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Why BRICS Still Matters

BRICS may be a young institution, but it shouldn’t be underestimated.

By , a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Chinese President Xi Jinping, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and South African President Cyril Ramaphosa link hands as they pose in front of their countries' flags.
(From left) Chinese President Xi Jinping, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and South African President Cyril Ramaphosa shake hands as they pose during a BRICS summit meeting in Osaka, Japan, on June 28, 2019. Mikhail Klimentyev/AFP via Getty Images

The 13th BRICS Summit, featuring the five major emerging economies of Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa, took place virtually earlier this month. It was chaired by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and the leaders of the other BRICS members—Chinese President Xi Jinping, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, and South African President Cyril Ramaphosa—all tuned in. Modi’s speech was avidly covered by the Indian press, and the summit itself drew significant coverage by newspapers in India and China, the two most populous BRICS members.

This attention stood in contrast to U.S. media coverage, where there was noticeable silence. Past BRICS summits have invariably drawn at least a trickle of U.S. media coverage, albeit usually in the form of commentary on the irrelevance, dysfunction, or inevitable demise of BRICS as an institution.

But this dismissive view reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of how institutions like BRICS work in international relations and why they matter. Importantly, it misses the motivations of BRICS members, particularly China and India, who remain committed to the institution.

The 13th BRICS Summit, featuring the five major emerging economies of Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa, took place virtually earlier this month. It was chaired by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and the leaders of the other BRICS members—Chinese President Xi Jinping, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, and South African President Cyril Ramaphosa—all tuned in. Modi’s speech was avidly covered by the Indian press, and the summit itself drew significant coverage by newspapers in India and China, the two most populous BRICS members.

This attention stood in contrast to U.S. media coverage, where there was noticeable silence. Past BRICS summits have invariably drawn at least a trickle of U.S. media coverage, albeit usually in the form of commentary on the irrelevance, dysfunction, or inevitable demise of BRICS as an institution.

But this dismissive view reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of how institutions like BRICS work in international relations and why they matter. Importantly, it misses the motivations of BRICS members, particularly China and India, who remain committed to the institution.

To understand this dynamic, it helps to first understand how the BRICS came into existence and why many in the West write it off.

In 2001, an analyst at Goldman Sachs coined the acronym “BRICs” to describe the emerging economies of Brazil, Russia, India, and China, grouping them as significant players in international politics. This grouping built on 1990s punditry that described Brazil, China, and India as rising powers with growing economic and, therefore, political clout. A later iteration of BRICS added South Africa.

From the outset, the premise that these countries should be grouped together because they were all emerging material powers was problematic. Although in 2001 both India and China were conceivably rising powers with large economies and increasing military spending, it is unclear whether that label applied to the other members, either then or now. Brazil remains a non-nuclear weapons state while Russia is arguably a declining power. South Africa continues to face myriad challenges, including dropping life expectancy in the years after it joined BRICS.

Further, after BRICS members embraced the term and began to formally meet, many observers argued that strained relations among BRICS members—particularly between China and India, which face a simmering border dispute—would hamper any hopes of smooth functioning. Moreover, BRICS members have no common ideology or cause to speak of.

Vast and growing disparities between the economies of the member states remain a common critique. Buffeted by the pandemic, none of the BRICS economies are predicted to expand except for China’s. Looking only at these factors, it is no wonder analysts have been pessimistic about BRICS’s future and efficacy.

Importantly, however, these analyses fail to take into account why global institutions like BRICS work and what makes them successful.

Such institutions work for three reasons. The first is institutions can act as forums for providing information to their members. Information-sharing builds trust among members and reduces uncertainty about their intentions.

Second, countries usually agree to only participate in institutions that mesh with their key interests. Significantly, this means because any given country will only join an institution that already aligns with its interests, it is naturally predisposed to comply and cooperate within that institution.

The third reason is institutions can enhance the reputations of members by providing them with visibility and a structure through which they can carry out complex activities, such as consensus-building on agreements, fleshing out shared norms and ideas, mitigating conflicts, managing disagreements, and even providing technical assistance.

Some institutions are more successful than others. Particularly when information-sharing is consistent, when an institution can discern its members’ key interests and align with them, and when it offers a functioning structure that is collectively enhanced by member participation, the institution functions well.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is an excellent example of such an institution. ASEAN members identify shared challenges through a consensus-based consultative process. The institution aligns with many of its members’ core interests by operating on a strict principle of nonintervention in the domestic affairs of its members.

And ASEAN’s structure is set up through the ASEAN Charter, a document that outlines its legal and institutional framework and lays out the blueprint for three communities that focus on different facets of regional cooperation: the ASEAN Economic Community, the ASEAN Political-Security Community, and the ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community.

