Is BRICS, a grouping of once emerging economies from Asia, Africa and South America an effective anti-thesis to the developed world’s most industrialised nations led by US and Europe at the G-7? More importantly, how does India navigate its role in the grouping, given BRICS’ clear criticism of the west’s economic domination of the world, the current standoff between Russia and the west, along with India’s problems with China?
Origin of the BRICS:
- Unlike other regional, economic and political groupings, the BRICS idea came not from its members, but from a paper by a Goldman Sachs economist in 2001- who suggested that instead of setting up the world’s then emerging economies as a separate group, that they be brought into an expanded G-7. In those days, Russia had just been taken into the G-7 to make it the G-8, but it was still an outlier. The paper made the case that by 2039- the four economies Russia, India, China and Brazil, would upend the global economic order and overtake G-7.
- In 2009, the leaders of the four countries met and formed BRIC, adding South Africa in 2010. Russia’s ties with the West had begun to unravel after the war with Georgia in 2008, and Russia was ousted from G-7 by 2014.
- Since then BRICS has met every year and set up several initiatives, defying all predictions that it would crumble given the downturn in the economies of all members, with the possible exception of China.
- BRICS may be disparate countries on four continents, but they together represent 27% of the world’s land mass, and 42% of the world’s population, 24% of global GDP, and 16% of Global trade, and produce 33% of the world’s food
What was the significance of the BRICS summit on June 23-24 this year?
- The summit was the first meeting of such a grouping including Russian President Vladimir Putin since the invasion of Ukraine- giving the message that Russia is not isolated, economically or otherwise, as the US and Europe may like to project
- For India, it indicates that it will continue to walk an independent balance in the world. BRICS leaders met one month after the Quad summit in Tokyo, and days before a G-7 summit in Germany, where both India and South Africa have been invited to attend a few sessions. Brazil attended a Summit of the Americas in the US this month where President Bolsonaro met US President Biden
- India and China have been willing to attend the BRICS summit despite the standoff between their armies at the border since 2020, indicating that the Modi government is willing to put its differences with China and the PLA's transgressions aside for this
- BRICS countries have continued to meet during the Covid pandemic, and this summit hosted by China reiterated their willingness to work with China on Covid research, vaccines etc, a contrast to more critical views of China at other western-led groupings
Key takeaways from the 13th Summit:
- Strong criticism of the US and Europe over sanctions against Russia came from both President Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping. The BRICS declaration backed Russia-Ukraine talks, and called for the UN to strengthen efforts to manage the humanitarian situation in and around Ukraine
- Common position on Afghanistan- calls for inclusive and representative government, ensure Afghan soil isn’t used for attacks against other countries and provide shelter to terrorist groups. On the same day as the BRICS summit inaugural, India reopened its embassy in Kabul.
- PM Modi focussed on the common agenda on economic governance, the importance of multilateral systems, and other BRICS initiatives- which he called “practical” initiatives
- Brazil President Bolsonaro made a push for UN reform to become a BRICS initiative- significant since China and Russia are UNSC permanent members
- South African President Ramaphosa, called for more equitable access to vaccines, and in particular urged that developed economies, international agencies and philanthropists procure vaccines tfrom manufacturers in developing economies, including in Africa.
- BRICS countries agreed to push for expansion of the group to a “BRICS Plus”, and this year saw outreaches to Argentina, Egypt, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Saudi Arabia, UA, Nigeria, Senegal and Thailand to attend development meetings
What are the practical BRICS initiatives?
1. New Development Bank or BRICS bank- multilateral bank with a s tarting capital of $50 billion- it has so far approved 70 infrastructure and sustainable development projects worth $ 25.07 billion, including about $6.9 billion in loans to India
2. Contingent Reserve Arrangement- to help members whose currencies are buffetted by global economic trends- President Putin spoke of a new reserve currency based on a basket of commodities during the summit- which is being developed, as a counter to the Dollar based system.
3. BRICS payment system as an alternative to the SWIFT payment system. This has taken on a new urgency as post Ukraine war, Russia has been frozen out of SWIFT.
4. Customs agreement to coordinate and ease trade transport between BRICS countries
5. R&D centre on Covid vaccine research in South Africa
6. A Remote Sensing constellation of satellites has been launched – with 6 satellites including 2 from India, 2 from China, 1 from Russia, and 1 Brazil-China collaboration
7. Digital BRICS Task Force (DBTF) and a plan to hold the Digital BRICS Forum in 2022
These last three initiatives mirror Quad initiatives as well.
Contradictions in BRICS:
BRICS has long been questioned and even mocked for being an unworkable idea- critics point to basic contradictions in the grouping:
1. BRICS countries never kept the promise of developing economies- and still only make up about a quarter of the global GDP. Russia, Brazil, South Africa economies have frequently been on the verge of collapse, the Indian economy has been disappointing, particularly in the past decade- where GDP growth has lost its momentum and economic reforms havent kept pace with global expectations. China which was in touching distance of the US, has been dealt a big blow by Covid and the lockdowns that have followed. In 2015, Goldman Sachs wound up its BRIC fund, which had reportedly lost 88% of its asset value since 2010, and merged it with a larger emerging markets fund.
2. BRICS members don’t discuss bilateral issues, but issues like the India-China border dispute and PLA transgressions over the LAC are bound to have an impact on BRICS solidarity in the long run
3. India and even Russia are not part of China’s big infrastructure push the Belt and Road Initiative, while Brazil and South Africa are
4. The BRICS document emphasizing National Positions on Ukraine, indicates there are differences between the members over Russia’s actions, and this could prove problematic in the years ahead.
5. While China and Russia have come closer, especially with the announcement of a no-limits partnership, India, Brazil and South Africa have all made outreaches to the US and Europe in equal if not greater measure.
The BRICS remains a miracle precisely because it survives the many contradictions in a grouping where the 5 members have little in common geographically or culturally. While it is unlikely the BRICS will upend the globl economy at this point- it does provide a counter-narrative to the West-dominated economic systems- and also calls into question the G-7 membership that continues to cut BRICS countries out two decades after the idea came into being.
1. It worth beginning at the beginning, with the first Goldmann Sachs study by Jim O Neill in 2001 called Building Better Global Economic BRICs
In 2003, Goldmann Sachs came out with another paper called Dreaming with BRICs: Path to 2050, also available online
In 2021, Jim O Neill wrote aother piece, called “BRICS at 20”
Finally there is a book by O Neill from 2011 called The Growth Map: Economic Opportunity in the BRICs and Beyond
2. Another more recent book on BRICS: Russia, BRICS, and the Disruption of Global Order by Rachel Salzman is very readable, and looks more closely at the way Russia broke with the west
3. A very easy read is the Oxford series of Very Short Introductions: The Brics: A Very Short Introduction by Andrew F Cooper- with maps and illustrations
4. South African authors David Monyae and Bhaso Ndzendze have edited The BRICS Order: Assertive or Complementing the West? A set of essays that came out this year
5. JNU professor Srikanth Kondapalli has edited a superb book called- China and the Brics: Setting Up a Different Kitchen
6. An author I have spoken of in the past, who has written the Post-Western World, is Brazilian academic, expert on IR, Oliver Stuenkel, and his 2016 book The BRICS and the Future of Global Order is well worth reading