BRICS and brickbats

| | in Oped

Keeping in mind BRICS’ history of overcoming geographical, social, political and institutional barriers for the benefit of its members, it is imperative for the member states to ensure that stand-offs do not spill into other avenues of cooperation, especially when the future looks foggy

The ninth BRICS Summit, to be held under theme “BRICS: Stronger Partnership for a Brighter Future” at Fujian, Xiamen, from September 3 to September 5, 2017, is coming at a rather interesting time. While China and India are engaged in a bitter border standoff, Russia is pitted against the US and Brazil is caught in its own political turmoil.

On a brighter note, majority of the five economies are growing rapidly, three of the five leaders are at their strongest selves and can easily take advantage of the geopolitical currents tilting to their side. Like the Chinese translation of BRICS goes “gold-bricks countries”, these countries constitute over 23 per cent of the global economy, contributing to over half of last year’s global growth.

However, with the demise of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the withdrawal of the US from the Paris Agreement, and Brexit, the conditions look much favourable for the BRICS countries under China’s command this year. In fact, the Chinese vision of global governance is very much at the forefront. It is seeking active participation in instituting a multi-polar world order by challenging previous global financial institutions and setting up new, more inclusive ones. The Silk Road Fund, the BRICS-led New Development Bank (NDB), and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) are good exemplars. Moreover, China in an attempt to make BRICS more inclusive has been toying with the idea of creating a “BRICS Plus” institutional mechanism. According to the Chinese Foreign Affairs Minister Wang Yi, it would be a network of congenial alliances which would not only represent major developing countries but also improve their footing in globalisation.

It is being assumed that China is leaving no stones unturned in exercising its presidency over BRICS. Recently it organised a range of meetings covering most of the aspects of global governance. Beginning from the BRICS Sherpa meeting held in Qingdao in June, to Trade Ministers meeting in Shanghai, a BRICS Seminar on Governance in Quanzhou, and a BRICS Security Meeting in Beijing, it is perseverantly facilitating a new era of governance. By actively supporting a multilateral trade system, strengthening collaborations in financial affairs, boosting national security, and shoring up all-inclusive development, it can be seen as ushering in a world order drastically different from what existed a couple of decades ago.

There can be several reasons behind China’s tenaciousness. First, stemming from the grudge that the West has always neglected China, there is an inherent feeling among Chinese that now with their high economic rise, it is time the structure of global governance is reconfigured. So, their focus has shifted to advancing their international status in such a way that their previous glory of being a Middle Kingdom is rightfully reinstated. In this regard, Chinese President Xi Jinping has sent letters to all his BRICS counterparts stating four key ideas that should find a place in the upcoming BRICS Summit. Those include advancing cooperation for growth and prosperity, enhancing global financial governance, engaging in more social, cultural and people-to-people contact, and finally, investing more in infrastructural build-up. The countries have already taken a pledge to fortify their partnership so as to give a solid ground to their second “golden decade of cooperation”. Although the previous BRICS meetings witnessed several new initiatives, the same have not succeeded in bringing about high inter-BRICS trade and investment as expected. This year their total trade constituted only about 4.9 per cent of their overall foreign trade. Therefore, setting up a more integrated system of global trade and investment will actually act like a beacon of mutual benefit and prosperity.

For the BRICS countries, their economic needs have always come first. Looking at the future, it can be safely argued that implementation of the BRICS Economic Partnership under the framework of BRICS Roadmap for Trade, Economic and Investment Cooperation by 2020 is going to be the main priority. Institutions like the Contact Group on Economic and Trade Issues, NDB, Business Council and inter-bank cooperation are enhancing exchanges in technology, e-commerce, industrial cooperation, and setting up of small and medium enterprises (MSMEs). Assessment of these ventures clearly indicates that despite prevailing risks, BRICS and other Emerging Markets and Developing Countries (EMDCs) are paving the way for a new era of globalisation.

Recently the brainchild of this association, the NDB formed a new African Regional Centre as part of its South-South Cooperation. Formed with the mind-set of being an alternative development model to the World Bank, the NDB finances infrastructure projects of developing countries and fuels their sustainable development projects. In fact, this year the bank has sanctioned around $3 billion loans for ten miscellaneous projects, and is going to invest $8 billion more for thirty-five more projects till 2018. All these ventures — like extending membership to a dozen other countries and forming Regional Centres — have a commonality: they all fit very conveniently into China’s narrative of engaging in a peaceful and participatory rise, beneficial not just for Asia as a whole but the whole world community. Though the other members are exercising caution before espousing the new ideas, there are high chances that actually doing so might impair decision-making and dilute the statuses of the existing members.

Furthermore, there is a strong possibility that these matters are going to be overshadowed by certain issues rather sensitive to two of the biggest economies of the association, China and India. Currently, the tension between them is seen by many as a deterring factor in the success of the coming summit. While both are engaged in rhetorics to pull back their troops, the forthcoming 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China is also putting a lot of strain on Jinping. Tensions are high and the only seemingly meaningful tactic in this regard is to compartmentalise the border issue and the functioning of BRICS.

Another important area of focus, mostly forwarded by India, is terrorism. Though all the countries have adopted a “comprehensive approach” in combating it, they have varying degrees of interest at the bilateral level. Yet again China has gone against India by extending its technical hold by three more months on the United Nations’ proposal to decree Pakistan’s Jaish-e-Mohammad chief Masood Azhar as a terrorist. The last hold was in February and if China had not objected this time, Azhar would have been directly labelled a terrorist. This move is pretty ironical, especially when Jinping had just applauded India for its counter-terror activities in the informal BRICS gathering in Germany this year. China can in this sense increase its standing through actions and not mere slogans.

So at the coming BRICS summit it will be imperative for all the leaders to arrive at a way to diffuse the tension and ensure that the effect of the border standoff does not spill into other avenues of cooperation. The diplomatic ties based on economic and security cooperation should be revisited to ensure full collaboration. BRICS has a history of overcoming geographical, social, political and institutional barriers by including and benefiting all those involved. The spirit of it should not be forgotten, especially when the future looks foggy. The win-win spirit should be kept alive for the rightly termed second “golden decade of cooperation”.

(The writer is associated with the East Asia Centre of the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), New Delhi)  

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