BRIC Summit: The Limits Of Collective Power
Brazil has just hosted the second annual BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, China) summit on April 15-16, but I think there are good reasons to doubt how much strength this grouping actually has in terms of changing the world – at least in a collective fashion. Below, I list some thoughts about BRICs as a concept:
- BRICs as a group is somewhat inorganic to say the least. While the members of other international organisations such as the G8, EU, and Mercosur all have quite a lot in common, either economically, politically, or culturally, BRIC countries are extremely diverse in all these areas. The only thing they have in common is that they are all large emerging economies which were banded together by Goldman Sachs in 2001.
- Occasional suggestions that Indonesia, Mexico, and South Africa could join BRICs have some merit, but this would make BRICs even more incoherent and unwieldy than it already is.
- Brazil and Russia are already middle-income, highly urbanised economies, whereas China and India are low-income countries that are still predominantly rural. This means they have differing development priorities.
- Brazil and Russia are both big commodity exporters, whereas China and India are major importers. This is a significant divergence of interests.
- The BRIC countries are all competing against one another economically. China’s demand for Brazilian commodities is leading to fears in Brazil of a dependency relationship and concerns that Brazilian manufactured goods will be outcompeted by China.
- China and Russia are both quite state-driven economies, whereas India has moved away from this model and Brazil has been more laissez-faire than the other three for many years.
- Demographically, China and India stand out with more than a billion people each, whereas Brazil and Russia have less than 200mn people. Brazil and India are both ‘young’ countries, whereas China and Russia are ageing rapidly.
- Geopolitically, China is competing with India in South Asia and the Indian Ocean, and with Russia in Central Asia. China could also compete with Brazil for influence in South America itself and in Africa. In fact, all four BRIC countries are seeking greater influence in Africa.
- All four BRIC countries probably value their relationship with the US over their relationship with other BRIC countries, and they have quite different attitudes towards –and ‘issues’ with – the US. China’s main bones of contention with America are their exchange rate and the US military presence in Asia. India seems keen to develop closer relations with the US, whereas Russia still views the US (and NATO) as a threat. Brazil, meanwhile, is becoming more economically dependent on China than the US, and seems to be seeking to straddle the global North-South divide. Overall, though, none of the BRICs are ready or willing to openly challenge the US in a meaningful way.
- China arguably doesn’t need BRICs to augment its global influence, for it is already sufficiently powerful that its rise can change the world. The same will probably be true of India within a decade. On the other hand, Brazil’s and Russia’s rise, while important, are not necessarily global ‘game-changers’.
- While there is no doubt that the BRIC countries’ economic and political influence is increasing, this is largely due to their individual actions rather than coordinated behaviour. The BRIC countries are not maximising their synergies.
Nonetheless, despite these complications, the BRIC summit is still important for promoting trade and investment among them. The BRIC states are also justified in demanding a greater say in global financial institutions such as the IMF and World Bank, which are still dominated by developed states. However, the BRICs are unlikely to displace the US dollar as the global reserve currency. Indeed, it may not be in their interest to do so, and they have toned down such calls – although they are promoting greater use of local currency in trade settlement. Overall, I doubt that B, R, and I would want the Chinese yuan as the reserve currency in place of the dollar.