Less than 10 years since the first four BRICS states held their first formal summit in Yekaterinburg, Russia, the grouping – which has since widened to include five countries – has done much to influence geopolitics and the global economy.
The grouping – an acronym for the economies of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa – aims to promote the emerging economies’ influence on the world stage and challenge the post-second world war global order, dominated by the US-led Western alliance.
It continues with this aim to this day – leaders from the BRICS countries wrapped up their ninth annual summit in the coastal city of Xiamen on Tuesday by calling for a greater role for emerging economies on the world stage.
The BRICS concept, coined in 2001 by Jim O’Neill, a Goldman Sachs economist, morphed into a formal association in 2008 in the hope it would become an influential global association and, in particular, grow to rival the Group of Seven forum of major developed economies and leading democracies in the governance of global affairs. Since then, the bloc has engineered a significant restructuring of the global governance built on US-led Bretton Woods institutions. It has increased the share of voting rights for emerging markets at the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. It has also started operating its own New Development Bank, largely backed by China.
Covering 44 per cent of the world’s population, abundant natural resources, vast markets, and economies with huge growth potential, the bloc has become a key engine of economic growth. It currently accounts for more than half of global growth.
Members of the group have long hoped to overtake their Western peers to become global economic superpowers – a goal already achieved in large part by one member, China (at least in terms of economic scale – it is now the second largest economy in the world).
Recently, some of these hopes appear to have receded. Russia, Brazil and South Africa are all struggling economically, while China, the key player of the grouping, has endured a slowing of growth for several years in a row. India, with its trend of accelerating growth, remains a shining light.
On the geopolitical stage, too, there are challenges for the bloc, not least its competition for influence with other geo-economic groupings like the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) group, the Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and the European Union in the developed West.
The political influence of the BRICS is waning due to their sharp differences in politics, ideology, culture and religion. The countries’ governing structures range from democratic to autocratic.
This lack of coherence is reflected in the BRICS’ failure to form a collective stance on major regional and global security issues – be it on Ukraine, Syria, maritime disputes in the South and East China Seas or the nuclear crisis on the Korean peninsula.
Historically, China, India and Russia have been rivals for regional influence. The recent bitter stand-off between China and India regarding Doklam on Bhutanese territory and the increasing rift between Russia and India over Moscow’s cosying up to Islamabad in response to New Delhi’s engagement with Washington are reminders of this rivalry.
Meanwhile, a recent rapport between China and Russia is more a marriage of convenience based on their disagreements with the US.
Indeed, the BRICS bloc appears to cover two rival alliances with obviously adversarial ideological orientations when it comes to influence in Eurasia. Russia and China (with Iran and Pakistan) are aligned on one side. India (along with the US, Japan and Nato countries) is on the other.
While the BRICS leaders try to present an image of unity, each country sees its relationship with the US as more important than its relationships with other BRICS countries. Given this, the bloc has a long way to go if it is to establish itself as an alternative source of power worthy of challenging the US-dominated world order. ■
Cary Huang, a senior writer with the South China Morning Post, has been a China affairs columnist since the 1990s