There is a rising and understandable scepticism about the future of the emerging economy grouping known as the BRICS, an acronym of the members Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. India is playing host to the bloc at the summit which begins today in its eighth year of existence at a time when both the supposed economic similarities and the expectation of converging interests of these rising powers are under question.
The economic trajectories of its members could not be more varied. Commodity-based economies like Brazil, Russia and South Africa are contracting sharply. More diversified economies like India and China continue to grow. It can be argued that this is a temporary phase. Yet the real imbalance in BRICS is that between China and the rest. China’s economy represents almost two-thirds of the grouping’s combined GDP and dominates trade and investment among the five countries. In truth, without Beijing being there the BRICS would be a footnote in the roster of multilateral bodies.
This feeds into the other, greater problem that exists among the members — of policy convergence: Does BRICS actually represent a common view of what the world should be and how it should get there? A common platitude is that BRICS nations want a multi-polar world. They share a desire for greater representation of the United Nations and bodies like the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. They also share positions on issues like trade and climate change. Much of this does not hold up to close scrutiny. China wants a bipolar world in which it is one of the poles — and increasingly Russia and South Africa support this stance. Only two BRICS countries actually back India’s UNSC membership. Beijing is more interested in setting up alternatives to the IMF and World Bank in which it is at its helm. Talk of a common stance in international trade and climate policy is a fiction —BRICS states have each gone their own way when the chips are down. All this points to BRICS becoming a vehicle to enhance China’s standing in the world — and in almost every case to the detriment of India.
BRICS is not without its positives. With difficulty it moderates the policies of a Beijing increasingly ready to break rather than modify the international system. If it can make business visas and financial transactions easier among its members it will help facilitate the negligible trade that exists among the non-Chinese members. More importantly, it seems to fulfil the desire of an Indian establishment for a global narrative that is non-Western but is closer to today’s realities than the Non-Aligned Summit or the Group of 77. But New Delhi needs to be far more cognisant of the limitations of BRICS, notably the oversized influence of China and, as importantly, the lack of genuine coherence among its members. BRICS, is a label of aspiration, could become a trade and investment facilitator, and will become a major global force if it speaks in Mandarin — and India’s interest lies only in the first two objectives.