The Sanya Declaration by the heads of state and government of Brazil-Russia-India-China-South Africa (BRICS) marks a strengthening of this emerging country partnership on the world stage in at least two significant respects. First, BRIC has become BRICS with South Africa — a rainbow nation of 50 million people, abundant natural resources, a middle income economy, and tremendous potential — joining the forum as a full member. Secondly, the grouping has gained coherence as well as confidence in articulating forward-looking positions on global economic and, to an extent, political issues. The formulation of an Action Plan at Sanya to enhance existing cooperation programmes, engage in new areas, and explore new proposals for working together indicates increased commitment. The global financial crisis brought BRIC to the fore and gave its emerging common positions salience; and on the trade and economic front and also on climate change, BRICS solidarity has been real and quite robust. Further, the Sanya declaration sends out a message on what is badly needed in international relations: a greater role and voice for developing countries — and specifically these five rising powers, which have a combined population of three billion, that is, more than 40 per cent of the global population — on issues of “world peace, security and stability, boosting global economic growth, enhancing multilateralism, and promoting greater democracy in international relations.”

However, the reality is that each of the five countries regards its ties with the United States as its most important bilateral relationship and is excessively wary of displeasing Washington. How else to explain their attitude to the indefensible military attacks, from the air, on Libya by the United Kingdom, France, and the U.S.? The BRICS stance, formulated in the Sanya declaration, is disapproval of external military intervention in the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) and West African regions; thus, “we share the principle that the use of force should be avoided...[and] we maintain that the independence, sovereignty, unity and territorial integrity of each nation should be respected.” How to square this stance with the vote of each of the five BRICS members — despite their concurrent presence in the United Nations Security Council in 2011 — on Resolution 1973, which provided cover for the western military attacks? The two permanent members, Russia and China, failed to veto the resolution but abstained; South Africa voted for the resolution; and India and Brazil equivocated by abstaining. There is a moral here. BRICS has made real progress since Brazil, Russia, India, and China held the grouping's first summit in June 2009 at Yekaterinburg in Russia and issued a declaration calling for the establishment of an equitable, democratic, and multi-polar world order. Now they need to put more sincerity and substance into this very worthwhile coming together.

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