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Defense & Security
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BRICS rises

by Manoj Joshi

Now with 11 members, BRICS’ decision-making by consensus will be that much more difficultOnce upon a time, the BRICS were nothing but a slogan devised by Goldman Sachs’ economists to describe four emerging market economies to which South Africa was later added. But more than a decade later, the grouping, now with an investment bank—New Development Bank—of its own is besieged by dozens of countries of the Global South for membership.The Johannesburg summit of BRICS has drawn unusual interest around the world. There was a time when it barely merited a mention in the western press, but now it has been the subject of major stories, in which some saw BRICS as brittle whiel others thought it was  seeking to challenge the G7 and the western world through a process of enlargement. While the BRICS puts itself forward as a unified face of the emerging economic powers, the reality is that within the organisation—which  is neither a trade nor military bloc—there is considerable jostling between two Asian powers who are developing a global imprint—India and China.BRICS expansion announced in JohannesburgOne of the issues where this jostling played out in was the BRICS expansion process. Reportedly, 40 countries have expressed interest in joining BRICS, though some 22 nations had formally expressed interest in joining the bloc. With the latest expansion, Iran, Egypt, Argentina, Ethiopia, Saudi Arabia and UAE have been offered membership effective 1 January 2024. That there was a bit of lobbying is evident from the fact that  last week, President Ebrahim Raisi of Iran spoke on the phone with Prime Minister Modi. According to the official spokesman, they talked about “regional and bilateral matters” as well as issues like the expansion of BRICS. The two leaders later met in Johannesburg as well.There was some doubt at the beginning of the summit as to whether expansion would actually be announced. This was because of the intense negotiations over the names of the proposed members.Earlier this month, an Indian official spokesman had clarified that India believed that BRICS expansion should take place through “full consultation and consensus” among members of the bloc. In his speech at the summit, the Prime Minister made it clear that “India fully supports the expansion of the BRICS membership. And welcomes moving forward with consensus in this.” On Thursday, too, there were reports that there were “eleventh hour negotiations” over the potential new members. Reuters claimed that an agreement had meant to be adopted on Wednesday, but it was delayed by India’s introduction of new criteria for membership. On Tuesday President Lula of Brazil had made it clear that his country was did not want to be any kind of “a counterpoint to G7, G20 or the United States. We just want to organise ourselves.”In an organisation that acts through consensus, getting in is difficult, but global politics is about give and take and a certain degree of persuasion and arm twisting does go on. So does the notion of giving a push to countries who you see eye to eye with and blocking countries that you don’t. Sometimes the negotiation involves two powerful players splitting the difference and negotiating the entry of countries in such a way that a balance of sorts is maintained. This is the way India became a member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation dominated by China. India’s case was pushed by Russia to balance China, and Beijing finally agreed to have India, if Pakistan, its “iron” friend, could become a member at the same time.Another element in such organisations is that countries seek membership not just to further their interests but to block the ambitions of others. In this way, China sought and became a member of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) arrangement and once in there, it has used its vote to block efforts by the United States (US) to shape APEC into an Asia Pacific Economic Community in the manner of the European Economic Community that finally gave rise to the European Union.India has been reportedly joined by Brazil in resisting the haste and suggesting that new members may first be given the status of observers. The Indian position has been