Representing around 40 percent of the world's population and nearly a quarter of its economic output, Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa — the so-called BRICS countries — came together for a day in New Delhi in March to show off their growing global heft.
This is a period when the tectonic plates of global
politics are shifting with new global and regional arrangements emerging thick
and fast as states try to come to terms with the complexities of change.
It was just a decade ago that the term "BRIC" was
coined by Goldman Sachs economist Jim O'Neill. The first BRIC summit was held
in 2009 in Russia; when South Africa joined the group in 2010, BRIC became
Last year China surpassed Japan to become the
second-largest economy in the world and more recently Brazil overtook the
United Kingdom to emerge as the sixth-largest economy.
The economic profile of BRIC nations continues to grow
with some suggesting that BRIC collectively could become bigger than the United
States by 2018 and, by 2050, could even surpass the combined Group of Seven
Last year's summit of BRICS in China was focused on the
governing structure of international financial institutions. The summit
communiqué demanded that the global financial architecture "should reflect
the changes in the world economy, increasing the voice and representation of
emerging economies and developing countries." This was in line with the
long-standing demand of these rising economic powers for the restructuring of
the global financial architecture to make it more representative.
At this year's meeting a proposal to create a joint
development bank that could finance investments in developing nations was
mooted. BRICS nations have signaled their commitment to setting up a potential
counterweight to other multilateral lenders such as the World Bank and the
Asian Development Bank.
A BRICS development bank, if properly funded and run,
could play a role in helping developing countries learn from each other's
economic experiences. But China's clout in the proposed venture and the unease
about this among the other four states will prevent the realization of this
rather ambitious plan.
There is certainly an attempt by the emerging economic
powers to coordinate their efforts on the global stage, and as the U.S. under
the Obama administration looks perpetually preoccupied with its internal
troubles, a vacuum is being felt in the international system. Great-power
politics is a murky business.
For all the bonhomie at the Hainan summit, there are
serious differences among the BRICS. First, there is the structural disparity
between China and the rest. China's rise has been so fast and so spectacular
that others are still trying to catch up. The dominance of China makes the very
idea of a coordinated BRICS response to the changing global balance of power
something of a nonstarter.
The overweening presence of China makes others nervous,
leading them to hedge their bets by investing in alternative alliances and
partnerships. Given the leverage that China enjoys in BRICS, it should not come
as a surprise that China has suggested that the IBSA democracy grouping of
India, Brazil and South Africa be shut down.
Moreover, there are significant bilateral differences
among the BRICS. Brazil is worried about the influx of Chinese investment and
cheap Chinese imports, and it has been very vocal in criticizing China for its
undervalued yuan. Brazilian manufacturers are losing market share to their
Chinese counterparts. Brazil is also wary of China's growing profile in South
America, a region that Brazil has come to consider as its own sphere of influence.
Russia is worried about its growing economic disparity
with China. Russia's failure to develop its Far East not only has allowed China
a toehold in this strategically important region but has also pushed Beijing
into the driver's seat in defining the Asian security landscape.
Russia's Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin has openly
warned that if Russia fails to become a "worthy economic partner" for
Asia and the Pacific Rim, "China ... will steamroll Siberia and the Far
Even though China is the largest buyer of Russian
conventional weaponry, many in Russia see this as counterproductive because
China might emerge as the greatest potential security threat to Russia — worse
than what the U.S. could ever become.
The saga of the recent decline in Sino-Indian ties is
well-known. Despite the two sides deciding to resume defense ties during the
Indian prime minister's trip to China, New Delhi remains skeptical of Chinese
China's refusal to acknowledge India's rise and lack of
sensitivity on core security issues is leading to pushback, with the prime
minister himself acknowledging that "China would like to have a foothold
in South Asia and we have to reflect on this reality. ... It's important to be
It is difficult to see a productive future for BRICS
together. The rise of BRICS is as exaggerated as the decline of the U.S. The
tectonic plates of global politics are certainly shifting, but they may not be
shifting in predictable ways, at least not yet.
**Harsh V. Pant teaches at King's College London.