China's central role in BRICS must not tip over into pushy leadership

Minghao Zhao says whether BRICS remains cohesive will depend on Beijing's ability to allay wary members' fears of Chinese domination

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 21 July, 2015, 3:29pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 21 July, 2015, 3:29pm

China has played a pivotal role in driving progress towards real cooperation among the BRICS countries. In recent weeks, its members have each pledged US$10 billion to their New Development Bank, which should start lending next year; released a common strategy for economic and trade cooperation; and agreed to a US$100 billion contingency fund to provide temporary assistance to members facing balance-of-payments pressures.

Owing to strong economic headwinds, many Western observers have come to believe that the BRICS are broken, but others are less bearish about the group's prospects and global influence. In fact, the BRICS countries remain an economic force to be reckoned with, accounting for 25.7 per cent of world gross domestic product, 42 per cent of the global population, and 17 per cent of total trade.

A united anti-West bloc would not serve China's interests any more than a group characterised by antagonism and divisions

Still, the BRICS members have work to do. Working together, they have a better chance of implementing the reforms needed to boost their economies' resilience. The Chinese government is now going further, urging the rest of the BRICS to institutionalise their cooperation, not just pursue domestic reform. To that end, China is also spearheading the effort to reform the global economic architecture by pushing for reforms to the International Monetary Fund's weighted voting system.

But despite such efforts' potential benefits for emerging and developing economies, they have provoked considerable anxiety among China's BRICS partners, which fear that its leadership could quickly morph into domination.

Indeed, bilateral trade between China and the other BRICS members accounts for 85 per cent of total intra-BRICS trade. What's more, China's BRICS partners face keen competition from cheap Chinese-manufactured goods. Most trade-related complaints against China in the World Trade Organisation in recent years were lodged by developing countries, including India and Brazil.

If China wants BRICS to continue to deepen their ties, it should adopt an approach that is more prudent than pushy. That means, above all, curbing its geopolitical competition with India and Russia. And in dealing with developed countries, it should be open and pragmatic.

A united anti-West bloc would not serve China's interests any more than a group characterised by antagonism and divisions. What China and the rest of the emerging and developing economies need is a nimble and cohesive BRICS with a strong reputation as a leading provider of global public goods.

Minghao Zhao is a research fellow at the Charhar Institute in Beijing and an adjunct fellow at the Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies at Renmin University of China. Copyright: Project Syndicate