted business acumen to bear on the matter and really drive it forward. Assuming real traction is gained it is to be hoped that business to business ties will accelerate amongst the IBSA member states, from currently low levels. In this space at least the BRICS seems to have a major marketing advantage – ironically no thanks to Jim O’ Neil – and has developed a momentum and enthusiasm amongst the respective business communities that does not seem to be matched by IBSA.

There is also a compelling security case for the three countries to collaborate. As Francis Kornegay argues, maritime security challenges are growing in the southern Atlantic and southern Indian oceans. Whilst India and Brazil are the major regional powers on the beat, so to speak, South Africa clearly has the most capacity and potential military capacity of any African state, and the geographical location to act as a key coordinating link. Since the US is the major maritime power in both oceans, as Kornegay argues a US-IBSA engagement could be fruitful. In addition, IBSA has its roots in all three countries’ desire to secure permanent seats in a hypothetically reformed and expanded United Nations security council. That imperative has not gone away, whereas both Russia and China are already permanent members. It is unlikely the BRICS formation could come up with a common position on reform of the UNSC given the divergent geopolitical interests of its constituent member states.

Finally, there is a more subtle, but no less important, domestic case for deepened IBSA collaboration. Each country is a significant developing country democracy, pursuing market liberalization with varying degrees of emphasis. Doing so under democratic political conditions is quite different to doing so under authoritarian or state capitalist conditions, as is the case with Russia and China. This is not to say we cannot learn anything from the latter, particularly China, and there could be a fruitful ‘development-learnings’ discussion within the BRICS. But it is to say that their political frameworks should not be the subject of emulation. Rather, we should continue to use the IBSA framework to explore economic and social reforms under democratic conditions – a potentially very fruitful discussion the lessons from which could have global resonance.