Can the Shakespearean drama of the BRICS avoid being a tragedy?

Published on 16 December 2016

The increasing political influence of the BRICS countries – Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa – was premised on rapid economic growth and an intrinsic message that there were alternative models of development to that promoted by Western powers and institutions. However with economic decline and domestic turbulence in some of the BRICS countries, can they continue to exert influence on the global stage?

The backdrop of the Arabian Sea in its full fury at only a hand’s distance, with earth-shaking winds sweeping the night landscape with torrential rains, provided just the atmosphere for stirring discussions on a plethora of issues ranging from geopolitics to geoeconomics, global security to global governance, sustainable development to digitalization, infrastructure development and connectivity – all in the realm of existing and future cooperation and competition amongst BRICS countries.

A new multipolar world both in geopolitical and geoeconomic sense is fast unfolding and the aspirant powers are clamouring for a role in a Shakespearean drama of power, politics and showmanship.

Yielding interesting insights into the genesis and evolving contours and future promise of the BRICS group, the discussions were an opportunity for policymakers and opinion formers to reflect on some very fundamental issues of divergence and convergence that will shape the evolution of the BRICS as a dynamic collective action forum for global development and human security.

Where the BRICS came from and where they are now

The setting is an event entitled The BRICS Amidst Evolving Cooperation and Competition, organised in the run-up to the 8th BRICS Summit in India earlier this year.

Richard Carey, former director of development cooperation at the OECD, chair of International Advisory Committee of the China International Development Research Network (CIDRN) and long-time collaborator with IDS on its BRICS and Rising Powers work, walked the audience through the start of the BRICS Summit process as a Russian political initiative to counter and break down US hegemony and pave way for a polycentric world in a new geoeconomic context.

This beginning was a manifestation of Russia’s search for great power status and an end to the unipolar world after the demise of the Soviet Union in early 1990s. But it also reflected the realities of the BRICS phenomenon in the first decade of the new century, with China’s super growth and then its vigorous response to the financial crisis creating a commodity super-cycle which energised the economies of the other BRICS, driving the world economy for over a decade.

Providing a critical mass of analytical ideas as to why BRICS as a political body is important both politically as well as geoeconomically, Richard Carey argued that, like the G20, the BRICS Summit process operates in an informal international space and doesn’t have legacy institutions like a permanent secretariat.

Nevertheless, it has developed a comprehensive agenda and work programme and, via the New Development Bank and China’s initiative to establish the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, has impacted on the US geopolitical hegemony over the multilateral development bank system. And their collective influence in the G20, which the BRICS strongly support as a multipolar process, enables them to keep up the pressure to get a larger percentage of votes on the boards of the IMF and World Bank (see the G20 Hangzhou Communique).

Individually and collectively, and throughout the shifting economic and political fortunes of the current decade, the BRICS are influencing global discourse on finance and politics in a polycentric world where neo-liberalism is replaced by neo-realism – with the BRICS as its newest example.

Some Indian Perspectives

Opinions expressed at the event were both supportive as well as critical of the BRICS, where some very fundamental differences were seen to accompany the cooperation amongst the member countries.

One participant had deep reservations about its importance for India, for its “geo-economic priorities are different from its geo-political priorities as geo-politics requires us (India) to work with the economies of the North, like the United States and Japan, whereas our (India’s) allies in development are countries in the South”.

He further contended that indulging in the creation of an alliance with countries like China, Brazil and Russia for a more equal global governance structure may be futile and a waste of time for India. India already has a time-tested stand-alone alliance with Russia and now with Japan. The alliance with Russia is a unique one and it shall always remain unique. From a strategic point of view the Chinese role in the region is detrimental to India’s long term security interest. India’s foreign policy should be national interest first, always informed by India’s economic interests.

On the other hand, some participants were of strong opinion that in spite of the presence of China in the region increasing India’s geopolitical challenges, India should play a powerful and pivotal role in the BRICS to safeguard its current and future strategic interests.

The BRICS and Global Win-Win Scenarios

As the BRICS Summit process flexes its economic and thinking muscles on the global agenda of peace, development and security, realising its potential and scope for greater collaboration and collective action becomes more imperative.

Shakespearean dramas often end in tragedy, but this time round, I sincerely hope, the drama will culminate in a win-win situation for all, as indeed the BRICS Summits promise in their manifesto – an equitable world with no domination of one over the other.

The views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IDS.


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