International Relations

India Brazil South Africa (IBSA)

A coalition of the willing, not of equal


The Trilateral IBSA was formed in 2003 as a development initiative between India, Brazil and South Africa. Shared interests shaped up the forum and brought together the three large, economically well-endowed and dynamic countries from three developing continents. All three have in recent years experienced rapid economic growth rates and are increasingly well integrated into global production networks and have internationalized enterprises. It is an alliance of like-minded democracies from the developing south and plays an instrumental role in promoting a close coordination between the three countries on key global issues.

IBSA serves as a platform to discuss and increase trade opportunities between the three countries as well as facilitate the trilateral exchange of technologies, information and skills to complement each other’s strengths. It makes globalization a positive force for development. There is a strategic significance of IBSA. What sets it apart is that it brings together pivotal democracies in the south; Brazil has a dominant position in South America, India in South Asia and South Africa in Africa. It is a very innovative forum in international politics because the co-operation is situational not geographical.

IBSA’s efforts have opened new avenues for south-south co-operation. It has significantly improved relationship between India, Brazil and South Africa. With IBSA, India drives its multilateral agenda and generates credibility on its nuclear aspirations. South Africa benefits from being part of a coalition with democracies with global influence.


IBSA’s achievements and criticism

A culture of constructive co-operation has evolved through this forum. They have a common approach on global issues and their coordination is evident at United Nations; Security Council reform has always been a priority for the three nations along with their demand for representation at UN.  They have been very clear about the necessity of its expansion and the effectiveness of Security Council. It has developed people-to-people contact encompassing business, media, women, academics and parliamentarians.   India, Brazil and South Africa have shown a strong willingness to confront disparities in power at multilateral institutions and making globalization a positive force for least developed countries.

There are varied sectoral working groups operating within IBSA, ranging from energy, health to transportation and corruption. Science and technology group is the most advanced and energy sector is following it. The forum has expressed itself on issues related to security such as terrorism, drug related crime, illegal weapon traffic. Ministers from the three countries encourage exchange of experience to fight poverty and hunger in their countries. IBSA has projects focusing on improving agricultural techniques in remote villages, reducing urban violence in slums, and delivering safe drinking water, in countries such as Haiti, Guinea Bissau, Cape Verde, Burundi, Palestine, Cambodia and Lao PDR.

The trilateral forum has strengthened trade and business-to-business link between the three countries with a greater influence in international trade. In their last summit, the leaders of member nations pointed out that all three nations were still growing despite the economic turmoil and they are set to achieve their trilateral trade target set for 2015.

But IBSA has its own set of criticism. Critics argue that it has a very wide range of action plans and it lacks a clear strategic focus plan. IBSA has been criticized for having a slow pace and achieving less as compared to the initial ambitions. There hasn’t been any significant progress in creating Free Trade Area (FTA). The trilateral agreement is still being discussed and yet to be released. Critics feel that the forum has been ‘more talk and less output’. Some criticize the IBSA fund, for hunger and poverty alleviation, and raise questions on why the contribution by members in the IBSA fund has not increased.



Before South Africa’s inclusion, BRICS was made up of three Asian powers and one far-away Brazil. South Africa’s inclusion globalized the forum, boosting its visibility at global affairs. BRICS has garnered considerably more attention than IBSA. Officials feel that IBSA has not really lived up to its potential. Some say IBSA is redundant but IBSA foreign ministers have stressed on the point that it is a grouping of democracies all from south. China is not a democracy and doesn’t share same views and approach on global issues that are important to IBSA. IBSA has talked about tackling the social aspects of globalization internally.

The rise of BRICS is widely misunderstood. When IBSA was created, it deliberately did not invite China and China’s absence is what makes IBSA’s platform interesting to debate. Most importantly, IBSA countries share fundamental views on global issues and they clearly differ from those of china. But synergies must exist, it is not that the topics discussed at IBSA summit should not be brought in BRICS summit.

IBSA faces a strong competition from BRICS. There have been questions about relevance of IBSA after South Africa joined BRIC and BRICS became a superset of countries that IBSA represents, so the idea of merger seems appealing but it would be a mistake. This situation poses unique challenges to the strengthening of regional initiatives and their engagement with developing countries. In IBSA, all are at the same stage of development while China has already made its mark on global stage. This trilateral forum has improved relationships between India, Brazil and South Africa. They do not have direct competitive interest and are able to work on common projects beneficial to all three. China centric nature is very evident in BRICS and South Africa’s inclusion in BRICS poses distinct challenges to India. A strong partnership of China with South Africa is an additional advantage to China and detrimental to India. BRICS satisfies only a small part of international vision of India. So, India should thrive for a forum where its strategic space is not shadowed by its neighborhood giant China. Instead of being a strategic partner, China will be a competitor for Brazil and India in South Africa.

IBSA is a coalition of the south that has facilitated dialogue at a level previously unimaginable. Development co-operation, along with the views on tackling socio-economic distress and trading among the three nations distinguishes IBSA from BRICS. The three countries should protect their space for discussions from china. All the IBSA members are democracies and can discuss issues which cannot be discussed in BRICS summits.


Future of IBSA

To show its relevance, IBSA needs to step up its pace and focus on operating on the intentions. It needs to evaluate its future as a forum for dialogue and actions.  Increasing trade between the three nations would be a crucial step, along with improvements on security and its working groups. Given the geographical distance, strengthening the transportation links will also be beneficial. IBSA is not a formal organization and the member nations should use this alignment to co-operate and co-ordinate more effectively.

IBSA and BRICS should co-exist. Benefits of IBSA’s continued existence are too large to ignore with its unique opportunity to move its three member nations to the centre of the new and emerging global order. Its strength lies in its unique membership and strong cooperation at international forums.

– Sakshi Sangwan


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