that while it was all for expansion, there was need to develop and standardise mechanisms to consider the applications and move on them.As of now, BRICS is more of a symbol than a unified and purposive entity. True, it has members like China and India who wield substantial power in their respective regions, but the entity itself hardly functions as an economic bloc of any kind. It does have the New Development Bank headquartered in Shanghai, which, in 2021, sharply stepped up its disbursements to US$7.6 billion, with its total disbursements being of the order of US$32 billion for infrastructure and sustainable development in four continents . The initial subscribed capital of the bank is equally distributed among the BRICS members.China’s role in and vision for BRICSBeijing, no doubt views BRICS as a means of offsetting US global power. In a page 2 commentary in the People’s Daily by someone with the nom de plume  “Huanyu Ping,” said that currently the world governance system was “at a historical turning point”. The growth of the emerging market and developing countries has enhanced their influence. But the western-dominated global order was a “stumbling block to world economic development and social progress.” The multilateralist BRICS was therefore providing a model for decisions to be made on the basis of equality and consensus, as testified by the share-holding of the New Development Bank. They also actively promoted reform of the global governance system and upheld the validity of multilateral and multipolar solutions.There should be no doubt about the weightage China has within BRICS. It has a GDP more than twice the size of the other members combined. Its economy may have slowed down but it is still growing, with IMF predicting a 5.2 per cent growth as against 5.9 for India. The others are growing at less than 1 per cent.  It has played a significant role in getting together two of the new incoming members, Saudi Arabia and Iran. In 2022, China was the largest trading partner of South Africa, India and Brazil.There should be little doubt that China sees Africa as a battleground in the global struggle against the US. In a meeting with President Cyril Ramaphosa on Tuesday, President Xi spoke of the urgent need for China to promote cooperation with Africa because of “changes and chaos” in the world, an indirect allusion to the US. He took up the theme in the Business Forum meeting that he did not attend, but where his speech was read out: “Right now, changes in the world, in our times, and in history are unfolding in ways like never before, bringing human society to a critical juncture.”China may swear by multilateralism, but it is not really comfortable with it. What it is seeking to do is to shape institutions like BRICS in its own image for countering its principal rival, the United States of America. In this, it is unlikely to get Indian support, so what it is trying to do is to pack its membership with countries where it has already made significant investments through its Belt & Road Initiative. Such countries would be inclined to follow its global agenda, which is now manifesting itself as the Global Security Initiative, Global Development Initiative and the Global Civilisation Initiative.The Chinese aim, according to James Kynge in the Financial Times is two-fold. The first is to ensure that large parts of the world remain open to Chinese investment and trade in an environment where western attitudes are increasingly hardening. And the second is to have a bloc of votes in multilateral forums like the United Nations (UN) to project Chinese influence.In the turbulent world, China’s path is not an easy one. Its economy is slowing down and its global security calculations have been roiled by the Russian adventure in Ukraine. Further, in promoting the Global South it runs up against India which has its own ambitions, as well as the backing of the west. Even while promoting the UN and its institutions, China is not interested in any serious reform there because that could result in a bigger role for its adversaries like Japan and India.Done increases with the expansion of its membership. Now, with 11 members, things will be that much more difficult. The BRICS countries have economies and geopolitical profiles that are hugely divergent, and which makes consensus-based decision-making hugely difficult.

