Grievance seems to define contemporary international relations. Donald Trump’s presidency is driven by a feeling that the United States is laughed at, exploited and taken advantage of. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s single-minded pursuit of nuclear weapons is the product of deep insecurity and a sense that his country does not enjoy the status that it deserves.
The BRICS group of five major emerging economies — Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa — are similarly motivated and aligned by a sense that they do not get the credit nor the status that they deserve in the world. The group was identified in 2001 by a Goldman Sachs economist who argued that four of the nations — South Africa would join the group in 2010 — would dominate the global economy in the 21st century. Today, the five countries represent 40 percent of the world’s population and more than 25 percent of its land. Between 1990 to 2014, those economies grew from 11 percent of global GDP to almost 30 percent.
Unfortunately, the global financial crisis and the subsequent collapse of global commodities markets — on which Brazil, Russia and South Africa depend for much of their growth — has done great damage to the BRICS concept. Nonetheless, the group’s ambitions and grievances remain substantial.
Those hopes were on display this week when China hosted the annual BRICS summit at Xiamen. There, Chinese President Xi Jinping exhorted the group to remain focused: The group “is not a talking shop but a task force that gets things done.” Their goals are twofold. The first is reform of international institutions so that their leadership and governance reflects a broader set of principles. That ambition has been realized at the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. The summit declaration called for “comprehensive reform” at the United Nations and the Security Council to make it “more representative, effective and efficient and to increase the representation of the developing countries.”
The second set of goals are economic. Foremost on that list is fighting off protectionist impulses that are resurgent in many capitals. Xi repeated the mantra he has used in every major international address, calling for his fellow leaders to “push for an open world economy, promote trade liberalization and facilitation, jointly create a new global value chain, and realize a global economic rebalancing.” In their summit declaration, the leaders agreed to do just that.
China will help move that process forward with a total of $80 million in support for economic and technological cooperation among BRICS countries and for the BRICS New Development Bank, which is being built in Shanghai. Xi talks a big game, but the contribution to the NDB is a sliver of the money that his government is putting up for China’s “One Belt, One Road” initiative, and there are questions about how much competition Beijing will countenance when it has another financial institution, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, to get off the ground.
In addition, China’s support for open trade — like that of other BRICS governments — has limits when it comes to opening its own markets. South African President Jacob Zuma complained that trade among the BRICS counties was “highly inequitable,” with his country primarily seen as an exporter of raw materials. He wants “inclusive development and equal partnerships.”
Another internal split among BRICS members appears to have been overcome at this meeting. India and China view each other warily: Each sees the other as a rival for regional power and influence. The two came perilously close to conflict in recent weeks over contested territory in Bhutan, but a crisis was averted when both sides withdrew forces, a compromise that was likely prompted by the BRICS summit.
The desire to find a common front between those two rivals was evident in the decision to denounce terrorism in the summit declaration, a statement that for the first time included terror organizations based in Pakistan, such as Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammad. New Delhi had been pushing for their denunciation at the United Nations, but Beijing had blocked efforts to put the leader of Jaish-e-Mohammad on a terrorist blacklist, ostensibly because it did not want to embarrass Pakistan, a partner of China in many other endeavors.
Finally, the BRICS leaders condemned North Korea’s sixth nuclear test, conducted just as the meeting began. They emphasized that the issue can only be settled through “peaceful means and direct dialogue with all the parties concerned.” That is a laudable sentiment but empty rhetoric unless the five leaders are prepared to take action to bring the North to the table. A readiness to compromise on core interests and expand national resources for the provision of international public goods — security and stability, among others — are the hallmarks of real leadership. The BRICS have yet to demonstrate a readiness to take those steps.