Image: Cytonn Photography (Unsplash)

Brushing up on the history: 

BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India, China) was a catchall grouping for the four emerging economies in the early 2000s. Since its formation in 2009, along with its expansive economic growth in the global arena, there have been several questions as to whether it will be their common goals and interests, or the major differences between each of these countries that will prevail. In a post-2016 world, with the Trump-administration trying to maintain control, BREXIT having somewhat succeeded and China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) linking and aiding more and more developing countries, one has to relook at BRICS and re-evaluate its meaning, purpose and relevance. 

In 2001, Jim O’Neill, chairperson of the Goldman Sachs Asset Management, coined the term BRIC in a paper titled ‘Building Better Global Economic BRICs’ to describe the world’s four emerging economies Brazil,Russia, India and China and their increasingly significant role in the global economy. The grouping was subsequently formalised in 2006 at the first BRICs Foreign Ministers meeting on the margins of the UNGA (United Nations General Assembly) in New York.  The first official meeting of the group was in 2009 when the effects of the global financial crisis of 2008 were still adversely affecting economies across the world. This, along with the lack of Global South representation within International Organisations such as the IMF (International Monetary Fund), strengthened the group’s shared anti-West sentiment. Further, it resulted in the formation of the two BRICs institutions, the New Development Bank (NDB) and a Contingency Reserve Arrangement (CRA). These aimed at financing both developmental and aid projects – as seen with the COVID-relief loans given to South Africa this year – and providing global liquidity pressures, respectively. In 2010, South Africa joined the group, completing the acronym and both institutions were formalised in 2014 and activated in 2015. 

BRICS Today: 

Whilst it held a small scope during its inception, by 2019, it represented 42% of the world’s population, held 23% global GDP (Gross Domestic Product) and approximately 16% share of world trade and now is considered as a counterweight to the G7. BRICS ultimately claims to “serve as a bridge between the developed and the developing world”.  It was formed during a time where global developments called for the formation of regional and/or functional blocs in areas where countries’ interests overlapped and ultimately represents the growing need for state cooperation on all levels. It is argued that BRICS has emerged as a major player in a “peaceful, prosperous and multi-polar world”.

In this post-2016 world, however, where there is an emerging global theme of unilateralism and protectionism, BRICS defends the call for multilateralism and free trade; which can be argued as reaffirming its relevance in the modern global order. These defences, however, ultimately threaten their relevance and consequently minimise it to just another multilateral grouping. This is a result of the vast differences between the members. Politically, each has different political systems, from the differing democracies in Brazil, India and South Africa to Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian system and the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) rule under a leader for life. Further, intra-BRICS relations shift on different issues; Russia and India hold historical ties, yet in recent times Russia and China have become more united, specifically due to sanctions imposed on Russia by the United States of America (USA) and the recent Washington-Beijing trade war. Further, India-China relations swing from positive to negative, specifically on issues regarding Pakistan’s borders. This occurring despite the group promoting advances in their intra-BRICS cooperation. Economically, the group is split into two, with China and India integrating themselves in global supply-chains and the service industry, while Brazil, Russia and South Africa focus on the export of their natural resources. These differences offer an insight into the inner workings of BRICS and juxtapose their stance on multilateralism and free trade. 

Is it still relevant?

The formation of BRICS and its growth is supposed to mean greater advances for the Global South and South-South cooperation. Its stance against the ruling hegemon, along with its push for changes in global governance and multilateralism is meant to promote an international order whereby the Global South is better represented and has bigger “spaces” to share their concerns. It is argued that by 2025, BRICS will have further increased their share in the global economy and their push for a shift in the current global financial order will have succeeded.

China’s growing presence in the international arena reduces these “spaces” and one has to comment on, and question the motives behind its BRI. Whilst China holds a strong stance against the USA and its protectionist policies, specifically under the Trump-administration and promotes free trade and multilateralism, their foreign policy echoes “US-protectionism” and holds mercantilist tendencies. Another juxtaposition. This then pushes the argument to showcase that perhaps it is not BRICS that is relevant, but China. If the USA is the global hegemon and the leading power of the G7, then China is the hegemon and leading power of BRICS. BRICS then, with this argument, becomes a vessel that ensures China becomes the next global hegemon, dethroning the USA. This is only strengthened by the growing dependency that Africa now has on China, specifically through the BRI, this despite the NDB and CRA expanding its aid to non-member developing states. 

The question that needs to be asked then, is not whether or not BRICS is relevant but, what has BRICS become in its fight for relevance? Is it still a group that aims for equality, representation and multilateralism in the international sphere? Or, is it an emerging group that aims to place itself, led by China, in the necessary position to take over the USA as the hegemon and create a multi-hegemonic global order?

Jade Raven McGee is a Political Science student at the University of Pretoria. She holds a passion for both history and politics and is a writing enthusiast. After she graduates, she aims to continue to further her studies and specialise in International Relations.  

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