The 10th BRICS summit, to be held in Johannesburg from 25-27 July 2018, will be yet another attempt to assert and fortify the role of an important multilateral formation that comprises five key nations from four different continents. This annual diplomatic exercise takes place now in an increasingly adverse global environment. What, then, are the prospects of success for BRICS to secure its goals in its second decade? What gains does South Africa expect for itself?
The core elements of BRICS’ agenda are under attack. Several new challenges have arisen from: the rising global turbulence unleashed by Trump’s unconventional and disruptive management of international affairs, threats to globalisation, the march towards Brexit, the deeply fractured western alliance, rise of unilateralism and rapidly changing equations among great powers. BRICS aspires to bring about reform in the UN, including the Security Council, a rules-based multilateral trading system, and a new global economic governance structure that reflects the voice of emerging and developing economies, but it is nowhere near achieving these objectives today.
Yet, the 10th summit comes in the wake of one favourable development: three of the grouping’s most important members – China, Russia and India – enjoy closer understanding today than they did before the last summit at Xiamen. This positive outcome stems from the successful informal summits the prime minister of India held with the presidents of China and Russia in Wuhan and Sochi respectively in May this year. Better India-China relations and a shared perception by the Three Powers that the stability of the global system must be safeguarded, may help the host, South African president Cyril Ramaphosa, navigate summit deliberations in a positive direction.
As the host, South Africa has had the opportunity to shape pre-summit consultations, especially since critics of the government have argued that the nation has gained little from its membership of BRICS. The present official narrative, therefore, is that South Africa is in a position to influence the global discourse and attempt to push for greater global equity, both in political and economic domains.
More specifically, Pretoria has set four practical priorities for the 10th summit: foster BRICS’ unity to devise vaccines to address numerous health challenges; establish a working group on international peacekeeping; launch a dedicated mechanism to promote women’s empowerment; and initiate dialogue to plan for the impact of the fourth industrial revolution. Looking from the purely economic imperative though, the South African government hopes that the likely participation of about 1,000 business leaders in BRICS-related events will help President Ramaphosa achieve his declared goal to draw $100 billion in foreign investment to the country in the medium term.
The host nation has chosen ‘BRICS in Africa: Collaboration for Inclusive Growth in the fourth Industrial Revolution’ as the central theme. The long title will most likely become the subject of an extensive final declaration of the conference, but how the summit addresses a few specific issues on the ground will show if the outcome was successful.
Of the four broad areas of focus in the past — expanding practical cooperation, improving communication and coordination, safeguarding peace and security, and embracing cultural diversity — BRICS participants could concentrate on the first. Participants need to agree on a strategy to deal with Trump’s America which is not anti-West. They have to make speedy progress on intra-BRICS cooperation, especially in the areas of development and finance. Increasing substantially the New Development Bank’s (NDB) resources and the geographical area of its operations is a priority.
Second, the logic of setting up NDB’s regional centres in South Africa and Brazil demands that its coffers now be used to fund projects in Africa and the neighbourhood of the other four member countries.
Third, it will also be helpful if members overcome their differences and establish a new Credit Rating Agency of BRICS’ own, which is based on market principles. This proposal figured in the Goa Declaration of November 2016. China may not particularly need it, but the other four members, hungry for more foreign investment, see merit in the proposed institution. India is keen to locate it in one of its own cities; member countries should give the idea due consideration.
Four, South Africa’s two-pronged approach on outreach through i) the BRICS-Africa Dialogue and ii) the BRICS Plus cooperation promises to be a new and interesting innovation. If it succeeds – and for this, participants have to go beyond mere talk and craft a credible plan of cooperation with BRICS interlocutors – then future hosts of BRICS summits could emulate it.
The chairmen of Regional Economic Communities, the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD), the African Union (AU), and the AU Commission will represent the country at Johannesburg: they can be sure that BRICS leaders will reiterate their support for Africa’s Vision 2063. But the critical question is whether the five-country formation will have something concrete to offer Africa at a time when the world’s no. 1 economy – the US – shows limited interest in the affairs of the African continent.
Once again, China’s shadow will loom large over the BRICS stage. President Xi Jinping will arrive in Johannesburg — as part of his five-nation tour, covering four African countries (viz. Senegal, Rwanda and Mauritius, besides South Africa) and UAE — and prepare the ground energetically for the forthcoming summit of the Forum for China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC), to be hosted by Beijing in November.
At the BRICS summit, the Indian leadership will insist on an equal place in the sun for all members. Besides, it may strive to take the middle path on divisive issues emerging from the growing tensions between the United States and China.
And the Russians? Fresh from the Helsinki summit, President Putin is sure to hold BRICS leaders’ optimal attention as he briefs them about his discussions with President Trump.
Countries that will be present in the capacity of observer will be Argentina (as Chair of the G20 and influential MERCOSUR or Southern Common Market member); Indonesia (as Co-Chair of the New Africa-Asia Strategic Partnership with South Africa and influential ASEAN member); Egypt (as Chair of the G77+China; Jamaica (as incoming Chair of CARICOM or the Caribbean community); and Turkey (as Chair of the Organisation of Islamic Countries (OIC).
It is best to have moderate expectations of the forthcoming summit as global politics is mired in complexity. BRICS may do better, strengthening cooperation among its own members and with its partners in Africa and elsewhere than pursue its ambition to change the world.
Rajiv Bhatia is Distinguished Fellow, Gateway house. A former high commissioner to South Africa, he writes regularly on BRICS-related developments.
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 Bhatia, Rajiv, ‘BRICS Summit under Doklam shadow’, Gateway House, 12 August 2017, <https://www.gatewayhouse.in/brics-summit-doklam-shadow/>