BRICS summit in China tipped to tackle protectionism in face of Trump’s ‘America first’ agenda

Beijing signals support for free trade as leaders of emerging economies meet

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 03 September, 2017, 1:16pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 03 September, 2017, 3:52pm

A meeting of the BRICS group of emerging economies is expected to rally against trade protectionism, China’s vice trade minister said on Sunday, the first day of the summit in southeastern China.

Leaders from Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa will gather in the city of Xiamen until Tuesday, giving China latest chance to position itself as a bulwark of globalisation in the face of US President Donald Trump’s “America First” agenda.

BRICS leaders will be joined by observer countries Thailand, Mexico, Egypt, Guinea and Tajikistan, and officials will discuss a “BRICS Plus” plan to possibly expand the bloc to new members.

The observers include Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto, who will visit China to discuss trade and investment in the face of Trump’s renewed threats to scrap the 23-year-old North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta) that he has accused of “killing” US jobs.

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“We expect to reach consensus for actions in support of the multilateral trade system and oppose trade protectionism,” Vice Commerce Minister Wang Shouwen told a briefing ahead of the opening ceremony for a BRICS business meeting, where President Xi Jinping will speak.

Wang did not elaborate on those actions, but said China was interested in possibly establishing a free-trade agreement with Mexico.

In July, Xi called on members of the Group of 20 nations to champion an open world economy, and, as a keynote speaker at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, in January, offered a vigorous defence of globalisation.

But those remarks are cold comfort to some critics of China, foreign business groups and governments alike, who say China has done little to remove its own discriminatory policies and market barriers that favour Chinese companies.

The BRICS summit comes just a week after China and India agreed to end a more than two-month stand-off between hundreds of troops in a Himalayan border area, which had called into question a sidelines meeting between Xi and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

The stand-off was the latest example how BRICS countries, while sharing certain development goals, are far from unified.

Some have questioned the relevance of BRICS and China’s commitment to its New Development Bank (NDB) in light of Xi’s own global “Belt and Road Initiative” and the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.

Set up in 2015 as an alternative to the World Bank, the Shanghai-headquartered NDB was seen as the first major BRICS achievement after the group came together in 2009 to press for a bigger say in the post-second world war financial order created by Western powers.

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The bank aims to address a massive infrastructure funding gap in the member countries, which account for almost half the world’s population and about one-fifth of global economic output.

China said in a separate briefing that BRICS countries had agreed to launch a fund to support future NDB projects, but gave no details.

The NDB’s president on Friday said it aimed to make about US$4 billion in loans next year. To date, it has invested in 11 projects, lending US$1.5 billion in 2016 and US$2.5 billion in loans set for this year.