JOURNAL | GLOBAL PERSPECTIVES By: Yury Sigov
Modern international affairs are considerably aggravated these days, not only due to the permanent Russian-American feud and the intractable North Korea-US confrontation, but also fundamental issues affecting the prospects for the entire world order. These struggles, in fact, split the world into two camps. Some countries are more than willing to please, by all means, the United States in its desire to individually rule the world (these so-called allies behave more like vassals than equal partners). Others, to the best of their abilities, are trying to resist this dangerous and destabilizing process. Meanwhile, as world practice shows, in essence there is no "third option."
Each country will somehow make its own decision and choose with whom, and in what format, to continue its own existence. The current global confrontation is not between different ideologies or economic systems; it is rather between deep and absolutely alien visions of our future, and not between Washington and Moscow, or any specific irreconcilable individuals. And that makes the current situation, in my view, much more intriguing and complicated. Theoretically, all the major countries that are extremely irritated (if not to use a stronger word) by American foreign policy are already sort of united and have formed their own "group of interests."
Back in 2010, a group of strong emerging economies created a very specific and unusual organization, in many ways much more mythical than really operational. They called themselves the Brics: Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. This union remains informal, in many ways is nonoperational, and pretends to declare in words something that it still cannot realize in practice. Each of these countries has its own ego and interests. And these interests are supposed to be radically different from those of the West, primarily from the United States. The main idea of the Brics formation, in fact, was more to try to teach a lesson (or another "mother of Kuzma" the late Russian leader Nikita Khrushchev attempted in the 1960s at the United Nations with his threats against US hegemony) than to establish any new "non-American" world order. And the issue of demonstration of external independence and sovereignty prevails in the political calculations of the five Brics nations versus pragmatic assessments of what they are really able to do with this "other world" outside the West.
Meanwhile, one very serious problem has emerged. All these "sovereign" and "absolutely independent" countries somehow, in one way or another, are not even thinking about their existence beyond the United States and the rest of the West. As a result, instead of actively enhancing and developing interaction among themselves within the Brics format, they are trying on a daily basis to do everything possible to strengthen relations with this supposed opposite side. And the Brics organization itself, unlike, for example, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, does not even have its own secretariat headquarters and only gathers once a year for a friendly but ineffective summit dominated by photo opportunities among the leaders of its member countries.
Obviously, no one within this organizational structure can be seriously engaged in "stagnated Brics expansion" except for China. However, it is still unclear whether the Chinese would be really interested in taking leadership of another regional (or global) structure that, without direct Chinese political and economic involvement, remains basically irrelevant. A "new Brics expansion" to include new members can mean more empty talks and meetings. But what about practical results?
So, what does any organization (Brics, the United Nations or whoever) really need to do to become effective and relevant to its members? Naturally, it is supposed to achieve concrete goals and should be assessed by its deeds. In addition, such activities should bring concrete results to its participants. But this is pure theory. As far as Brics and its recent activities are concerned, there has been neither the first nor the second since it was launched. Certain work is done, as with any bureaucracy: numerous reports are written by even more numerous officials, annual summits are prepared and duly staged, and leaders visit member countries. In reality, there have been few practical results.
Let`s look at the recent 9th Brics summit in Xiamen, in China`s Fujian Province. The five Brics leaders vowed to “improve global governance” and build “a better world” (like the current world order is definitely wrong and dysfunctional). They also vowed to build mutual trust and put greater faith in mutual cooperation. Sounds attractive? You bet. However, I am absolutely sure that it was the chief reason the senior Chinese leadership decided that it was necessary to do something practical with Brics and its frozen system. From the beginning, China decided to officially support the expansion of cooperation within the Brics framework. It means that this cooperation will be developed onward, not so much between the five current members of Brics but with other countries that are friendly to Beijing. What is curious is a proposal to expand Brics` membership to around 40 countries that Chinese leaders would consider as being friendly. It is unquestionable that these new members would be neighboring Asian states that may have only limited relations with South Africa or Brazil.
Let me remind you that when the Brics structure was created more than a decade ago, these countries from different continents had promising and fast-growing economies. They were incredibly attractive to foreign investment and their economic growth was mostly based on successful trade, rich and abundant natural resources, and relative political and economic independence from any pressure or interference in their affairs by the "collective West." But today`s picture is far from radiant and all the "good old memories" have faded. Russia, Brazil and South Africa have serious and long-term economic woes, China and India are almost on the brink of open military conflict in the Himalayas, and the very idea of â€‹â€‹uniting those who do not like American hegemony is absolutely utopian.
What has really changed in the political and economic behavior of Brics countries during the passing years? First of all, they still do not, and in principle cannot, have any common strategic goal in their joint development. What is much more important is that they are all so tightly tied to the United States and the "collective West" that not one of them would think of severing or curtailing relations. Moreover, India, China, Brazil and South Africa (and, to a lesser extent, Russia) are trying to do their best to strengthen commercial and economic ties with leading Western countries, while their own relations within Brics remain insignificant and undeveloped. And here comes China and its decision to completely "redraw" the very concept of Brics by including friendly new members. Key Chinese politicians have already spoken on this issue, but the whole concept is still blurred. In my view, it is significant that China did not specifically consult with the other four Brics members and instead launched its own bilateral consultations with "potential Asian friends" to the organization. According to a statement by China`s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, "other major developing countries could also join Brics if they share its strategy goals and plans for economic prosperity of the Asian region."
In addition, Chinese diplomats used unclear phrases, such as "South-South"cooperation, which have nothing to do with any intelligible expansion of Brics – the same as Brazil or South Africa have nothing to do with strengthening cooperation with Malaysia or Myanmar, for example. In principle, there is nothing surprising in such Chinese behavior because Beijing always prefers to guarantee some concrete support from "potential new friends," as was the case with the Silk Road project and the creation of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.
