Since the 4th BRICS Summit in Delhi last March, things seem to have largely gone downhill for the BRICS members. Brazil's economy has lost its vigor, and stifling regulations keep it from becoming more competitive. Growth in China has fallen below the 10% mark, potentially endangering political stability. India's growth rate is nearing 5%, significantly below what analysts had predicted last year. Russia, for its part, is struggling to diversify its economy, while South Africa must be careful not to be overtaken by challengers that seek to turn into the continent's economic hub, such as Nigeria or Kenya.
While reigniting their economies is indeed the major challenge in the coming months and years, doubts about the utility of the BRICS acronym are misguided. The necessity to strengthen intra-BRICS ties, as well as the opportunity to articulate new narratives on how to best tackle global challenges remain, and the BRICS' leaders must continue to invest in the grouping. It is now time to begin developing a proactive agenda for the 5th BRICS Summit in Pretoria in March 2013. The following three issues should certainly be on the agenda:
First, efforts to strengthen intra-BRICS ties further need to continue, particularly those between the "BRIS": While China enjoys strong economic ties with all the BRICS countries (it is Brazil's, India's and South Africa's biggest and Russia's second biggest trading partner), trade among the rest is far too low. Trade barriers, regulations and visa rules must be eased to promote economic activity between them. At the same time, diplomatic ties should increase: Brazil's diplomatic presence in China and India, for example, remains far below that in Italy in France, something which no longer reflects economic realities. Finally, social and cultural relationships need to be strengthened: Indian universities are part of Brazil's "Science Without Borders" program, which sends 50,000 Brazilian undergraduates and 50,000 PhD students to study abroad. Russian universities have begun to accept degrees from a number of Brazilian institutions. These are important first steps, but they need to take place in a more systematic fashion.
Strengthening ties between the BRICS goes beyond economics. Getting to know each other better is crucial in order to turn into more effective geopolitical actors willing and able to develop constructive proposals on how to deal with global challenges such as climate change. In addition, the BRICS continue to face serious domestic challenges, and possibilities to learn from each other abound: Brazil's Bolsa Familia Program, for example, could help improve policies in India, as a recent op-ed by Estefanía Marchán in The Hindu shows:
Brazil's social schemes are among the world's best targeted and are transparent. They have demonstrated how to streamline the delivery of services across all levels of government. By collaborating with Brazil, India can improve the reach and efficiency of its own, notoriously leaky schemes, including the Public Distribution System, whose losses are estimated to be around 44 per cent a year.
Secondly, the BRICS need to address global security issues in a more tangible fashion than they have done so far. One important example is maritime security. The BRICS members have coastlines with the Atlantic Ocean (South Africa and Brazil), the Indian Ocean (India and South Africa), the Pacific (China and Russia) and the Arctic Ocean (Russia), and they are thus bound to play a key role in the governance of the seas. Tensions between China and India had long been identified as the major obstacle to including maritime security in discussions during the BRICS summit, yet recent cooperation between the two is likely to remove these difficulties. Both the Chinese and Indian navy are increasingly able to project their power outside of their respective oceans. Brazil is interested in defining a South Atlantic Security Space, it has defined Africa as a strategic priority, and it is developing a fleet of nuclear powered submarines. As ever larger ships can no longer pass the Suez Canal, we will see a revival of the Cape of Good Hope route, which could be controlled by Brazil and South Africa, but at this point the two still lack the capacity to play this role. Aside from maritime security, issues such as the 'Responsibility to Protect' are set to gain an ever more prominent space in international affairs, and Brazil should insist on putting innovative ideas (such as the Responsibility While Protecting) on the table during BRICS Summits.
Finally, the BRICS should begin to cooperate more closely regarding their growing economic and political presence in Africa. Brazil has historic ties with lusophone Africa (principally Angola and Mozambique), but it is beginning to engage across the entire continent. China's and India's role is more visible still, and even Russia has big plans for the African continent. The BRICS are all 'emerging donors' set on fundamentally changing the future of development cooperation. Since none of them is a member of the OECD, the BRICS Summit could turn into a platform to debate these issues and begin to develop standards and best practices.
Slower growth across the BRICS - which, it must be said, remains far higher than that in the United States and Europe - cannot be an excuse for the BRICS' leaders to turn inwards and disregard the global challenges that require their active input to be dealt with successfully.