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Happy Birthday BRICS! Economies Growing Fast, Political Weight Of A Newborn

Singh, Jinping, Zuma, Rousseff and Putin at the 5th BRICS Summit
Singh, Jinping, Zuma, Rousseff and Putin at the 5th BRICS Summit
Michel de Grandi

NEW DELHI - Dreaming with BRICs, the study published in 2003 by Goldman Sachs that traced the rise of four emerging economies (Brazil, Russia, India and China) also marked the birth of a concept that has yet to disappoint.

Between 2004 and 2011, average growth in China was 10.8%, in India 8.3% -- to mention but the top two. Today nobody would dare challenge the economic dynamism of the emerging markets or their appetite for performance. Not only do they contribute more and more to world growth (36%), but if all stays on track, by 2020 they should represent about a third of the global GDP. That’s a huge economic weight for a group that is so heterogeneous.

The only thing the BRICs have in common is the fact that they are very large countries – sometimes even huge. The size of the Chinese economy is at least 30% bigger than the economies of the other three put together (according to 2012 statistics). The levels of GDP per capita also differ widely: Russia and Brazil have average per capita incomes, but China and above all India still rank among poor nations. The size of their population varies even more widely.

Four countries became five, and the BRIC countries became BRICS, when the group integrated South Africa, a significantly smaller country, in 2010. The group of five now includes two permanent members of the UN Security Council, three nuclear powers – and two authoritarian regimes. That’s enough capital to move this purely economic set-up into a more political structure. Deep down, the group has one essential common denominator – the refusal of Western supremacy in the world. Over the years, the voices of emerging countries have grown louder in the international bodies, by going against the tide of globalization – even though it was this that helped them develop.

The BRICS defend the UN, but they want to democratize the organization, as well as gain more clout there. At the World Trade Organization (WTO) they have assumed the role of spokespeople for the poorest nations. By creating the G20 in 2003 they started saber-rattling by opposing the positions of the industrialized nations.

In 2009, the Copenhagen summit on climate change was blocked by the emerging countries, which managed to isolate the Europeans and their pro-environment measures. That same year, the first BRIC summit (there were still only four), organized by Russia, revealed during preparatory meetings to just what extent the group’s players wanted to turn it into an anti-Western war machine.

In the end the BRICs ostensibly demanded greater representation in international financial institutions and a more open selection process for the directors of these institutions. Without saying it outright, they made their dissatisfaction known about the fact that the presidencies of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) were reserved for the U.S. and Europe.

In 2011, at the Sanya summit in China, they called for far-reaching reforms to the UN and its Security Council. The recent Durban summit confirmed the path the BRICS are on: The five countries have decided to create a development bank as a counterweight to the World Bank. They also announced they wanted to mobilize part of their foreign exchange reserves to create their own fund and thus not have to depend on the IMF.

Political dwarfs

But make no mistake: While these countries have emerged from economic anonymity, they remain political dwarfs, their cohesion built around their own institutions or multilateral arenas. Their foundations remain fragile, and their anti-West rhetoric goes out the window as soon as their national interests are threatened.

Regarding Libya, for instance, the BRICS voted against the intervention, even though earlier South Africa had voted for it at the UN Security Council, where it is a non-permanent member.

The same sort of dissent was observed in regard to Syria: On the one hand, in 2012, Russia and China vetoed Western resolutions supported by the Arab League; on the other, India and South Africa – after discussions with Brazil – ended up supporting the resolutions or abstaining from voting.

The adoption of a pacifist principle is another point of contention. When Russia clamped down heavily on separatist groups, the other BRICS members found themselves in an awkward position to protest. Within the club, China’s attitude worries some of the other members because of its arrogance and its desire to dominate the debate – to the extent of swallowing the group up whole. At the last summit in Durban, a decision as to where the future development bank should be headquartered wasn’t taken up because of lack of consensus.

It is this huge fragility that is the main weakness of the BRICS. Today, the issue is not whether the five emerging countries will be able to influence world trade structures but rather if they will be able to continue to grow together on a political level.

There are two possibilities: either they get some real leadership and a political line, or they expand their community to include other emerging nations – at the risk of creating bigger governance problems.

That’s unless they prefer to return to the way things were before. In 2003, India, Brazil and South Africa had already joined together to create the IBSA Dialogue Forum, a tripartite group espousing multi-cultural, multi-ethnic – and democratic – values.

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