What keeps BRICS together

April 01, 2012

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THURSDAY’S summit of the so-called BRICS nations — Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa — has received scant attention in the West. That may be because the group has achieved little in concrete terms since its inception in 2009. Critics deride it as a photo-op and a talking shop.

But this neglect, or disdain, may also reflect the fact that the BRICS, with almost half the world’s population and about one-fifth of its economic output, pose a challenge to the established world order as defined by the US-dominated UN Security Council, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.

The truth probably lies somewhere in between. The five national leaders — presidents Dilma Rousseff of Brazil, Dmitry Medvedev of Russia, Hu Jintao of China and Jacob Zuma of South Africa and their host in Delhi, India’s prime minister Manmohan Singh — are not noted for iconoclastic radicalism.

Rousseff has been the most outspoken, insisting that developing countries must be protected from the global ‘tsunami’ of cheap money, unleashed by the US and the EU in the wake of the financial crisis, that is rendering their exports less competitive.

The BRICS project a grandiose vision. India’s commerce secretary, Anand Sharma, said the group sought “to create a new global architecture”. But commentators interpret such ambition as anti-American hot air. Pointing to a lack of substantive policy agreements, they suggest that a desire to counter Washington’s global dominance is the BRICS’ sole unifying objective.

“There are calls to establish a permanent secretariat and even a development bank in an effort to bolster the grouping’s political impact,” wrote Walter Ladwig of the Royal United Services Institute. “But this focus on institution-building is misplaced. It is the fundamental incompatibility of the BRICS nations, not their lack of organisation, which prevents [them] acting as a meaningful force on the world stage.”

Ladwig continued: “In many key areas the BRICS nations are actually in strategic competition. Within Asia, India and Russia are potential obstacles to China’s presumed regional dominance ... Russia, Brazil and India desire the emergence of a multipolar international system in which they are major actors, with the latter two seeking membership in an expanded UN Security Council. In contrast, China aims for a bipolar world in which it serves as the counterbalance to American power.” So far, Beijing has opposed India’s bid for a permanent Security Council seat.

A joint declaration issued at the close of the summit found common ground in strongly criticising western economic policy. “It is critical for advanced economies to adopt responsible macroeconomic and financial policies, avoid creating excessive global liquidity and undertake structural reforms to lift growth [and] create jobs,” it said. There was agreement, too, to press ahead with plans to create a “South-South” development fund that might one day rival the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank.

The BRICS challenged western policy on Iran, stressing that military action to curb Tehran’s suspect nuclear activities was unacceptable. Both the Iran and Syria crises must be resolved diplomatically, it said.

“We must avoid political disruptions that create volatilities in global energy markets and affect trade flow ... we must ensure policy co-ordination to revive economic growth,” Singh said. BRICS countries would increase co-operation on terrorism and piracy, he added.

The BRICS countries’ ambition to change the world in their image raises questions of fundamental values as well as geopolitical influence. Key members China and Russia have a tenuous attachment, or none at all, to democratic principles such as free elections, free speech and free media. India, too, faces criticism about perceived attempts to muzzle open debate.

The approach to basic human rights taken by China and Russia, most recently in relation to the Syrian uprising, is not a paradigm that developing countries might happily adopt.

In similar vein, less powerful non-aligned states are wondering whether the rise of the BRICS merely marks the emergence of another selfish global elite, which will pay no more attention to their interests than do the western powers.  — The Guardian, London