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IDSA COMMENT

BRICS comes of age at Durban

April 01, 2013

The BRICS forum, an informal grouping of five countries composed of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, is gaining heft. The member countries are exploiting the opportunities created by the ongoing global power shift to position themselves individually and collectively in the changing world order.

BRICS leaders were in upbeat mood while describing the achievements of the forum. President Putin sees BRICS as a “game changer” and a “key element in global governance”, while Prime Minister Manmohan Singh describes BRICS as a “key growth driver”. President Dilma Rousseff of Brazil sees BRICS contributing to the emergence of a democratic international order and helping bring balance in global economy. President Xi of China said BRICS could assist in the rise of Africa. President Zuma of South Africa, who was instrumental in bringing BRICS focus on Africa’s development, said that BRICS is not a “talk shop” and it will be help “amplify” the voice of the five countries in global political, economic and social fora.

The BRICS summit declaration of 28 March 2013 exudes confidence. A few examples are: the leaders opined that the next WTO director general should be from developing countries; they expressed their unhappiness with the slow pace of reform of the IMF; they expressed dissatisfaction at the way in which Western counties were addressing the persistent global economic problems by spreading financial instabilities to other countries; and, they demanded that the UN Security Council coordinate its approaches with the African Union and ECOWAS on African issues.

This could be dubbed as mere rhetoric. But, many concrete steps were also announced. The most notable and most critiqued of these initiatives was the decision to set up a BRICS development bank, proposed by India at an earlier summit, to help developing countries develop infrastructure. The five leaders announced, “We have agreed to establish the New Development Bank. The initial contribution to the Bank should be substantial and sufficient for the Bank to be effective in financing infrastructure.”

Although the details of the proposed bank have not been spelt out as there seem to have been some differences over its location, capitalisation, etc., the bank will truly be a game changer. The World Bank has come out in its support even as several commentators have described it as an empty gesture. If implemented, this bold initiative will surely cement the BRICS place in the global governance hierarchy.

BRICS is not merely an economic forum. In the words of the summit declaration, it is a forum for long term “coordination on a wide range of key issues of the world economy and politics.” Further, BRICS will explore “new models and approaches towards more equitable development and inclusive global growth.” While BRICS does not challenge the exiting world order and instead seeks an honourable place in it, it nevertheless has the ambition of making its contribution to key global issues of governance. Therefore, it is not surprising that, as in the past, this time around too BRICS has taken positions on key issues of international security including Syria, Iran, Afghanistan, Climate Change, terrorism, etc.

The BRICS position on Syria is very different from that of the West. This is not surprising considering that Russia and China have vetoed Western resolutions on Syria in the past. BRICS has called for a Syria-led process, a national dialogue and opposed further militarisation of the conflict. The declaration states: “We believe that the Joint Communiqué of the Geneva Action Group provides a basis for resolution of the Syrian crisis and reaffirm our opposition to any further militarization of the conflict.”

Similarly, on Iran too, the BRICS position is different from the usual Western positions. The declaration says, “We are concerned about threats of military action as well as unilateral sanctions. We note the recent talks held in Almaty and hope that all outstanding issues relating to Iran’s nuclear program will be resolved through discussions and diplomatic means.”

BRICS counties have an abiding interest in climate change negotiations. Seeing climate change as an issue of sustainable development, they have called for “a successful conclusion by 2015, of negotiations on the development of a protocol, another legal instrument or an agreed outcome with legal force under the Convention applicable to all Parties, guided by its principles and provisions”.

Terrorism is an issue of global concern. In this regard, the BRICS declaration echoes the Indian formulation and supports the draft convention on combating international terrorism.

Since Africa was the focus theme of the summit, several paragraphs in the joint declaration talk of African issues. It recognises the centrality of the African Union in resolving African issues and recommends greater cooperation between the UN Security Council and the African Union’s Security and Peace council. The declaration takes note of instability in the Sahel region as well as the worsening human right situation in many countries. It also recognises the developmental and infrastructure needs of African countries.

BRICS has been seen by many analysts as a step towards the evolution of a multipolar world order. This is true to an extent but BRICS has yet to prove its credentials. BRICS counties have many advantages as they are large economies and blessed with tremendous human, material and financial resources. According to Bloomberg, intra-BRICS trade reached $282 billion in 2012, a steep rise from $27 billion in 2002. It is expected to reach $500 billion in 2015. Last year, 20 percent of global FDI came into BRICS countries, up from six percent in 2000. The combined foreign exchange reserves of BRICS are above $4 trillion. Thus, BRICS is not an insubstantial grouping. Its potential for cooperation is significant.

Yet, BRICS members are diverse countries. Some of them like India and China have serious unresolved problems among themselves. There is latent competition between Russia and China for dominance in Central Asia although both would like to see the US dominance in global affairs reduced. China, the strongest economy in BRICS, is not even a democracy. Yet, this diverse group of emerging economies has shown the resolve to work together.

BRICS countries are also improving their bilateral relations. The Chinese president recently visited Russia and cemented energy cooperation between the two countries. Brazil and China seek to improve their commercial relations and increase bilateral trade to $30 billion. They have also agreed on a currency swap deal. China is using its visibility in BRICS to deepen its ties with a rising Africa where resources are available for exploitation.

It is too early to dismiss BRICS as yet another talk shop or to regard it as an influential pole. It has consolidated itself in the first five summit meetings. The second cycle of BRICS summits will begin next year in Brazil. The success of BRICS as a significant pole in global affairs will depend upon how their economies perform and how they implement the initiatives announced and how well they coordinate their positions. Their success also attracts other countries. BRICS has said they are for openness and inclusiveness. This means that they may admit more counties in the future. Given its large population, rapid economic growth and strategic location, Indonesia could be a potential future member. As yet, BRICS remains an informal grouping with no charter and no secretariat. This is possibly its strength. If more countries join, the forum itself may become unwieldy and decision making difficult.

Some have criticised BRICS as long on rhetoric and short on action. Western criticism has been particularly harsh. This is understandable because BRICS is trying to stand up to the West in some ways. But the criticism has been a tad unfair. BRICS has come some way from its inception. It has considerable potential which will be utilised in the years to come. For BRICS member counties, the forum is an excellent stage on which to project their strengths and complementarities. At Durban, BRICS seems to have come of age even as it evolves further in the coming years.

Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.