The ninth summit meeting of the BRICS group of nations in Xiamen, China, on September 3-5 is an occasion to reflect on how far this unique institution of emerging economies has come, what its key contributions are, and where it is headed.
The Chinese hosts have highlighted this year’s summit as marking the completion of one “golden decade” of cooperation among member states who are showing the path to other developing countries via determined multilateralism. In the contemporary era, apart from the G-20, there is no other notable multilateral body except BRICS which has delivered tangible benefits to large masses of people.
The New Development Bank (NDB) of BRICS, headed by an Indian and headquartered in China, has been making rapid strides. It issued its first tranche of loans for seven projects worth $1.5 billion with a focus on solar, wind and hydroelectric power generation. A second cluster of projects amounting to $1.4 billion has just been approved by the NDB in areas such as flood control and rural water management.
Compared to Western-dominated funding mechanisms like the World Bank, which on average take two years to approve loans, NDB is doing so in just six months and that too by disbursing in local currencies. As NDB expands and goes up to a capacity of fifty projects involving tens of billions in loans by 2021, the prospect of a new multilateral financing option available to the whole developing world and driven by leading developing countries will become an operational reality.
Besides spurring South-South economic development, trade and investment, BRICS has political benefits. It helps to soften worst-case scenarios stemming from bilateral bad blood. For example, the military face-off between India and China over the Doklam plateau was resolved partly owing to Beijing’s concern that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi might boycott the BRICS summit in Xiamen, an unprecedented possibility that would have poured cold water on China’s desire to celebrate BRICS as a microcosm of a peaceful world order where developing countries eschew narrow nationalistic animosities and treat each other respectfully.
Modi understood China’s vulnerability and sensitivity as the host and kept his participation in the Xiamen summit in abeyance until the Doklam deal was hashed out. The ‘BRICS card’ came in handy for India to moderate China’s initially adamant and belligerent stance that threatened “annihilation” of the Indian Army. This is an illustration of the potential of multilateralism, which has been defined by John Ruggie as based on “generalised principles of conduct” for the whole group “without regard to particularistic interests of the parties or strategic exigencies”.
China prefers bilateral instruments to tackle territorial rows and contests because it enjoys a huge conventional military superiority over any single rival, be it India, Vietnam, the Philippines or Japan. But by investing its prestige in BRICS as a collective medium through which China can shape the emerging world order, Beijing has also been forced to constrain its worst jingoistic and bullying characteristics.
The gap between China’s rhetoric of “peaceful coexistence” with the community of fellow developing countries and its one-on-one aggression towards them is thus somewhat mitigated by the sustained multilateral progress of BRICS. If upholding multilateralism at a time when Western powers are abandoning it is a concrete accomplishment of BRICS, transitioning to what China is labelling as a “new kind of globalisation” is no less a monumental task.
All BRICS countries oppose Western economic sanctions, restrictions on international trade and migration of skilled personnel that would deprive them of export markets and revenues. At the Xiamen summit, they will be taking aim at protectionist policies and values being instituted by US President Donald Trump and his European counterparts. BRICS aspires to declare the dawn of a new era where the baton for upholding liberal principles has passed from a fractious West to a resurgent East which is now making rules for global governance.
Interestingly, China’s clarion call for “globalisation 2.0” under the aegis of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has invited scepticism due to its undemocratic Communist credentials and the unilateral and hegemonic nature of its Silk Road revival blueprint. But a revised globalisation chaperoned by BRICS, which includes democracies like India, South Africa and Brazil, is relatively credible.
This does not imply that China is masking its imperialistic tendencies and using BRICS as a handmaiden for its individual aggrandisement. The history of BRICS proves that all five members have independent minds which prevent a single country from hijacking and monopolising the agenda.
Beijing has been selling the “Chinese model” of rapid economic ascent with heavy state controls as the ideal template for the entire Global South. But BRICS has enough variety and diffusion of power to check China’s ambitions of painting the world in monochrome red. The second “golden decade” of BRICS, when we could see new member countries getting admitted, will further demonstrate how China cannot impose its will on a pluralistic and multipolar world.