Why the BRICS grouping matters more than ever



The past year has seen a notable change of the way the BRICS grouping is perceived in Europe and the United States. While initially seen as quirky platform of little significance, it is now taken more seriously than at any point since its transformation into a more political outfit, a process that began in 2006, when the BRICs Foreign Ministers met in New York for the first time. There are three reasons for this change.

The first is the BRICS' declaration at the sidelines of the Nuclear Security Summit in The Hague in March 2014, when the BRICS' foreign ministers opposed restrictions on the participation of Russian President Vladimir Putin at the G-20 Summit in Australia in November 2014. This step was primarily symbolic as Australia had no Western backing for excluding Russia. However, it effectively undermined the West's momentum attempting to isolate Russia, thus lending the BRICS grouping, for the first time, a tangible role in a global security matter (as opposed to economic issues such as IMF reform). Despite not being discussed in depth in the international media at the time, policy makers in the West rightly interpreted the move as a potentially far-reaching precedent: The BRICS' option to speak in unison and challenge the West's agenda-setting capacity was no longer a theoretical consideration, with potentially profound consequences for the West's capacity to punish perceived wrongdoers -- and thus for Western-led global order as a whole. No such scenario would have been thinkable only fifteen years ago, at the perceived height of US global dominance.

The second reason for the change is the creation of the BRICS-led New Development Bank (NDB), the grouping's first serious institutional commitment, which has been finally announced during the 2014 BRICS Summit in Fortaleza in Brazil, and which has been the main topic of intra-BRICS meetings since then. Setting up a joint development bank (and, to a lesser degree, a contingency reserve agreement) is a long-term commitment and will establish ties between governments on many different levels. Cooperation in the area of development finance is also likely to increase the so-called "spillover effect" -- bureaucrats will gain greater experience in intra-BRICS cooperation and establish contacts in other BRICS countries, and may seek to make use of those ties once they have moved to another area of government. A similar effect ocurred after 2009, when intra-BRICS cooperation expanded from the ministries of finance and central banks to other areas, such as health, education, national security, academia and statistics.

The third reason is launch of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), the most visible Chinese-led institutional initiative and most explicit Chinese claim to a greater international projection. The large number of countries that applied for founding membership status of the AIIB -- against Washington's advice -- also enhanced interest in the NDB, which is now seen to be part of a far broader development: the emergence of what some call a "parallel order", which will allow China to engage in "competitive multilateralism" -- i.e., to pick and choose institutions on a case-by-case basis, according to Bejing's interests. Notably, the BRICS countries all decided to be founding members of the AIIB, even though three of them are facing severe economic difficulties. Brazil and South Africa are the only countries to have joined in their respective neighborhoods.

The 7th BRICS Summit in Ufa, to take place along with the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit in July, is thus set to gain far more global attention than any of the previous summits. Just like Medvedev during the first BRIC Leaders Summit in 2009, Vladimir Putin may then refer to Ufa as the "epicenter of world politics." While Russia will use its convocatory power as proof that the West failed to isolate it, negotiators from Brasília, Pretoria, Delhi and Beijing will assure that the final declaration does not come across as anti-Western as Moscow hopes for. Behind closed doors, they are also likely to tell the Russian President that their neutral stance, highly beneficial to Moscow, cannot be taken for granted -- even though, from a purely pragmatist point of view, the BRICS member countries stand little to lose from continued low-level tension in Eastern Europe.

If Russia engaged in any additional moves comparable to the annexation of Crimea, however, Brazil and India in particular, two countries that frequently -- and rightly -- point to the Western double standards and the hard-wired advantages established powers enjoy in today's so-called liberal order, would be exposed to increasingly vocal criticism for being selective themselves when it comes to condemning violations of international rules and norms. While neither Brasília nor Delhi have to fear direct Western retaliation, they may consider their realpolitik-driven Crimea policy to carry a growing reputational cost. At least in India's case, this is unlikely to keep policy makers awake at night: India often disregarded Western views when its national interest was thought to be at stake -- one may think of its intervention in East Pakistan in 1971, its refusal to criticize Moscow for the invasion in Afghanistan, or its decision to test nuclear weapons without having signed the NPT. Still, the other BRICS members, led by China, will recognize the BRICS meeting as an opportunity to ask Russia's President to refrain from taking steps that would escalate tensions between Moscow and the West further, as it could negatively affect the global economy -- and growth prospects in the BRICS countries with it.

While such discussions will take place behind closed doors, the summit declaration is likely to focus on the growing cooperation (albeit still largely state-led) in many different areas. For months, the Russian media has been launching a string of at times unusual ideas to enhance intra-BRICS cooperation, ranging from a joint BRICS space station and a BRICS rating agency to meetings of BRICS parliamentarians. While even those initiatives that make it into the final document are often uncertain to bear any fruits, all this points to the continued overall trend to expanding, not reducing, intra-BRICS cooperation.

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Photo credit: Yasuyoshi Shiba