For one thing, they’re too big to be ignored. It’s not just BRICS’ populations, which collectively account for nearly half of the human race. It’s also their economies, which now add up in output to about the same as that of the U.S. and are well on course toovertake the entire G-7 before 2050. With that kind of clout, the BRICS countries have started to discuss new endeavors and common positions on international issues. BRICS is slowly emerging as an alternative forum to the dominant worldview of the established economies.
The key player, of course, is China, whose economic output is almost twice as large as the other four members put together, and whose role will be determinant in BRICS’ global effectiveness. After decades of an almost isolationist approach to world politics, China has begun stretching its sinews on the world stage. Its economic interests span the globe, and Beijing seems to see merit in complementing these with an expanding array of partnerships with other countries. Some of these are unilaterally led, like its revival of the ancient land and maritime Silk Routes as a platform for Chinese trade and investment. But Beijing is also showing increasing interest in multilateral engagements with like-minded nations, partially to compensate for not having the role it believes it deserves in existing institutions like the World Bank and the IMF. This is where BRICS comes in.
Or does it? The summit suggested a certain level of ambivalence on China’s part. Whereas the other BRICS countries saw the summit as the highlight of their presence in Ufa, China seemed to treat it as something of a sideshow to the annual meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, of which it is the principal animating spirit.
It’s already apparent that the five do not see all international issues in the same perspective. China and Russia are suspicious of liberal ideas, wary of information technology and decidedly unsympathetic to democratic dissent; India, Brazil and South Africa are lively democracies. It is unlikely, for example, that the five would see eye to eye on issues of Internet governance. China and Russia wish to legitimize greater government control over the Internet; India is an energetic advocate of “multi-stakeholderism.”
On issues of development, Russia is the odd man out; China has largely eliminated mass poverty, while the other three still struggle with existential questions of survival for a significant proportion of their populations. Can they truly adopt a common view on global macro-economics, development aid and international resource transfers?
BRICS has established a New Development Bank, headquartered in Shanghai and headed by one of India’s most eminent private-sector bankers. But China’s major priority remains the 57-member Asian Infrastructure and Investment Bank, of which India and Russia are the second and third largest stakeholders respectively (and to which Brazil and South Africa also belong). Since China will be the principal contributor to both institutions, is there any doubt as to which it will do more to bankroll?
Trade divides the group; a recent research report by the think tank Global Trade Alert points to the negative impact of the trade policies of individual BRICS members on each other. Commercial ties between them are still characterized by a lack of harmony and discriminatory trade distortions.
Global geopolitics, too, divides the BRICS countries. India hoped the summit would endorse its concerns about terrorism but China, mindful of its close links with Pakistan, the source of the terrorism that has targeted India, refused to play along. The summit declaration made no reference to U.N. Security Council resolution 1267, which India had hoped to use to bring pressure on its neighbor.
On the other hand, Russia persuaded the others to sign up to language “condemn[ing] unilateral military interventions and economic sanctions in violation of international law and universally recognized norms of international relations,” an oblique endorsement of Moscow’s position on international sanctions over Ukraine.
These issues suggest that BRICS is still finding its collective feet and that some differences of nuance and even of perspective are still inevitable. Beijing realizes that China’s weight is what gives ballast to BRICS, and the five are unlikely to be able to take a joint position on any issue unless China wants it — or at a minimum, is willing to go along.
This will pose interesting challenges to the five on a range of global issues. To take a relatively minor example: As a state that has been aggressive in hacking into foreign websites, China has a position on cybersecurity that opposes that of Brazil, which protested bitterly at American snooping on its government and cancelled a presidential visit to Washington in protest. India, which could make a major contribution to the stewardship of the global commons with its expertise on issues ranging from cyberspace to outer space and which has its own suspicions of China, could well find itself out of step with BRICS’ largest member.
For now, the summit suggests the grouping has only begun moving in little steps. Aside from a Economic Cooperation Strategy proposed by Russia, the only concrete action plan came from India, which offered a “ten steps” program that is underwhelming in its lack of ambition — a trade fair, a railway research center, audit cooperation, an agricultural research center, a sports council, a soccer tournament, a film festival and so on: hardly earth-shaking initiatives. These could either contribute to an environment of collective camaraderie on which bigger things could be built, or dribble into insignificance.
For now, BRICS remains an institution with great potential surrounded by considerable uncertainty. Its future impact on the world will in large part, however, be determined by those who weren’t at the Bashkortostan capital — the Western countries who dominate the existing post-1945 international system. To the extent that they raise the ramparts and resist the claims of the BRICS members to places of honor on the world stage, the greater will be the incentive for the BRICS countries to consolidate their own alternative system and view of the world.
It doesn’t have to be that way. BRICS should ideally find their place within the framework of global structures that ensure all countries a fair deal in keeping with their size, capabilities and contributions to the international system.
Bricks can be used to build an equitable world order, or be thrown to shatter the glass towers of the existing system. The same can be said of BRICS.
Shashi Tharoor, Former Indian Minister of State for External Affairs; Chairman of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on External Affairs