There is a wheeze about the original BRICS grouping. Minus China, it went, BRICS becomes a soft cheese. While brie is a Western product, the joke highlights how among emerging economies, China is first among equals. It raises the concern that BRICS will, ultimately, become a plaything of Beijing.
On paper, there are grounds for this. China’s economic clout is greater than the other BRICS nations put together. China is 9.3% of global GDP, a little over half of the BRICS combined 18.2%.
Structurally, BRICS exaggerates Beijing’s influence. China is the number one or two trading partner of India, Russia, Brazil and South Africa. But trade between the other three countries is minimal.
Kanwal Sibal, foreign secretary when the BRIC summit was first conceived, says Beijing's ambitions within the organization have clearly grown. “When we first put it together, China was cool to an economic agenda within BRIC,” he says. “Today, as its economy has become so much stronger, it is pushing a much broader commercial agenda within the BRICS.”
The reverse, say other sources, is true for Russia which has become uninterested in economics as its fortunes have dwindled.
A former Indian diplomat, who handled China, noted that such entities as a “BRICS Bank” should be treated with caution. If modelled after the World Bank, then board voting rights will be apportioned according to the amount of money provided. Beijing's trillion dollar foreign exchange kitty will automatically make it chairman of the board. Chandrashekhar Dasgupta, who served as Indian envoy to Beijing, is more sanguine. “Powerful though it is,” he says, “I don't believe China can control a group as diverse and large as the BRICS.”The real struggle for influence will lie in existing institutions like the UN or the IMF - whose reform the BRICS summit has endorsed.