An organisation representing the in-between powers of the world makes sense. With the Western powers in retreat simultaneously going along with the rise of so many emerging economies, it is logical these regional powers should have a set of interests different from first and third world nations. The BRICS (Brazil, Russia,
India, China and South Africa) grouping attracts attention because its membership seems to reflect this new global reality. However, what BRICS has done is to remind everyone that economics is only half the story when it comes to multilateralism. Politics is the other glue that is needed - and BRICS continues to suffer a deficit in this area.
BRICS suffers from two obvious political problems. One is the economic preponderance of China. Not only is China as economically large as all the other members combined, it is the largest trading partner of almost all of them. In contrast, the remaining BRICS nations have minimal economic relations with each other. This makes the others nervous that BRICS will become a vehicle for Chinese interests. The second is that foreign policy relations among these countries remain shaky - and at times seriously lacking in trust. The most obvious divide is between India and China. The flip side is that relations between, say, India and Brazil or South Africa and Russia are so thin as to be invisible. Other than China, the other members are regional to the point they have little contact with each other. This is why BRICS struggles to come up with a substantive agenda. BRICS bank is still many years in the making, but is already crippled by concerns it will become the multilateral bank of Beijing because of China’s deeper pockets. New Delhi, having proposed the idea, now drags its heels for fear it will be subsidising Chinese soft power with Indian taxpayers’ money.
This does not mean BRICS is just another acronym. Other middle tier nations like Egypt and Indonesia have evinced interest in joining. The concept of BRICS also fits the aspirations of the member-states’ middle classes who see their countries as ‘outside the West but not inside the South’. It was able to provide political cover for these countries to contribute towards the ‘global financial firewall’ against the eurozone crisis. BRICS is also vital to global public health programmes and their coordination in this area was long overdue. It is a steady stream of these small steps that is putting flesh on the bones of BRICS. What it must avoid is becoming too ambitious. Overreaching will highlight how little mortar holds BRICS together - and it will fall afoul of its internal political contradictions.