The UK and the BRICS: forging global partnerships for the future

31 October 2016

What will the UK's relationship with some of the world's increasingly influential players in global development - Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa - look like following its decision to leave the European Union?

Theresa May at the G20 Hangzhou Summit in China, September 2016. Credit: Number 10 (Flickr) CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

For over a decade, the emergence of the BRICS countries has shifted the development assistance landscape. The current geopolitical context finds many of these emerging countries, particularly Brazil, Russia and South Africa, in political and/or economic crisis which is affecting their role as development cooperation providers.

At the same time, while the UK, under new Prime Minister Theresa May, is still committed to the target of contributing 0.7% of the GNI to overseas development assistance, it is changing how it does development, with a greater focus on trade and security.

Faced with a potential re-accommodation of the development landscape, in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) era, is there space for the BRICS and the UK to build global partnerships for sustainable development?

The development cooperation landscape in the SDGs era

While BRICS countries have been involved in development cooperation for many decades, there has been a remarkable increase in its scope and scale leading to an expansion beyond their regions during the 21st century.

The consolidation of this enhanced role as global development actors’ has led to a major restructuring of the development system, such as the establishment of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and the New Development Bank (NDB), which is challenging the global governance status quo.

However, their rise has positioned the five countries differently in terms of the role each plays in its region and the interests associated to their international cooperation portfolios, which, in turn, determines the space for manoeuvre they each have in the international arena.

So, while the BRICS platform offers a space for rising powers to amplify their voice and, to some extent, coordinate policy, their bilateral partnerships continue to be influenced by more particular circumstances affecting each country in differentiated ways.

The UK and the BRICS event and launch of new book on BRICS and International Development

The Centre for Rising Powers and Global Development, based at IDS, recently hosted The UK and the BRICS – Forging Global Partnerships for the Future, which presented analysis on how these rising powers can and may establish reconfigured relations with a post-Brexit UK that is seeking to re-assert its role in the world.

The discussion proposed a reflection on how the UK can channel its global development leader aspirations into forging a new set of mutually beneficial partnerships with BRICS countries that contribute to a safer, more inclusive and prosperous world, contributing to SDG 17.

The event also saw the launch of a new book, entitled The BRICS in International Development and edited by Jing Gu, Alex Shankland and Anuradha Chenoy, which presents a cutting-edge analysis of the broader geopolitical shifts, distinctive ideologies and normative discourses that are influencing and informing the BRICS engagement in increasingly ambitious joint projects.

Identifying spaces for collaboration - taking a closer look at Russia and China

In the BRICS, aid agencies were created as elite projects based on a variety of political, economic, and ideological reasons. However Brazil and South Africa, have witnessed a particular engagement of civil society which challenges the elite's projects, influencing development cooperation delivery.

Former DFID Director, Richard Manning, currently associated with the Centre for Rising Powers and Global Development, suggested that this opens a space for conversation between the BRICS and traditional donors, for whom it would be timely to engage in a knowledge-sharing process about how to avoid DAC-donors’ past mistakes, that thwart sustainable development.

UK-Russian cooperation

Marc Berenson, from King's Russia Institute, discussed UK-Russian cooperation horizons. The current situation is one of profound uncertainty over the type of partnership that can be forged between the two countries in development cooperation. This is due to macro-factors such as bilateral relations, the Russian geopolitical context and its current involvement in Syria and Ukraine.

Russia's precarious geopolitical circumstances make the extent of funds destined to international development cooperation still unknown. Considering that the space for bilateral partnership between the two countries appears limited at the time, there seem to be more opportunities at the multilateral level given Russia's high proportion of aid (62%) channelled through international organizations, including the World Bank.

China's increasing role in global development and investments into soft power

Just back from a stay in China during the G20 summit, Jing Gu reflected upon the increasing role of China in global development. The last five years have witnessed the fastest articulation of a Chinese domestic and international development policy in the history of Communist China, reflected in the creation of institutions such as the AIIB, NDB and the One Belt One Road initiative.

In this context, China took its G20 presidency as an opportunity to leave a legacy in the Group's political agenda by putting ‘innovation and inclusive development’ at the centre of the discussions at the forum.

The soft power aspect of how China aims to reshape international development practice has been somewhat overlooked, however, it is equally significant. In 2017, China will open a new Development Knowledge Centre, which will rival mainstream OECD-DAC Western development knowledge management practices. This has received much less attention than its hard power and financial policies.

Given the UK's earlier role in influencing European countries’ support to AIIB, how will its new leadership react to China's move towards actively pursuing a restructuring of international development knowledge?

In a very volatile global context, time will tell if the Chinese challenge to Western development models will influence how the UK seeks to re-assert its role in the world.

Building UK-B-R-I-C-S positive partnerships

In the current post-Brexit scenario, the UK is trying to re-establish what British nationalism and internationalism mean.

Professor Stephen Chan, conference Chair, reflected that the UK's view of its role in the world has been mediated by the aftermath of colonialism and Cold War relations, which specifically colour the relationship with Russia and China.He also proposed that whether or not the UK is ready for a dynamic relationship with the BRICS will stem from whether it is ready for a dynamic relationship with the world in general.

How will a UK partnership be forged with the BRICS as a group, and how will this be configured with each individual BRICS country?

Professor Chan considered that a political and strategic understanding of what the UK's re-emergence will look like is still lacking, leading him to question whether the country is strategically ready to grapple with our dynamic new world. The UK aid system, in current flux, has yet to show how its new aid approach will affect its development cooperation practice and which SDGs will be prioritised.

Manning, on the other hand, considered that one avenue to pursue positive partnerships with the BRICS could be to address the imbalance in representation in traditional international financial institutions so as to better represent the BRICS weight in the global economy and their role in development cooperation.

The event reinforced the idea that while the BRICS countries may use the consortium as a platform to amplify their global voice, they are in very different positions to establish bilateral relations with the UK.

Based on the current geopolitical context and historical ties, will partnerships with Brazil and South Africa occupy a similar role as the ones with China, Russia, and India in the UK's definition of its global development leader aspirations?

Image: Number 10 (Flickr) CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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