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Brics wants a bigger voice in the global system

2018-08-21 00:11

A unified front will ensure that institutions such as the UN and IMF can be reformed to ensure a stable global order, writes Cyril Prinsloo and Luanda Mpungose.

The 10th Brics Summit in Johannesburg, which was held last month, is now behind us.

It occurred on the back of a few years of significant domestic economic and political changes among some of the Brics countries and diverging national interests.

Critics of the bloc will rightly point out these challenges and divergences, but often neglect to mention that in some areas the Brics collective has converging interests which have cemented their cooperation.

Next year Brazil will host Brics, but it will have a new president and new government who will assume office at the same time as South Africa hands over the Brics presidency.

As Brazil’s political class has become embroiled in the Lava Jato (car wash) investigation, which began in 2014, and Lula da Silva, who dominated the political scene for much of the first decade of the 21st century is behind bars but may still try to run for president, Brasilia’s sentiment and interest in the Brics collective over the past five years appear to have gradually waned.

Depending on the outcome of the elections, Brazil may use the Brics as an opportunity for the new president to establish his credentials as leader of an important southern power.

There is an opportunity to raise the Brics profile too, as the country prepares to host the second regional centre of the New Development Bank (NDB) in São Paulo.

Russia’s interest in Brics from the outset has concentrated on the collective as a counter-balance to Western global economic and political hegemony.

Its interest in Brics as alternative economic partners intensified after its annexation of Crimea and the West’s imposition of sanctions.

Compared with the discord among the Group of Seven and also in the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, sown by the behaviour of US President Donald Trump, Brics not only stands for reform of a Western system that is fraying, but also seems to be more predictable and responsible than the global hegemon.

For India, with land border disputes with both Pakistan and China – as well as terrorism – external security threats have dominated New Delhi’s engagements.

The economic-security dimension of China’s belt and road initiative (BRI) has latterly been a key concern for India in the Brics.

India perceives the BRI as encroaching on its sphere of influence and actively opposes this grand strategy of Beijing.

It has used a two-pronged approach to contain China’s growing influence: counter China’s concerted efforts to expand its influence in areas where it holds sway eg Brics membership expansion – both the grouping itself and expanding membership of the NDB; as well as creating alliances with other countries, including the US, France and Japan.

Beijing certainly signalled its intention to expand its sphere of influence when it initiated the Brics Plus initiative last year at the Xiamen Summit.

The Brics Plus initiative brought together other globally significant countries to participate in the Brics dialogues.

Numerous scholars agree that some Brics members were initially sceptical of this initiative.

However, certainly South Africa and Russia have since warmed to the idea.

For Pretoria, the notion of broader consultation and participation of countries in the global south is appealing as it aligns with its own foreign policy objectives to create a more inclusive dialogue on global issues.

As such, South Africa hosted 27 heads of state at the Johannesburg summit, including eight African leaders.

Broader dialogue also suits Russia in its quest to expand and diversify its external partnerships.

However, Brics so far has been able to focus largely on its converging interests.

Three areas stand out in this regard: intra-Brics economic cooperation; harnessing the dividends of the fourth industrial revolution (4IR); and maintaining a peaceful and prosperous global order.

Over the past decade intra-Brics investments have remained low.

In South Africa, for example, total direct investment from China and India account for less than 4.5% of SA’s total direct foreign investment in 2016. Russia and Brazil have negligible investments.

Increasing investment is an important step in strengthening and deepening the bloc’s economic ties. On the eve of the Johannesburg summit, South Africa signed several investment agreements with China, amounting to a total of $14.7 billion (R209 billion).

China is keen to deepen its investments in SA across various sectors such as infrastructure development, ocean economy, green economy, science and technology, agriculture, environment and finance.

Discussions on issues related to the 4IR –
e-commerce; security and defence; intellectual property rights among others – have long dominated the Brics Agenda.

At the Johannesburg summit the social, economic and political impacts of the 4IR were a key theme. Brics are increasingly at the forefront of technological advances and will be significantly affected by these changes.

The Johannesburg Declaration called for the establishment of a Brics partnership on the new industrial revolution (PartNIR). The PartNIR aims at deepening cooperation in digitalisation, industrialisation, innovation, inclusiveness and investment among the member states.

Shaping a more just, equitable and stable global order will continue to bind the Brics countries.

As growing nationalism and protectionism in developed countries threaten to derail the post-World War 2 order, ensuring that global governance institutions such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank, the UN and the World Trade Organisation reform to ensure their longer-term efficacy remains an important objective for Brics.

As their share of global economic and political power has increased, so too has their interest in how the global system shapes up.

Coordinated Brics positions within these institutions will be essential if there is to be meaningful reform.

For all their challenges, Brics members have collective strengths that allow them to build on the solid foundation they have established in the first 10 years.

Prinsloo is a researcher in the economic diplomacy programme and Mpungose is programme officer in the African governance and diplomacy programme at the SA Institute of International Affairs

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November 18 2018