The BRICS Leaders Xiamen Declaration: An analysis

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 In Xiamen: Brazil's Michel Temer, Russia's Vladimir Putin, China's Xi Jinping, India's Narendra Modi and South Africa's Jacob Zuma

The 9th BRICS Summit -- the second in China after 2011 -- was held in Xiamen to much fanfare in the Chinese media. Despite solid growth in India and Putin's continued capacity to keep the West on edge, it becomes increasingly evident that, due to the growing power asymmetry within the grouping, BRICS must be understood as one element in a much broader Chinese effort to reshape global affairs. This does not mean that Chinese diplomacy does not prioritize the grouping – quite to the contrary: the Foreign Ministry in Beijing provides preferential treatment to fellow BRICS members and carefully picks its diplomats posted in capitals in BRICS countries. As expected, the 9th summit got the full attention of both Xi Jinping and the country’s propaganda machine. While both India and Russia continue to articulate new ideas of what to do with the BRICS grouping, Beijing’s preferences are becoming ever more important. That points to the greater need for other members such as Brazil to work together with New Delhi or South Africa when articulating proposals. Greater Chinese influence was amplified this year by the fact that the summit host enjoys, by definition, greater freedom to articulate the grouping’s narrative during the year-long presidency. China’s top foreign policy priority at this stage is to consolidate and substantiate its regional leadership ambitions, and the BRICS presidency and the Xiamen summit were, to some extent, used with this goal in mind, for example by pointing out the complementarities between One Belt, One Road (OBOR) and BRICS. (see also: OBOR: China’s Pivot to Eurasia

Here are the five key takeaways from the 9th BRICS Summit in Xiamen, China (September 3-5):

1.The BRICS Summit contributed to reducing tensions in the Sino-Indian border dispute

One of the 9th BRICS Summit greatest achievements became apparent on August 29th, when India and China agreed to pull back their troops from a face-off in the Himalayas. The border conflict, which remains one of the major geopolitical challenges in Asia today, had threatened to overshadow the diplomatic summit in Xiamen. While this led many to question the usefulness of the outfit, the fact that tensions were defused right before the summit shows how important the BRICS grouping has become. Asia is the region with the world's lowest institutional density, and opportunities such as the BRICS' National Security Advisors' meetings are less frequent than most would assume. Particularly when nationalist fervor runs high, merely inviting the other side for a meeting to discuss the matter can be interpreted as a sign of weakness. In such instances, there is nothing better than a long-scheduled meeting that offers a low-cost opportunity to continue talking. In addition, the BRICS grouping is one of the few outfits that forces Indian and Chinese policy makers to work together on numerous issues, thus creating personal relationships that can matter greatly in moments of tension. This shows why even Western powers should welcome the institutionalization of the BRICS grouping: it is a useful tool to debate intra-BRICS tensions, but also a platform to discuss ways to strengthen cooperation to provide global public goods such as infrastructure finance through the New Development Bank (NDB) (see also: BRICS’ New Development Bank announces 5-year strategy)    

2. The BRICS grouping is about far more than the yearly presidential summits

While many analysts will base their assessment of the BRICS grouping as a whole on the Xiamen Declaration (available here), they overlook that the yearly leaders' summits are merely the most visible element of the rotating BRICS presidency that each country holds for one year (South Africa will take over in 2018 and host the next summit). In that sense, the BRICS grouping differs from other outfits such as the G7, which possess a far lower degree of institutionalization. More than 50 BRICS-related activities now take place, ranging from agriculture, national security, health and international finance (see also: BRICS: There Is More Than Just the Summits), and while several initiatives have not produced tangible results, others (such as previous consultations prior to key decisions regarding the World Bank and the IMF) have become standard practice. While the depth of intra-BRICS ties remains limited (except for everyone's ties to China), it is fair to say that the grouping has helped, over the past decade, to slowly reduce the mutual ignorance that has shaped ties between member countries. For example, a few weeks before the summit, Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa have approved a three-year action plan (2017-2020) for cooperation in innovation. The decision was announced during the 5th Meeting of Ministers of Science, Technology and Innovation of the BRICS Dialogue Forum, held on July 18 in Hangzhou, China. This shows that rather than producing several major achievements, intra-BRICS cooperation is marked by incremental steps that usually do not generate much visibility. To provide another example: in the tenth paragraph of the declaration, it says

We agree to promote the development of BRICS Local Currency Bond Markets and jointly establish a BRICS Local Currency Bond Fund, as a means of contribution to the capital sustainability of financing in BRICS countries, boosting the development of BRICS domestic and regional bond markets, including by increasing foreign private sector participation, and enhancing financial resilience of BRICS countries.  

