/ 27 July 2018

As global headwinds batter Brics member states, can it stay the course?

Presidents Cyril Ramaphosa
Presidents Cyril Ramaphosa (centre), Xi Jinping (left) and Vladimir Putin at the Brics summit. (Gianluigi Guercia/Reuters)

The priorities and themes of the 10th Brics summit, ranging from peacekeeping to collaboration around the Fourth Industrial Revolution, provide a number of issues that summit leaders say they want to pursue.

The summit in Johannesburg is the culmination of regular meetings held by the foreign ministers of Brazil, China, India and Russia (Brics) since 2006. South Africa officially joined in 2011.

Reconciling domestic interests and priorities with international obligations will remain a fundamental focus for this meeting. But perhaps the more critical question to ask is how the bloc is going to strengthen its role and agenda in an international order that is characterised by fragmentation and uncertainty.

Over the past 10 years, the Brics partners have launched a number of initiatives aimed at providing additional capabilities to global, political and economic governance structures. One of its projects has included creating the New Development Bank. At the end of 2017 the bank initiated funding to the value of $3.4-billion to member countries.

In addition, Brics has created the contingent reserve arrangement, aimed at ensuring liquidity for member states when they’re confronted by short-term balance of payment crises.

With these institutions in place, the summit provides the opportunity for the five countries to reflect on the bloc’s practical relevance and its future footprint. Scepticism about the coherence of Brics as a functioning group persists. But it’s safe to bet that the five countries won’t regress in their obligations. To retreat now would be an admission that the cynics were right all along.

The Brics bloc will also want to assert its authority on the back of the growing uncertainties in global political affairs. Two of its members, China and Russia, are caught in the crosshairs of a belligerent United States. This makes it a particularly important time to cement the role of Brics.

What’s next for Brics?

Brics should by no means be romanticised. It is an imperfect construction given the size and scale of its member states.

Interesting new nuances are affecting the positioning of China, India, and Russia. These include two factors: new alliances between the five countries, and China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), President Xi Jinping’s reconfiguration of channels that connect China with Asia, Africa and Europe.

The Brics bloc also consists of subgroupings that play a significant role in influencing loyalties and strategic interests in the group. There is the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation, which was formed in 2001. It is seen as an intergovernmental organisation that deals with energy and security and is made up of China, Russia and six central Asian republics. It has been characterised as the counterweight to US influence in central Asia. Other commentators are identifying it as the counterbalance to the G7, a bloc made of the US, Germany, France, Italy, Canada, Japan and Britain.

Then there is the India, Brazil and South Africa trilateral co-operation bloc, established in 2003.

The co-operation between Russia, India and China has also become prominent. In April 2016, their foreign ministers met to further their co-operation around a global governance agenda. Similarly the relationship between China and Russia is strengthening. All of this will inform how Brics develops from here on out.

The BRI has already sparked disagreement. In the run-up to the ninth Brics summit held in China, the Indian delegates attending the academic forum in Fuzhou were steadfastly opposed to docking the Beijing-led BRI with the grouping in the future.

Another source of difference is around a possible extension of the Brics membership through the Brics plus concept. At the 2013 Durban summit, South Africa initiated the Brics outreach partnership, a channel of inclusion for key partners on the African continent.

Last year, China remodelled the Brics outreach partnership into the Brics plus, which has a more expansive outlook within a broad spectrum of actors from emerging markets and the developing world.

The shift of the traditional outreach partnership into the Brics plus could be interpreted as testing the waters for the possible expansion of Brics membership.

But India seems to be uncomfortable with the Brics plus concept, in particular a reconfiguration of the grouping stacked in favour of Beijing.

While the collective identity of the Brics bloc is still being tested, the prevailing cracks in the global system present opportunities for it to assert and strengthen its position. It can do so by upholding the principles of the liberal multilateral trading arrangements which the US seems to be dumping.

The significant question will be: How and to what extent will Brics take the next step in underwriting the rules of the game in an international order that is seeking leadership and direction? — The Conversation