Building Brics

Building Brics

The limited appeal of the BRICS concept is based more on pious wishes than reality. A handy acronym for its constituent countries – Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa – Brics has been described as more a “talking shop” than a formal alliance. 

At the (March 29) summit, the heads of government of the five countries agreed to study the feasibility of a “Brics Bank,” a proposed multilateral development agency modelled on the World Bank. They urged the West to act with fiscal responsibility and, in attempting to recover from the post-2008 crisis, not create excess liquidity and add to inflationary pressures on Brics economies.

The five leaders committed to trading within the bloc using the currencies of Brics countries rather than the US dollar. Exuberance on this count was sobered by statistics of intra-Brics trade: estimated at $230 billion in 2011, of which $74 billion, or a third, came from India-China trade. Brazil-China trade was about the same quantum. Russia-China trade accounted for another $60 billion. Remove these three pivotal bilateral links and intra-Brics trade drops to virtually nothing. 

The Brics nations also sought more voting rights for themselves in the International Monetary Fund. They warned of a conflict against Iran, concerned that any resultant oil shock would hurt countries like India and China. On Syria, the Brics countries called for dialogue. Russia, which sees the Syrian situation as a test of its great power self-identity and is sympathetic to the Assad regime, spoke of a Brics humanitarian assistance programme in Syria. Others were not so sure.

In the end, despite their calibrated rhetoric, each of the Brics countries values its relationship with the United States far more than with the four other Brics countries combined. Each is actually quite happy with an international system driven by American economic and technological supremacy, underwritten by American security guarantees.

Indeed, misgivings and mutual suspicions within the Brics family also interfere with efficacious collective action. Part of the problem with Brics is that it’s seen as an artificial construct, not a bloc forged by war, political commonalities or economic synergies. At its core is the Russia-India-China (RIC) triumvirate of the 1990s, mooted by the Russians in an attempt to balance American hegemony, a throwback to Soviet Union thinking. 

How does New Delhi see Brics? Is this the new, albeit smaller and more manageable Bandung Conference/Non-Aligned Movement? If the imperative is economic, is Brics truly representative of emerging economies? Should Russia really be on the list, given it will scarcely have an economy to talk about once gas prices soften or Europe gets access to alternative sources of energy such as American shale gas? If South Africa is part of the Brics conversation, why not Nigeria, an African economy much the same size? Finally, what of Indonesia, still recovering from the Asian flu when Goldman Sachs coined the acronym in 2001, but a surging economy now?

The questions multiply when one considers the several, often intersecting blocs India and China have signed up for, sometimes to spite each other, but more often not to be left out of any new club. All compete for attention and priority, and nobody is sure which one could shape the rest of the century and which will fade away. Consider the alphabet soup: the principal promoters of the following bodies: IBSA, SAARC, SCO, ASEAN + 3, ASEAN + 6, EAS, BASIC have different and limited motivations.

At the broadest level, Brics represents a non-Western – but decidedly not anti-Western – template of growth and development, and of modernity. In New Delhi, the one hard message the Brics countries conveyed was in demanding a greater share of voting rights at the IMF, probably from the European quota. It’s apparent they would want a Brics technocrat to head the fund sooner or later. However, they were also quick to emphasise that the proposed Brics Bank – if it ever takes off – would only complement, not seek to displace, American stewardship of the World Bank.

As such, more than Washington, it’s Brussels and the European capitals that need to look over their shoulders and watch out for Brics. On their part, of course, the Brics members are watching their own backs, looking out for the growing giant, China. 

Ashok Malik is a senior journalist and columnist in New Delhi. This abridged article originally appeared on Khaleej Times online