A diplomat from one of the member countries in 2012 had once described the BRICS as “A forum of convergence, not a forum of negotiation”. However, several developments have occurred globally and within the constituent countries since then. In the face of the dynamic economic and financial shifts of the 2010s; the worldwide pandemic, and economic, social, and political disruptions caused by it; and most of all, the power rivalry amongst nations—including between some of the BRICS members, is there still room left for alignment of interests within the BRICS?
In the early 2000s, when the group was still just “BRIC”—a term developed to attract foreign investors’ attention to the economic potential of Brazil, Russia, India, and China— the world was watching how well this new grouping integrates itself. Some even suggested that BRIC would take a conflicting posture towards the established world order in the short run. BRIC, and since 2011 BRICS, however, seemed to prefer working within the established rules and with the entities and institutions that saw them emerge. Although they did place plenty of emphasis on the need to make the international order more democratic and representative.
BRICS as a group remains an impressive undertaking, regardless of what indicator is put under examination. When it comes to each of its constituting countries, their socio-economic development and their growing strategic weight in the global economic and international arena have been monumental.
However, in economic terms, only China seems to have lived up to the legacy of “continuous rapid growth”: Its economy went through a significant transition reducing its dependency on the agricultural sector, its GDP grew continuously and it attracted the most foreign direct investment (FDI) (when considered in absolute terms). It should be emphasised, that in addition to the most recent economic shocks caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and Chinese real estate market turbulences, the signs of deceleration in China have been witnessed in recent years ; most economists were raising attention to its ageing population, low innovation rate, and confusing governmental market-regulatory interference. On the other hand, another member’s rise in the group has to be noted: In the last decade, India almost doubled its GDP/capita ratio. From 2015, its FDI indicator started converging with Brazil’s, then overtook Brazil—it more than doubled in 2020 alone—putting India in second place within the group. The economic performance of the remaining three members can hardly be described as “steady growth” for the same period.
Overall, the political situation within the BRICS can be assessed as stable. It was two big neighbours—Russia and China—that the world was interested in, keeping a watch over the growing ambitions of these two nations. Regardless of their internal and external actions, what matters for BRICS’s cooperation is the fact that the policy directions and the functioning of these two states did not change much in at least a decade. The developments within the other three members did not shift significantly, as they continue to uphold their democratic order.
Since 2006, the members started a closer, direct dialogue. It would be remiss to regard the BRICS in purely economic terms. Just a simple look at the working groups’ meetings’ agenda shows extensive cooperation in all relevant spheres, such as political and security cooperation, trade, financial and monetary, agricultural, public health, science and education, and people-to-people exchanges. The working agenda of BRICS has also evolved and broadened according to the partners’ needs, as well as to the external circumstances. It showcases the members’ overlapping interests so far. However, this could change as the delicate balance of “peaceful times” or “business as usual” for the bloc seems to have come to an end. The reasons for such a change are as follows:
China’s dominant position
Some analysts argue that BRICS came into being because of their shared vision of a new global order. This new order was supposed to be based on the conviction that no single state nor any alliance or group of states should be allowed to take a dominant position in international affairs. This clearly is no longer true as China’s rise and its towering position within the group, both in its political and economic weight and its challenging posture towards the United States (US) and the West, in general, doesn’t align with this vision and vis à vis the individual aims of the other BRICS.
The impact of the SARS-CoV-2 on the global order was evident since early 2020. Three years into the COVID-19 pandemic and yet its consequences are still unfolding. Though it will not halt and reverse years of globalisation, diversification of supply chains remains crucial. How far this diversification and the movement toward self-reliance as emphasised by many Southern states will go and what will be their impact remains to be seen.
War in Ukraine
The sensitive balance of the world order has vanished into thin air with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022. Apart from additional shocks to the world’s feeble economy, it brought about a polarisation of national positions which was last seen during the Cold War. It certainly revived the rhetoric of “who is not with us, is against us”. Although for some countries, there is a wide, shadowy grey area in between.
