Can intra-BRICS cooperation advance amid economic gloom?


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Since the 4th BRICS Summit in Delhi in March 2012, 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 far below the 10% mark, potentially endangering political stability. India's  currency is hitting a “historic low” or a “lifetime low", reflecting its sliding economy. 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 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 6th BRICS Summit in Fortaleza in 2014.

In the midst of all the economic gloom, business leaders from Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa (BRICS) met in Johannesburg over the past two days to identify specific measures to eliminate barriers to growing trade and investment. The BRICS Business Council was established during the 2013 BRICS Summit in Durban in March, with South African businessman Patrice Motsepe named chairman of the body. South African President Zuma's decision to address the meeting underlines that South Africa remains the perhaps most eager BRICS member: In 2012, South Africa's total trade with other BRICS countries stood at over 290 billion rands (about 29 billion US dollars), up 11 percent from the 2011 figure. South Africa's accession to the BRICS grouping in December 2010 remains one of Zuma's major foreign policy achievements.

In parallel,  BRICS trade ministers have initiated a study on how to promote value-added products and strengthen investment relations . The trade ministers had formed the Contact Group on Economic and Trade Issues (CGETI) which will meet in November 2013 in South Africa to discuss the study.

At the 2014 Summit in Fortaleza, the following three issues should 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 most important and Russia's second largest 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 weaker than that in Italy and 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 Família Program, for example, could help improve policies in India.

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 continue to put 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 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.

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Photo credit: Steve Murray/National Post