Is BRICS past its sell-by date? 

Elizabeth Sidiropoulos is the Chief Executive of the South African Institute of International Affairs The demise of the BRICS based on its apparent incoherence has long been predicted by pundits. But as Mark Twain observed about reports of his death being greatly exaggerated, so too the BRICS have defied the critics. They have created BRICS institutions (the New Development Bank and the Contingency Reserve Arrangement), which serve to cement the body, and are now in their second decade. But are these institutions sufficient, and are the growing tensions among the great powers making the BRICS more necessary or less coherent? Is BRICS past its sell-by date? When the BRIC forum met for the first time in 2009, its leaders affirmed their support for a ‘more democratic and just multi-polar world order based on the rule of international law, equality, mutual respect, cooperation, coordinated action and collective decision-making of all states’. It did not expressly define itself as anti-western, although it was non-western and a Global South grouping (despite Russia’s membership). Meeting at the height of the financial crisis, which had its genesis in the US, the BRIC signalled the ambitions of rising (or re-emerging) powers to increase their voice and influence in international affairs and global governance, especially in the international financial institutions, which needed to reform to reflect the changes in the global economy. With the addition of South Africa in 2011 the grouping could boast members from each of the world’s developing regions. The outbreak of the financial crisis in North America and Europe was a watershed moment in the power shifts that had already been evident since the turn of the century. It showed that the west was not economically invincible, nor that it had all the answers for development. The west’s own rising inequality within its societies and its negative consequences for democracy seen in the rise of populism and ultra-nationalism also opened it up to critique of its own political systems. Traditional western alliances have frayed under President Trump. A Biden presidency may help to revive them, but there is no going back to the status quo ante Trump. Since Trump became US president, the Thucydides trap looks much more likely. A rising power, China, is threatening more than ever to displace an established one, the US. And the escalating tensions between the two make conflict a possibility, even if neither wants it. Meanwhile China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has grabbed the imagination of the developing world and many in Europe too – all while its campaign against the Uighurs in Xinjiang and the Hong Kong demonstrators protesting against the new security regulations show the other side of China, not the champion of economic development, but the authoritarian Chinese Communist Party that brooks no dissent. In 2009 when the BRIC held their first summit, China still ascribed to the dictum of ‘hide your strength, bide your time, never take the lead’. This changed under President Xi Jinping. The time for hiding China’s strength and ambitions is over. The truth is that BRIC(S) were always about China and the rest. The BRICS’ potential political and economic importance lay in the fact that China was a member. If China was not a member, the BRICS might have been another IBSA. Over the short to medium term, China’s growing global ambitions will affect how it perceives the BRICS in the hierarchy of its membership of various groupings or initiatives, such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation or the BRI. Other members have also undergone significant changes. In India, Prime Minister Modi has moved closer to the US and embraced the concept of the Indo-Pacific, which is driven by an underlying objective to contain Chinese influence. Since he came to power Modi has both cultivated ties with China and not been shy to challenge it on the border, whether in the Doklam plateau in 2017, or in the Galwan Valley earlier this year. Their differences do not necessarily mean that the two cannot cooperate inside the BRICS on issues of common interest, but if the border disputes and tensions continue to increase, the room for political consensus within the BRICS may narrow. It may also force the others to take sides. In Brazil the new president, Jair Bolsonaro, has a strong anti-China rhetoric and an affinity for Donald Trump. Unlike his predecessors from the Workers Party, Presidents Lula da Silva and Dilma Rousseff, Bolsonaro’s natural foreign policy preferences are to the west, not the Global South, even though China remains an important trading partner. Russia, where President Putin remains firmly in power, is both threatened by China and recognises it as a necessary ally in its own rivalry with the US. One Russian scholar argued recently that China’s siding with the US in the Cold War 45 years ago was ‘one of the most important external factors in the defeat of the USSR’. Russia’s partnership with China would not only alter the dynamic along Russia’s longest border, but could also help Russia achieve its own foreign policy goals vis-à-vis the west. Russia has long considered the BRICS as a potential anti-western grouping, an aspiration that was never really shared by the other members. The outlier among the BRICS is South Africa. Ever since the country joined, the BRICS has been given prominence in its international relations as well as in its interdepartmental coordination at home. Although president Zuma was replaced by President Ramaphosa in 2018, South Africa’s foreign policy orientation has not changed. Relations with China in particular continue to be important as does the BRICS. In 2019 South Africa’s foreign minister, Naledi Pandor, emphasised at a BRICS meeting in New York, that the BRICS were coming together at a time ‘when the international community requires an alternative narrative to global issues’. She went on to say that the BRICS had to ‘maintain our role as leaders on a path to a more balanced, representative and equitable international order’. But is the grouping what some saw it as, at the vanguard of systemic reform? What is increasingly clear