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BRICS and the West: Don’t Believe the Cold War Hype

by Cedric H. de Coning

While it is prudent to be cautious, it may also be wise to explore cooperation in those areas where there are shared interests rather than assume that the BRICS and the West are strategic rivals on all fronts.This analysis was first published in the Global Observatory, 30 August 2023.When Jim O’Neill coined the BRIC acronym in 2001, the point he was trying to convey was that the global economic system needed to incorporate the world’s largest emerging economies. His advice fell on deaf ears and in 2009, Brazil, China, India and Russia decided to take matters into their own hands and formed the BRIC grouping. South Africa joined the group in 2010 to form the BRICS. This July, the group held its 15th summit in South Africa, where they decided to add six new members: Argentina, Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. More are likely to join in the future, including countries like Indonesia and Nigeria. What these countries have in common is a frustration, if not a grievance, about being side-lined to the periphery of the world economy. Together, the BRICS represent approximately 40% of the world’s population. The combined size of their economies are approaching approximately 30% of the world’s GDP, which puts them roughly on par with combined size of the economies of the G7 countries, depending on whether size is measured in GDP or PPP.  More importantly, in the next few decades, the combined size of the BRICS economies will surpass that of the G7. Despite this growing parity, all the members of the BRICS, with the exception of Russia, self-identifies as being part of the Global South, i.e., they feel excluded from a global system dominated by the Global North. Their stated aim is to work towards a future system of global governance where they will have equal political and economic say in global institutions, and where no one state will dominate others. In pursuit of this aim, BRICS countries have established their own development bank, set up their own contingency reserve arrangement, are developing their own payment system, and have started to trade with each other in their own currencies. The BRICS want to free their economies from the dollar-based international financial system. They feel exposed to United States interest rates that can have a negative effect on their economies, for no domestic reasons. The dollar-based financial system also provides the US with significant advantages in the global economy, which the BRICS see as unfair. They also feel a dollar-based financial system gives the US hegemonic influence in global affairs, through for example, exerting US jurisdiction on all dollar-based trade or investments that flow through US banks or financial institutions. While the BRICS countries have these clear shared macro-economic interests, many of the members also have competing interests in other domains. China and India are geopolitical rivals in South Asia. Egypt and Ethiopia are at loggerheads over the Nile. Brazil, India, South Africa and the newly-added Argentina are democracies, while other countries in the group are governed by a diverse set of autocratic regimes, which could set up an irreconcilable clash of values on some issues. Many of the members of the BRICS also have close ties to the United States and Europe, including Egypt, India, Saudi Arabia and South Africa. South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, in a televised statement to the nation on the eve of hosting the BRICS summit in South Africa, explained that South Africa remains non-aligned, and he announced that in 2023 the country will also host a major United States-Africa trade meeting and an EU-South Africa summit. South Africa will also host the G20 in 2025, the first in Africa. For many countries, membership of the BRICS does thus not necessarily imply aligning themselves with one global alliance versus another, but rather cooperation in a group around a series of shared interests. Where does this place the BRICS on the Russian war in Ukraine? The BRICS summit in Johannesburg steered clear of taking a position on the war, other than welcoming mediation aimed at resolving it through dialogue and diplomacy. Some BRICS members like Iran are clearly supporting Russia, while most others have stopped short of either supporting or condemning Russia. For many such as Egypt, the war has adversely affected their economy. Two of the BRICS members, Egypt and South Africa, are part of an African initiative to seek a mediated end to the conflict, which is perhaps the first African initiative to mediate an international conflict. Overall, however, the BRICS have their eyes on the medium- to long-term transformation of the global macro-economic and financial system, and countries like China are probably frustrated that the Russian war in Ukraine has drawn attention away from this larger objective. Are the BRICS and the West headed for a new cold war? The shift in the center of gravity of the global economy to the East is an unstoppable fact driven by demographics and economic factors like the cost of production. At the same time, Europe and the United States will remain major economic players. In tandem with these changes in the global economy, it is clear that the global political order will become more multipolar, with China, Europe, India, and the United States representing some of the major centers of influence. In an August 27 article, Jim O’Neil argues that the influence of the BRICS will be determined by their effectiveness, not their size. An expanding BRICS will most likely succeed in helping its members to break free from a dollar-based international financial system, but that will take several decades of incremental change before it reaches a tipping point. Whether that is a good or bad thing depends on the degree to which your economy is tied to the United States. Many of the BRICS countries, including China, Egypt, India, Saudi Arabia, and South Africa all have economies whose prosperity are closely tied to the Unites States. They will thus have an interest in a slow, stable freeing up of the international financial system, and this should give everyone that is prudent time to adapt. The same logic also applies to changes in global governance architecture. Apart from Russia, all the other BRICS countries have an interest in making sure that changes in the global order are managed at a slow steady pace that does not generate instability. All the BRICS countries, apart from Russia, are also strong supporters of multilateralism, with the United Nations at its center. Many Western countries and BRICS members may thus have more shared interests than the doomsday headlines suggest. While it is prudent to be cautious, it may also be wise to explore cooperation in those areas where there are shared interests rather than assume that the BRICS and the West are strategic rivals on all fronts.