Again, just like in the case of the previous Russo-Ukrainian conflict of 2014, BRICS took an ambiguous stance. No one can expect the members of the group to outrightly condemn the invasion of Ukraine, for Russia is one of its members. To confirm this argument further, one can add China’s overly anti-Western stand and its proclamation of an unlimited partnership with Russia; India’s historical ties with Russia (originally focused on security matters, but significantly broadened into many areas of economy), and Brazil and South Africa maintaining their friendly relations with their European partner. According to many, BRICS’s inception occurred in the middle of a crisis—economic and financial—and emerged because of that crisis. It was quite successful in being heard and pushing forward its reform ideas. As the world descends into yet another crisis, this time it is China and Russia whose rhetoric and actions make the West feel uneasy.
Western perspective of BRICS
As stated in the beginning, the West welcomed the BRICS’ formation with enthusiasm. The initial buzz was followed by mistrust and scepticism as they questioned the groups’ aims and cohesion. Even the biggest actors on the Western scene, the US and Europe, became disenchanted with the group’s accomplishments focusing only on its economic dimension, emphasising its differences, and neglecting to recognise the other potential areas. But most importantly, especially the European Union (EU), failed to comprehend so far the BRICS’ nature: as a “club” of countries focusing on advancing their common interests rather than as a highly institutionalised cooperation mechanism intended to homogenise its members’ positions.
Due to the considerably changed reality, the US has also stepped up its own architecture of political and economic alliances (often with overlapping membership). Among the most significant ones are AUKUS, the revived QUAD—a strategic grouping with India , Australia, the US, and Japan as member states, the 2+2 India-US Ministerial Dialogue or the I2U2 Group—a grouping of India, Israel, the United Arab Emirates, and the US. Among the BRICS’ members, it is India that seems to be gaining the most from these international groupings. The EU, on the other hand, failed to develop any approach towards the emerging, seemingly looser multilateral and regional power constellations and frameworks, to which BRICS belongs as well, other than entrenching itself in bilateral cooperation mechanisms with its individual members. With the continuing Russo-Ukrainian conflict and hardened Chinese stand, the development of a single BRICS policy by either Western country is highly unlikely.
Under the current circumstances then, with two countries regarded as the major “bullies” on board, is there still any room left within the BRICS for convergence? Most likely, yes.
In the short term, BRICS can serve as a “bridge”: For Russia, to mitigate its isolation in world politics during and after the war with Ukraine and keep its communication and trade channels open. It could have served China as well while reassessing its relationship with Russia and more generally, in exploring ways to conceal its aggressive global power ambitions. But with Xi Jinping’s reelection as General Secretary of the Communist Party in China, this scenario got brushed off the table, undertaking a more aggressive approach towards the future.
In the longer term, BRICS’s future as a forum of constructive dialogue and as a promoter for a multipolar shift in world politics, giving more visibility to Global South’s perspective, depends much on Russia’s and China’s stand on whether they will want to engage and to what extent, or rather push for changes desired by them alone. In this respect, Western powers should pay much attention to the positions of the other Southern states, given their recent independent policy stands from the West, and whether they will be allured by the envisaged new era of international relations laid out by President Vladimir Putin and President Xi Jinping in their Joint Statement of 4 February 2022.
Also, from the point of view of BRICS’s future, attention should be paid to India’s position and whether the West will be able to meet its security and development needs so that it could weigh in against China’s dominance in the group. In pursuing its independent policy, it so far managed to uphold its relations with a wide range of partners, including the West, Russia, and China, keeping its options open.
By Katarzyna Biernat-Uziel
Katarzyna Biernat-Uziel was until recently a career diplomat with the Polish Foreign Service. She served at the Polish missions in Vienna (UN and OSCE), Ankara, New York (UN) and Tel Aviv. She holds a Master’s Degree in Law from Warsaw University (Poland) and an MBA from Fundação Getulio Vargas (Brazil).
Observer Research Foundation