is that the BRICS don’t share a common vision of what a new world order will look like, although they emphasise the importance of multilateralism. Two members, India and South Africa, are part of the Alliance for Multilateralism, which was initiated by Germany and France in 2019. None of the others are. Earlier this year, two leading Russian scholars proposed that Russia become the guarantor of a new non-alignment and that together with the BRICS and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) it consider establishing a Global Alliance for Sovereignty and Diversity. Russia does not consider itself a follower, but a great power with an independent foreign policy. As for China it is becoming increasingly clear that it no longer is concerned about diffusing its power through bodies such as the BRICS. It is growing in international confidence to project its military power and its political influence in multilateral bodies. Furthermore, the New Development Bank was touted as a new innovative instrument that would do things differently from the traditional multilateral development banks, but its approach has been rather orthodox. The countries have also not stepped up as a collective in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Four of the five have had among the highest number of cases, and China was where the virus was identified first. China’s mask diplomacy has won kudos, but its opaqueness on the issue of debt service rescheduling for the poorest countries has been less endearing. While there were opportunities for BRICS health diplomacy outreach to developing countries, assistance was bilateral rather than collective. The Trump presidency in the US from 2017 onwards escalated the rivalry between it and China, and this matter now occupies the international agenda, manifesting itself in the first instance through the US-China trade war which is primarily about technological supremacy. It is how the other BRICS line up in the technology wars over 5G that will highlight the growing security differences and coherence gaps among them. India will not allow Huawei and ZTE to participate in its 5G trials. On the other hand, there is a tension within the Brazilian administration about whether to allow them to tender. President Bolsonaro supports the US position to steer clear of Chinese companies, but Huawei has not been excluded from participating in the bidding. South Africa has clearly set out its position that it favours Huawei, with President Ramaphosa emphasising at a 4IR conference in 2019 that “We support a company that is going to take our country and indeed the world to better technologies, and that is 5G. We cannot afford to have our economy to be held back because of this fight [between China and the US].” Russia has equally indicated that it is ready to cooperate with Huawei on 5G technology. So not all the BRICS are geopolitically aligned, if their technology preferences are a proxy for the coming contest. Yet, for each member the BRICS is useful in different ways. China still sees it as one of a number of platforms to project its influence on the global stage together with four other politically important countries in their regions. Some three years ago, before the Xiamen summit, China proposed a BRICS Plus arrangement. In announcing this, President Xi said that BRICS was more than its current five members. Cooperation with other emerging market and developing countries was an important dimension of the BRICS. While not a formal expansion of the group, it illustrated China’s strategy of developing a network of informal alliances across the developing world (but not only), as its global influence continued to rise. Its strategy with the BRI summits fulfils a similar goal as does its membership of organisations such as the SCO. However, what is sometimes overlooked is the disquiet China’s rise elicits among other Global South powers, not least those in Asia. For Russia this informal grouping provides it with support in its tensions with the west and at least tacit support, for its own ambitions. While wary of China’s rise that inevitably will make Russia a junior partner, it can still derive geopolitical advantage vis-à-vis the west through its membership, especially after it was uninvited from the G8, after the annexation of Crimea. In South Africa’s case, its increasing competition with other African countries such as Nigeria, Kenya and Ethiopia, its membership of the BRICS allows it to stand out from the rest. South Africa has placed economic opportunities as one of the central reasons for the importance of the BRICS, but China is the dominant economic partner for South Africa, without much progress in increasing the economic links with the other three. But what about Brazil and India? Under president Bolsonaro, the BRICS has not had much political prominence in Brazil, but it would be unlikely that it would leave it when it still has a large trading relationship with China. In India’s case, the tensions with China have been there before, but its presence in the BRICS elevates its global profile. For all China’s strong links to Pakistan, India’s presence in the BRICS sets it apart its nemesis, sitting as it does in a forum with Pakistan’s closest ally. Therefore, for each BRICS member the grouping serves certain elements of its foreign policy. Even though China is growing in strength and power projection, an issue that not all of the BRICS are comfortable with, none of them considers this development to signal an end to the BRICS utility. Some, like Russia, have an explicit anti-west agenda; others such as India and South Africa are proud of their Global South and democratic credentials, and do not see the world through Russia’s lens, while Brazil under Bolsonaro is perhaps the most explicitly pro-western. As the global power shifts begin emerging more clearly, the BRICS will continually reassess their positions and how the grouping hinders or advances their goals. It will be less about advancing collective action and more about instrumentalising it for individual gain.
As the global power shifts begin emerging more clearly, the BRICS will continually reassess their positions and how the grouping hinders or advances their goals