When they come together at Durban, the South African city that has hosted mega conferences of hundreds of countries in the past, the small but significant group of five leaders from Brazil, Russia, India, China, and the host country will be completing their first round of summit meetings. South Africa, itself a late entrant into BRICS in 2011, is conscious of what the event means to it, a demonstration to its own people and also to the rest of Africa about it belonging to a select transcontinental group: new, rich in promise and potential, and worthy of attention. True to its political tradition of solidarity with the rest of Africa, South Africa as the host is also leveraging the event for a focus on all of the continent. Predictably the theme of the summit chosen by the host is “BRICS and Africa — partnership for development, integration and industrialisation.” The African Union is being invited as a guest. Interestingly, the President of Egypt is also expected.
Apart from the symbolism and the ceremony, after five years of evolution, how does one see BRICS as a grouping? What does it bring to the countries that are members? What does it convey to the countries that are outside it, to the G-8, the original rich man’s club, to other groupings? Here is a diplomatic practitioner’s perspective based on some experience of summits hitherto.
It is by now well recognised that some factors underlying the creation a decade ago of a clever acronym BRIC (without South Africa at that stage) have changed. The BRIC ‘brand’ was the invention of an investment and marketing guru Jim O Neill of Goldman Sachs. At a period of financial crisis and economic collapse in the affluent West, he was looking to identify countries with high growth, rising demand in markets, and attractive yield for investments. In the buoyant period of over 8-9 per cent growth in China and India and more modest but still robust growth in Brazil and Russia, the logo of BRIC as an investment destination was attractive. Today, seen from this solely macro-economic perspective, the reality is different. There are questions about the growth trajectories in India and Brazil to name only two; pointers to others that are growing faster such as Mexico, Turkey or Indonesia, and larger uncertainties about the economic scenario. BRICS sceptics, not confined to the West, but also in our countries thus ask legitimate questions about the salience of the grouping.
But to focus only on the micro or even macro economic issues is to miss the point that BRICS has moved beyond that bandwidth. With it adopting the character of a ‘forum’ with leaders meeting at the summit and others — foreign, finance and trade ministers, national security advisers, apex business organisations, academics, bankers — on the sidelines, it is acquiring an identity as a different kind of mini multilateral platform. What is its evolving identity, then?
Some features are easy to see. BRICS countries are all large, though largeness in size or population is a relative attribute. But together they constitute 40 per cent of the world’s population, 25 per cent of its land size and over 25 per cent of the global GDP and thus by any standards have collective weight. Secondly, though Mexico, South Korea, and Turkey have also shown remarkable growth, they are members or aligned to the rich man’s club of OECD and have identity and interests with the developed world. Broadly speaking, BRICS countries regard themselves as developing (Russia being an exception) and it is still a fact that the perspectives of the two groups are different on many international issues. (The G-20, another mechanism, is a framework that brings together both).
Third, the BRICS countries are conscious — although they may not proclaim it — that the convergence in their political and security interests is limited, and hence are not likely to spend too much time on these issues. Two countries are already permanent members of the Security Council (China and Russia), and India and Brazil are aspirants; two are acknowledged nuclear powers and India is a claimant, and there are other divergences on strategic issues. All leaders are sensitive to these differences and the summits take place despite these divergences, and not to resolve them. Notwithstanding, with regard to some international issues, there can be commonality of approaches and hence the expectation that they may look at Syria, Iran or the Palestinian issue in a nuanced way. BRICS leaders are also careful not to see or, in any way, project their forum as adversarial to the U.S. or the West. That simplistic and headline grabbing approach is only that of lazy commentators, both in the West and in our own.
Within the establishments of BRICS countries, it is recognised that BRICS is essentially a work in progress. The expectations are modest and pragmatic. It will be fair to say that the one-to-one meetings between the partners, all of who are important, are a value in itself during the summits. BRICS does create an opportunity, for example, for our Prime Minister to meet for the first time, the new Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, in an intimate setting. Beyond this collateral advantage, BRICS may also help share thinking on medium term global governance issues. Current examples are the reform of the IMF and the World Bank, a greater say for countries with our capacities in such institutions, state of WTO or climate change negotiations and such agendas. There may not be complete identity of views on these issues, but given their profiles and resource endowments, a certain empathy among them is to be expected.
Looking at the forthcoming summit in Durban, some substantive specifics may be noted. Engagement with Africa is important individually for India, China and Brazil though their priority regions and models for cooperation have been different. It will be interesting to see the competitive and the cooperative dimensions come into play when they look at Africa collectively. The idea of a BRICS bank, first discussed in Delhi, is being examined at technical levels, but it may receive further encouragement. A notable achievement already is the BRICS network of research institutions to pool together the intellectual capital, easier to design than the pooling of financial capital.
Finally, for South Africa, Brazil and India, there is also the interesting question of how to shape another forum of their own, IBSA, which brings together the three large and vibrant democracies from the three continents of Africa, Latin America and Asia. BRICS and IBSA have overlapping but distinct memberships and identities and the three countries need to think of what they can do together that is different from BRICS. This is also an issue that India will have to address as it will host the IBSA process later in the year.
B. S. Prakash is a former Indian Ambassador to Brazil, and a columnist at Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations.
This article was originally published on 25 March 2013, by The Hindu, here.