Applying to join BRICS is not in Pakistan’s interest
On 23 November 2023, Pakistan formally applied to join BRICS, the presently five-nation bloc comprising Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. A spokesperson from Pakistan's foreign ministry confirmed the application, saying, "We believe that by joining BRICS, Pakistan can play an important role in furthering international cooperation and revitalising inclusive multilateralism. We also hope that BRICS will move forward on Pakistan's request in line with its commitment to inclusive multilateralism".
Pakistan is one of many countries flocking to BRICS against the backdrop of a new, multipolar world order. At the BRICS meeting in South Africa in August 2023, at least forty countries expressed interest in joining the group. At the end of the three-day summit, the bloc announced that six countries – Egypt, Ethiopia, Argentina, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Iran – would join BRICS in 2024. This is a move towards what is now being called "BRICS plus".
While BRICS might look like an attractive option for countries seeking to draw maximum benefit by diversifying their foreign ties, the big question is whether Pakistan can expect any material benefit by joining BRICS and adopting its agenda of a multipolar world. The answer is that Pakistan risks losing much more than it gains since the move might antagonise Washington DC, pushing it to block Pakistan's access to Western markets and finance.
In October, before Pakistan formally applied for BRICS membership, the country's caretaker prime minister, Anwaar ul-Haq Kakar, met Russian president Vladimir Putin in Beijing on the sidelines of the Third Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation. Russia and Pakistan have of late been strengthening diplomatic and economic ties. In June, Pakistan received a consignment of Russian oil – the first delivery of Russian crude to the country since Western sanctions against Russia kicked in at the start of the war in Ukraine. The two countries are also working to resume direct flights. This indicates that Russia, as chair of the 2024 BRICS summit, may well extend its support to Pakistan in its quest for membership. Diplomatic sources familiar with Pakistan's move to join BRICS told Himal Southasian that Pakistan coordinated with both Russia and China to make sure that India, its perennial rival, did not oppose its application. China, they said, has encouraged Pakistan because its membership will help expand the group, which will ultimately help Beijing cement its claim to a much bigger role in international politics.
However, more urgent and important to Pakistan are its ties to the United States. In mid-December, Pakistan's chief of army staff, Asim Munir, visited the United States and met top civil and military officials. The purpose of the trip was to broaden and deepen Pakistan's ties with the country in the post-"war on terror" context. Pakistan is seeking US cooperation to counter the threat it faces from the Afghan Taliban both within and beyond its boundaries. Pakistan is trying to bring the United States back into a more active role in the region, although in a limited sense, and pushing for a more balanced bilateral relationship. Pakistan may not be able to maintain a balanced approach to Washington DC while being part of the BRICS agenda of a multipolar world order, which necessarily means the erosion of the United States' position as a unipolar power centre.
Pakistan's options are further limited by the fact that its economy remains on life support supplied by the US-dominated International Monetary Fund. In June, the IMF unexpectedly sanctioned a loan of USD 3 billion to debt-ridden Pakistan. Leaked documents show that Washington DC aided Pakistan's access to the IMF loan in exchange for Islamabad supplying weapons and ammunition to Ukraine in its fight against Russia. Pakistan publicly denied this exchange. In mid-November, a day after the IMF agreed to release USD 700 million to Pakistan under the existing bailout programme, the interim finance minister, Shamshad Akhtar, confirmed that Pakistan might lean on the IMF for more loans to stabilise its tottering economy.
Moreover, the United States remains Pakistan's largest export market. It accounts for more than 21 percent of Pakistan's total exports, a fact that Munir himself highlighted during his recent visit to Washington DC. He most likely wanted to reinforce the idea that the United States remains too valuable for Pakistan to oppose at the international level.
Unlike the European Union or the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, BRICS is neither a free-trade pact nor a customs union nor a military alliance. As a group, BRICS is yet to really define itself. Although the BRICS countries comprise more than 40 percent of the global population and represent almost a quarter of the global economy, it is not yet a formal organisation either. It remains a group of member states whose leaders meet annually. Can it, therefore, really push to change the world order? As of now, Pakistan has promising economic ties only with China among the members of the bloc. It remains to be seen what material economic benefits the group – which does not have any internal trade treaty, or a customs or financial union – can bring to Pakistan.
While BRICS is yet to develop a formal organisational structure, it has many international problems and contradictions. For one thing, the India-China rivalry can seriously limit the bloc's potential to push for a new world order. For India, any shift towards a multipolar world does not necessarily bring tangible benefits. Such a new order will still have China and Russia as two dominant players. India, therefore, opposes any overt anti-West position. It is actively seeking strong defence ties with the United States to tackle China's growing power in the Indo-Pacific region. In November, at the latest session of the "2+2" ministerial dialogue – a meeting of the external affairs and defence ministers of India and the United States – New Delhi agreed to boost bilateral defence cooperation.
When BRICS recently met virtually to discuss Israel's war on Gaza, which presented a key opportunity for these countries to oppose the dominant Western view of the war, the group fell short of a joint declaration. While India's prime minister, Narendra Modi, did not address the gathering, India's position on the conflict is very different from that of Russia and China, which have supported Palestine and condemned Israel. India has been ambivalent at best on the issue, standing with Israel and condemning terrorism without designating Hamas as a terror group and initially abstaining from a crucial United Nations vote calling for a humanitarian truce. India has subsequently sent medical aid and disaster relief to Gaza and condoled the loss of civilian lives. New Delhi's dithering has dented BRICS's ability to be an alternative voice at the global level in this crisis. Should Pakistan, therefore, join a group that has limited potential?
Pakistan can benefit from a more diversified foreign policy approach, but joining BRICS does not seem like the right strategy. A more feasible path to maintaining a diversified foreign policy is available by operating outside of BRICS. Pakistan can continue to have strong ties with China and maintain ties with Russia without subscribing to their push for a new, multipolar, anti-US world order.