For instance, China wants to invite countries ranging from Indonesia, Malaysia, Sri Lanka and Pakistan to Mexico, Peru, Chile and Argentina. Meanwhile, the views of the other four current Brics members are unclear because nobody has asked them. And China, as far as the official position of the government in Beijing is concerned, will notify them when it finds time.
And one more very significant observation: various Russian experts are coming out with an obviously mythical (to put it mildly) idea to bring the Brics cooperation pattern to all post-Soviet (primarily economic) structures that supposedly will be able to successfully promote more complete integration with the five Brics members. However, it is absolutely unclear if Brazil or India, to say nothing of South Africa, would be much interested in expanding their cooperation with organizations such as the Commonwealth of Independent States or the Eurasian Union. The latter gives the impression that the Eurasian Union does not have any other headaches and has resolved all its internal problems and is now thinking about how to join the Brics "friends" list.
The most important issue is not who will be included on any "friends of China" list or who will make friends with someone else. The main thing is that until now, there has been almost no discussion about the pointlessness of Brics as a structure. Maybe the initial idea was really attractive and purposeful, but the practical implementation of the process was flawed in all aspects. Maybe the five Brics leaders really wanted to start building a new world without a Western presence (at least a political one). However, the international theater today is completely different from the one when Brics was created.
This raises a serious question: Will Brics countries be able to create a pragmatic, functional association of states that could resist the political and economic dictates of one country and its closest allies? Or will they present their unofficial submission to the so-called global world order, where a strict and relentless driver will sit in Washington while all other states will be begging for a ride, keeping their security and future development in American hands. Just look at the latest figures. China`s share of the Brics economy is 67 percent and India`s is 13 percent; Brazil, Russia and South Africa together account for a mere 20 percent. More than 70 percent of inter-Brics trade is bound for China. Internal Brics investment was $197 billion in 2016 – and $170 billion of that was from China.
Therefore, Beijing is trying to do certain things (of course, primarily in its own interests) to make Brics more operational, and, at the same time, take control of an organization that has achieved almost nothing and has uncertain future prospects. China wants to persuade everyone that they are doing something extremely promising and showcase to the rest of the world something that doesn`t exist in practical terms: a successful and functional international organism.
Reform or disband?
Without strong and pragmatic Chinese leadership, Brics will remain toothless, amorphous and irrelevant in the international arena. And this is not in the interests of China or the other member states of this unusual union. At the same time, it is still unclear if Beijing is only ready to carry this burden in its own interests, or if it is willing to bring the other members together, leading by example.
One shouldn`t forget (and the Chinese are well aware of this) that Brazil, Russia, India and South Africa are in general completely devoid of any fresh ideas, and frankly speaking don`t envisage how this structure could really reshape the modern world and affect key international developments outside of the "collective Western world." And the issue is much more serious than a simple bureaucratic reshuffle or restructuring of this organization.
The most important new development would be a sense of political unity among all five nations, if they really want to be heard globally and be taken seriously in their actions. Economic cooperation (even the most successful forms) will never happen without close political coordination and mutual support in the most important international forums, such as the United Nations. Therefore, it is critical for them to agree to Chinese political (and, obviously, economic) leadership of Brics, and that Brics itself is an effective international political instrument in Beijing`s hands.
No doubt it will be difficult to reach such a consensus because India, for example, looks at China as a strategic foe in the region, while Russia sees China as an obvious ally in an inevitable confrontation with the United States. Brazil and South Africa depend on Chinese trade and loans for their economies, so if Beijing wants to lead Brics, that`s fine by them. That said, if the other four members don`t have any common ground on Chinese leadership of Brics, or on the very existence of the organization as an effective common tool in international relations, then it could come crumbling down.
India could express some reservations or Russia (let`s remember the Shanghai Cooperation Organization) may hardly agree to give Beijing leadership of another so-called multinational regional organization. The million-dollar question, of course, is whether the Chinese political leadership wants to do so – and deal with another organization with multiple moving parts. If not, Brics could simply be dissolved or by inertia continue to serve as a convenient and comfortable playground for summits of the leaders of the five Brics members. They could still talk about bilateral issues, but nothing significant would be achieved. Each country would deal with its own national affairs and only keep bilateral relations going. China, nonetheless, has the most financial influence within Brics, and if Brics is going to keep any kind of structure, it will obviously benefit China`s own national interests.
Will Brics nations begin a “new golden decade”? My guess is that it will not be through ramping up economic cooperation or the numerical extension of member countries. It will be through a pragmatic but existential attitude toward the West in general and the United States in particular. Otherwise, flashy summits with “friendly discussions” will remain meaningless and without substance.
What remains critical is this: nobody has any clear explanation of where this strange organization will go and for what particular purpose, and what it will mean for China and Brics` other members. The grouping`s advantage is its vision to the future, as opposed to any sort of containment policy, bellicose threats, preserving the existing world order or supporting global hegemony by one country.
It may ultimately come out to the same empty talks about the alleged creation of a “new structure for the formation of an equal and balanced global economy” within the framework of an updated Brics. If so, it likely would be fiction and self-cheating. After all, any unification of the most sovereign and independent countries without the participation of the West (and in particular the United States) is still possible, but would look like a direct challenge. And what would be the purpose of such a challenge – to increase dialogue among Brics or be a part of a large new China “friends list”? If it is only for these goals, a new Brics would be just as influential on the global political and economic stage as the old one.
Yury Sigov is the United States bureau chief for Business People magazine, which is based in Moscow and has offices in six countries.