People-to-people exchanges occupy a significant part of the final document, for example paragraph 61:

We welcome the formulation of a BRICS action plan to advance practical cultural cooperation and the establishment of the BRICS Alliance of Libraries, Alliance of Museums, Alliance of Art Museums and National Galleries as well as Alliance of Theaters for Children and Young People. We look forward to the success of the BRICS Culture Festival to be held later in mid-September 2017 in Xiamen. We will continue our work on the establishment of a BRICS Cultural Council to provide the necessary platform to enhance cultural cooperation among BRICS countries.

However, the announcements of such initiatives must be read with caution. A significant number of ideas (particularly in the people-to-people section) either never occur or are abandoned after one edition. That may not be such a bad thing: they will only have a real impact once none-state actors embrace them, which is taking place only slowly.  

More important (and more viable) is the reduction of non-tariff barriers probably offers the greatest room for progress, considering how sensitive domestic interest groups are to reducing tariff barriers:

We note with satisfaction the progress made by Customs Administrations in their cooperation on trade facilitation, security and enforcement, capacity building and other issues of mutual interest, including through such mechanisms as BRICS Customs Cooperation Committee and BRICS Customs Working Group. (p.13/14, paragraph 25)

3. The BRICS grouping continues to push for cautious reform of global order, not rupture

Many believe the BRICS grouping shows no signs of seeking to overthrow or destabilize international order. Yet quite to the contrary, the Xiamen Declarations (like previous declarations) reaffirms member country's support of the status quo, without any intentions to weaken existing institutions or setups:   

We will stand firm in upholding a fair and equitable international order based on the central role of the United Nations, the purposes and principles enshrined in the Charter of the United Nations and respect for international law, promoting democracy and the rule of law in international relations. (p.3, paragraph 6)

We support the important role of the United Nations, including the High Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF), in coordinating and reviewing global implementation of the 2030 Agenda, and support the need to reform the UN Development System with a view to enhancing its capability in supporting Member States in implementing the 2030 Agenda. (p.9, paragraph 14)

Valuing the G20’s continued role as the premier forum for international economic cooperation, we reiterate our commitments to the implementation of the outcomes of G20 summits, including the Hamburg Summit and the Hangzhou Summit. (p. 16, paragraph 33)

Indeed, the BRICS countries' emphatic defense of globalization and the fight against climate change (paragraph 16) turns them into an active force seeking to preserve international liberal order -- quite to the contrary of the Trump administration, which is highly ambivalent about free trade, and rejects the science on climate change.

That, of course, doesn't mean the BRICS are aligned on all counts. While Brazil, India and South Africa call for UN Security Council reform, Russia and China are their biggest foes in this regard, though for different reasons. In Russia's case, permanent membership in the council is (besides raw military might) one of the country only sources of power, and it is reluctant to see it diluted. In China's case, the major reason is that Japan, a G4 member along with Germany, India and Brazil, would probably become a permanent member if UN Security Council reform were to take place. We are unlikely to see any significant change in Beijing's or Moscow's position anytime soon.

4. No big surprises in the realm of international security, but diplomatic win for India regarding terrorism and Pakistan

Compared to the declarations published over the past years, the Xiamen Declarations covers a large number of international security issues, ranging from the need for a Palestinian state, a "Syria-led" solution to the civil war, and a strong condemnation of the nuclear tests conducted by the North Korean government. For the first time, the declarations specifically names terrorist outfits, including the Pakistan-based group Lashkar-e-Taiba.

We (...) express concern on the security situation in the region and violence caused by the Taliban, ISIL/DAISH, Al-Qaida and its affiliates including Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement, Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, the Haqqani network, Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Mohammad, TTP and Hizb ut-Tahrir. (p.21, paragraph 48)

Indian media said naming group in the BRICS resolution was an important win for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s administration, which at last year’s summit called Pakistan the “mother ship of terrorism”. Indeed, the declaration caused enough of a reaction in Pakistan that China's Ambassador in Islamabad, Sun Weidong, saw himself obliged to assure Pakistan that the declaration implied no Chinese policy change vis-à-vis Pakistan. As expected, the declaration made no mention of the crisis in Venezuela, where both China and Russia have significant economics interests

5. BRICS Summits offer an opportunity to hold a series of important bilateral meetings

The yearly BRICS Summits (far more intimate than G20 or UN General Assembly gatherings)  provide an excellent opportunity to hold bilateral meetings, and the past few days in Xiamen have been no different. Brazil's president Temer hold a much-anticipated meeting with China's Xi Jinping, at a time when Chinese investments are seen as crucial to helping Brazil overcome the worst recession in history. India's Narendra Modi and China's Xi Jinping held their first substantive bilateral meeting on Tuesday after the Doklam standoff. Xi also met Russian President Vladimir Putin for a bilateral meeting ahead of 9th BRICS summit in the southeastern Chinese city, as did Modi and Putin.

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