September 27, 2020
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The fact that Tibetan protests against visiting Chinese president Hu Jintao dominated media reports rather than a diplomatic gathering was not just the question of emotion prevailing over acronym and number

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This past week the drama of a human torch screaming past Tibetan demonstrators overshadowed the summit of the BRICS economic grouping. The fact that Tibetan protests against visiting Chinese president Hu Jintao dominated media reports rather than a diplomatic gathering was not just the question of emotion prevailing over acronym and number. It also showed the limited appeal of the BRICS concept, based more on pious wishes than reality.

A handy acronym for its constituent countries – Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa – BRICS has been described as more a “talking shop” than a formal alliance. At the summit, the heads of government of the five countries agreed to study the feasibility of a “BRICS Bank,” a proposed multilateral development agency modelled on the World Bank. They urged the West to act with fiscal responsibility and, in attempting to recover from the post-2008 crisis, not create excess liquidity and add to inflationary pressures on BRICS economies.

The five leaders committed to trading within the bloc using the currencies of BRICS countries rather than the US dollar. Exuberance on this count was sobered by statistics of intra-BRICS trade: estimated at US$230 billion in 2011, of which $74 billion, or a third, came from India-China trade. Brazil-China trade was about the same quantum. Russia-China trade accounted for another $60 billion. Remove these three pivotal bilateral links and intra-BRICS trade drops to virtually nothing.

The BRICS nations also sought more voting rights for themselves in the International Monetary Fund. They warned of a conflict against Iran, concerned that any resultant oil shock would hurt countries like India and China. On Syria, the BRICS countries called for dialogue. Russia, which sees the Syrian situation as a test of its great power self-identity and is sympathetic to the Assad regime, spoke of a BRICS humanitarian assistance programme in Syria. Others were not so sure.

In the end, despite their calibrated rhetoric, each of the BRICS countries values its relationship with the United States far more than with the four other BRICS countries combined. Each is actually quite happy with an international system driven by American economic and technological supremacy, underwritten by American security guarantees.

Indeed, misgivings and mutual suspicions within the BRICS family also interfere with efficacious collective action. Take the proposal of a BRICS Bank. Given China’s weight in the quintet, such a bank would almost certainly become a projection of Chinese economic power – just as the Bretton Woods institutions reflected postwar American power and the Asian Development Bank reflected Japanese power. New Delhi and Moscow are understandably wary of pouring in capital towards creating an agency that furthers Chinese interests.

Part of the problem with BRICS is that it’s seen as an artificial construct, not a bloc forged by war, political commonalities or economic synergies. At its core is the Russia-India-China (RIC) triumvirate of the 1990s, mooted by the Russians in an attempt to balance American hegemony, a throwback to Soviet Union thinking. Increasingly, however, it became obvious that economics rather than ideology would define 21st century diplomacy, and Russia was an inappropriate leader in this respect.

Galloping Intra-BRICS Trade, with China Leading the Pack: Figures show the BRICS trade growth as a percentage between the years 2003-2010
In 2001, Goldman Sachs published a report on the four major emerging economies – those with trillion dollar GDPs – and coined the abbreviation BRIC. Diplomatic sources say the idea of expanding the RIC framework to countries such as Brazil was already and independently being discussed. Nevertheless, a New York-based investment bank essentially invented a new international grouping. Soon after South Africa lobbied to join the big four, although its GDP was valued far below the trillion dollar threshold. It got in because the others felt an African presence would add to the symbolism.

How does New Delhi see BRICS? Is this the new, albeit smaller and more manageable Bandung Conference/Non-Aligned Movement? If the imperative is economic, is BRICS truly representative of emerging economies? Should Russia really be on the list, given it will scarcely have an economy to talk about once gas prices soften or Europe gets access to alternative sources of energy such as American shale gas? If South Africa is part of the BRICS conversation, why not Nigeria, an African economy much the same size? Finally, what of Indonesia, still recovering from the Asian flu when Goldman Sachs coined the acronym in 2001, but a surging economy now?

The questions multiply when one considers the several, often intersecting blocs India and China have signed up for, sometimes to spite each other, but more often not to be left out of any new club. All compete for attention and priority, and nobody is sure which one could shape the rest of the century and which will fade away. Consider the alphabet soup:

  • IBSA: The India, Brazil and South Africa collective of developing-country democracies, seen as New Delhi’s hedge against Beijing’s BRICS domination. When it came to the Arab Spring, however, IBSA failed to articulate a non-western position on democracy and civil liberties

  • SAARC: The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation has eight member countries, including India, and nine observers, including China

  • SCO: The six-member Shanghai Cooperation Organisation is powered by China and, to a lesser degree, Russia as a hedge against American presence in post-9/11 Central Asia; India is one of four observers

  • ASEAN + 3: The ASEAN bloc and Japan, South Korea and China

  • ASEAN + 6, sometimes called ASEAN +3 +3: The ASEAN +3 and New Zealand, Australia and India

  • EAS: The East Asia Summit, a meeting ground for the ASEAN +6 and Russia and the US, sometimes called ASEAN +8

  • BASIC: Brazil, South Africa, India and China, acting together in climate change negotiations

The principal promoters of each of these bodies have different and limited motivations. These could be democracy projection, India and IBSA; economic heft, China and BRICS; an ad hoc alliance aimed at a specific bargain, BASIC and carbon emissions targets; marking geographies of strategic interest, with China wanting India out of Central Asia and accepting it as only a secondary actor in southeast and east Asia even as India argues for a smaller Chinese footprint in South Asia.

At the broadest level, BRICS represents a non-Western – but decidedly not anti-Western – template of growth and development, and of modernity. At an everyday level, it sees itself as a pressure group beginning to challenge a vulnerable Europe for the role of Uncle Sam’s junior partner.

In New Delhi, the one hard message the BRICS countries conveyed was in demanding a greater share of voting rights at the IMF, probably from the European quota. It’s apparent they would want a BRICS technocrat to head the fund sooner or later. However, they were also quick to emphasize that the proposed BRICS Bank – if it ever takes off – would only complement, not seek to displace, American stewardship of the World Bank.

As such, more than Washington, it’s Brussels and the European capitals that need to look over their shoulders and watch out for BRICS. On their part, of course, the BRICS members are watching their own backs, looking out for the growing giant, China.


Ashok Malik is a senior journalist and columnist in New Delhi. He writes for a variety of Indian and foreign publications on, primarily, India’s political economy and foreign policy, and their increasing intersection. Rights:Copyright © 2012 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization. YaleGlobal Online


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