Consequently, by reducing uncertainty—allowing for the participation of and cooperation with even recalcitrant and hostile countries like Myanmar—and giving members a high-level forum, ASEAN has had notable successes, such as creating the ASEAN Free Trade Area and joining the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership.

BRICS is a much newer institution than ASEAN, but its trajectory thus far shows it should not be underestimated.

In the 2000s, when BRICS came together, its member countries were broadly excluded from global economic governance structures, particularly Western institutions. As the Economist once wrote regarding the International Monetary Fund (IMF), “it is absurd that Brazil, China and India have 20 percent less clout within the fund than the Netherlands, Belgium and Italy, although the emerging economies are four times the size of the European ones.”

Thus, right from its first communiqué, BRICS made it clear that existing international structures were flawed, and it would offer its members a forum for cooperation, leadership, and information-sharing that had been denied to them.

Like ASEAN, BRICS nations have strict principles of sovereignty and noninterference, allowing for issues like territorial disputes and even regional sensitivities (such as India’s relationship with Pakistan and China’s incursions in the South China Sea) to be set aside.

Moreover, because some of its members, such as China and India, have acrimonious relationships with one another, BRICS offers a forum where focusing on immediate issues of mutual interest (like the economy) has grown to include noneconomic areas, such as national security.

Finally, BRICS offers a level of visibility into members’ views by offering a structure to group them as a bloc—for instance, China’s and India’s historical and continued insistence on independence from the U.S.-led order meshes well with Russia’s anti-U.S. stance.

Consequently, BRICS continues to remain both functional and tangibly beneficial to its member states. Each country’s top leader attends the summit every year, and before G-20 summits and IMF and World Bank meetings, BRICS members have held preparatory meetings to discuss their positions. During the 2008 financial crisis, such preparatory meetings helped BRICS make unified recommendations for governance reform that were subsequently adopted by the IMF and in the G-20.

BRICS also began to discuss transnational security issues, such as drug trafficking; in 2016, for example, prior to the BRICS summit, the heads of the member countries’ anti-narcotics agencies met to discuss and adopt best practices and form an anti-drug working group. This year, that group added the misuse of the dark web and other technologies as top concerns in drug smuggling. On key security threats, including terrorism, BRICS have kept communication channels open, with BRICS national security advisors having met on a regular basis since 2009.

Despite gloomy predictions, BRICS made good on its 2012 promise at the Delhi summit to create new financial institutions, establishing the New Development Bank (NDB) and the Contingent Reserve Arrangement (CRA) in 2014. The NDB is the first bank founded by developing countries. Although recent, it has been able to establish partnerships with other development banks, such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the World Bank, and is attempting to innovate by marketing itself as more attractive to developing countries than Western banks.

For example, the NDB offers policies like lending in local currency, which protects the borrowing country from the stronger U.S. dollar, and allows borrowing countries to set the standards for environmental and social compliance rather than having such standards imposed on them. The CRA, with capital of more than $100 billion, is meant to help members withstand any short-term balance-of-payment pressures.

This is not to say BRICS is infallible—particularly given border tension escalations between China and India and those two countries’ disagreements on the Belt and Road Initiative in South Asia.

Despite this, BRICS is likely to continue and flourish precisely because of broader geopolitical dynamics. The United States’ strategy with respect to containing China has focused on security, whether through the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, NATO, or the now so-called AUKUS deal. But China is focused on a long-term economics game through infrastructure, investment, and building close networks with political elites in many developing countries (by providing, for example, professional training in different vocations as well as scholarships to students).

The BRICS agenda lines up with this strategy, and its members are unlikely to push back. As of this year, China has overtaken the United States as India’s number one trading partner. Although India does not want a China-dominated order, it also does not want to openly ally with the United States against China. Russia has an excellent relationship with India and has grown closer to China. Brazil and South Africa have little to gain economically or politically by turning away from BRICS.

Nor is BRICS doomed by a mere dint to China’s status as the dominant country any more than NATO is by the United States as the dominant country. For BRICS to lose significance, the United States would have to offer those members most suspicious of China—India and Brazil—attractive multilateral arrangements that would give them weight and due importance in global governance. Outside of this, there is little motivation for BRICS members to downgrade their commitments.

If U.S. President Joe Biden wants the United States to lead the liberal international order again and stymie China’s rise, he would do well to remember that international order is not a monolithic entity but comprises different groupings of power that jockey for influence.

BRICS is one such grouping whose individual members carry far more significant weight in international politics than, say, many who have joined China’s Belt and Road Initiative. And it offers members who are wary of a rising China the ability to keep an alternative path for cooperation with Beijing open. As such, the United States would be wise to pay closer attention to BRICS’s trajectory.

Manjari Chatterjee Miller is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and an associate professor at the Frederick S. Pardee School of Global Studies at Boston University. She is the author of Why Nations Rise: Narratives and the Path to Great Power.

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