In global diplomatic circles, one of the most talked about trends of recent years has been the rising influence of fast growing developing economies.
One group in particular has commanded attention: the BRICS – Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa.
The acronym (originally just BRIC) was coined in 2001 by the Goldman Sachs economist Jim O’Neil to highlight the increasingly important role developing countries were playing in the global economy. In 2008, the acronym morphed into a formal association in the hope the grouping would become a rival and counterbalance to the US-led Western global order, as typified by institutions such as the G7.
Fast forward to 2018 and the BRICS countries now contain more than 40 per cent of the world’s population and almost a quarter of the world’s gross output (jumping from just 11 per cent in 1990).
According to O’Neil, the BRICS bloc is still on track to become collectively as large as the G7 economies by 2035. This suggests the global economy will soon straddle two worlds – the developed and the developing – assuming, that is, that the BRICS can keep up the momentum of the past decade.
Thus it was with understandable reason that the 10th annual BRICS summit, held last week in Johannesburg, South Africa, caught the world’s attention, particularly given it came amid an escalating trade conflict between the United States and China – the giants of the developed and developing world. However, amid all the excitement surrounding the BRICS, it is all too easy to remember that the bloc is a disparate group of nations with very little to link them other than a shared status as economies in transition. They differ in terms geographic size, language, form of governance and are also vastly different in size of GDP (China accounts for 41 per cent of BRICS GDP).
And any hopes the BRICS might soon catch up the G7 have receded recently as all but one of the economies have lost momentum. Russia, Brazil and South Africa are struggling from stubborn recessions, while China has endured a continuing slowdown of growth that has lasted several years in a row. India has become the sole emerging market where growth is accelerating.
Furthermore, the economic links between the BRICS themselves are much weaker than those between them and developed economies. For instance, all of China’s top 10 trade partners are developed economies, with the European Union, United States and Japan topping the list. India ranks 13th, Brazil, 14th, Russia 16th and South Africa 22nd.
But what is perhaps most important is that the BRICS lack a consensus in politics, ideology, strategy and security concerns. They have drastically different political systems, from active democracy in Brazil, South Africa and India to entrenched oligarchy in Russia and communist one-party rule in China. It is conceivable that as global military powers, Beijing and Moscow might want to use the bloc to counter-check US hegemony. But politically, diplomatically and strategically speaking, India, Brazil and South Africa tend to align themselves with the US-led free democracies, rather than with Beijing and Moscow. For instance, India recently joined the Trump administration’s new Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy by participating in the US-Japan-India-Australia quadrilateral alliance, a joint effort by like-minded free democracies to check the increasingly assertive communist China.
So the influence of this stumbling bloc is not building, but crumbling. And the latest summit, which failed to produce a clear consensus regarding any major global dispute – such as friction between the US and China on trade, Taiwan and the South and East China Seas – served only to prove it is unable to translate ideas into action. ■
Cary Huang, a senior writer with the South China Morning Post, has been a China affairs columnist since the 1990s