Until recently, the BRIC grouping was seen by Chinese officials as a political concept that was of some symbolism, but devoid of substance — just the latest political acronym to be pencilled into an increasingly crowded diplomatic calendar.
But in recent months, officials here have appeared to invest the grouping with a never-before-seen level of strategic importance. In interviews, officials and analysts cast the group as the new focus of China's “multilateral diplomacy” — a crucial vehicle for the country's wider objective to carve out for itself a more prominent role in a changing global order.
Ahead of Thursday's annual summit meeting among the leaders of Brazil, Russia, India and China — who, for the first time, will be joined by South Africa — Chinese officials have hinted they will push the grouping to broaden its agenda beyond specific economic issues, and to look at how it could emerge as a platform for emerging countries to reshape the international order.
“In the past, the emerging powers acted individually and were often unable to effectively meet the challenges from the West. Now they can coordinate their policies and movements more efficiently,” Yang Jiemian, president of the Shanghai Institutes for International Studies and influential strategic analyst, who has shaped China's BRICS policy, said in a speech last month.
Once reluctant to describe the grouping's political weight, Chinese officials and analysts have increasingly spoken of its potential as a platform to challenge the West.
While the grouping is far from a coherent political body, with its members often having diverging interests, Chinese analysts see it as a vehicle to push China's interests, from issues at the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) to exchange rate regimes and climate change.
“At this point, BRICS countries are still in an ad hoc political club,” said Liu Youfa, a scholar at the official China Institute of International Studies (CIIS). “In order to further enhance cooperation among them, and to achieve common development, institutionalisation is the direction for the future.”
Mr. Yang, who has led the calls for China to expand its engagement with emerging countries as a way to challenge the West, has described the BRIC mechanism in several essays as a future model for diplomacy — a loose grouping where countries could come together on specific issues while still differing on others, apt for a fluid period in international diplomacy where older military alliances and blocs were being diluted.
“The emerging powers should continue to pursue the kind of dialogue and cooperation that will lead to the re-adjustments of the current international and regional systems,” he said.
For China, this means garnering support on specific issues where it has faced pressure from the West. On climate change and trade talks at Doha, Chinese officials acknowledge, the country would have been left isolated without India and Brazil. The recent UNSC vote, where the BRIC nations abstained from supporting military intervention in Libya, also underscored common concerns.
Reforming exchange rate regimes is another case in point. Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff belied Western expectations, not raising the issue of valuation of the Chinese yuan, which countries say has been kept artificially undervalued, during her visit to Beijing this week.
To challenge the United States dollar, China is also seeking to use the BRICS mechanism to gradually promote trade settlements in alternative currencies. This has raised some concerns in India and Brazil, both of which share close trade relationships with the U.S. China did not favour “a single currency regime again,” according to Jiang Chunyue, director of the Department for World Economy and Development at the CIIS. “I think we should move towards a basket of currencies, with the U.S. dollar, Japanese yen, Euro, Chinese yuan and other currencies,” he said.
Officials from India and South Africa said they were struck by China's accelerated interest in recent months in driving forward engagement through the BRICS mechanism. “There is no question that China is taking this far more seriously than we are,” an official said. “In some sense, for us, it's still just another acronym.”