- by Roland Boer
- The Guardian
- Issue #2014
BRICS leaders at 2013 G-20 Saint Petersburg summit: Dilma Rousseff, Manmohan Singh, Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping and Jacob Zuma. Photo: Agência Brasil – commons.wikimedia.org (CC BY 3.0 BR)
What are BRICS, BRICS+, and the “new G8”? What is the meaning of these acronyms and why are they important?
To begin with BRICS: this designates five countries that for the last decade have been working at an increasingly high level of synergy: Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa.
After informal discussions going back to 2006, the first full summit was held in Yekatarinburg, Russia, in 2009. Back then, it was BRIC, but South Africa soon joined. By the 2011 summit, it had become BRICS. Each year, one of the five countries takes on the role of chair, and in 2022 this fell once again to China.
In this five-country format, the statistics are telling. Combined, they comprise twenty-three per cent of the world’s land surface, thirty-four per cent of its economic power (in terms of Purchasing Power Parity), and forty-one per cent of the world’s population. After almost a decade and a half, there are more than 100 meetings per year under the BRICS umbrella, and it is integrated with a host of regional initiatives, such as the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) led by ASEAN, the African Continental Free Trade Area (ACFTA), the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), MERCOSUR or the Southern Common Market, and ASEAN. And these developments are only from the last five years.
Further, in 2014 BRICS established three crucial financial institutions: the New Development Bank (NDB), Contingent Reserve Arrangement (CRA), and began developing an international payment as an alternative to SWIFT. Why? They know from experience that existing international institutions such as the World bank and the IMF do not meet the basic needs of developing countries: building up the economic base so as to overcome poverty, and providing reserve funds during periods of economic instability. Notably, the NDB was initially based in Shanghai, but has since established centres in Russia, Brazil, and South Africa. Indeed, membership of the NDB is wider than BRICS, with Bangladesh and Uruguay joining more recently.
As for SWIFT, the BRICS countries had already seen that it could be used as a weapon against certain countries. Iran, for example, had already suffered under such measures, and we have seen this used with Syria, Afghanistan, and now Russia. Indeed, 2022 has seen renewed effort to bring the BRICS payment system into full working order.
How should we understand BRICS+?
The concept was initially proposed at the summit held in Xiamen, China, in 2017. And it was central to the agenda of the summit held on 24 June, 2022, when China was once again the chair. Some pundits have suggested that BRICS+ is a mechanism to expand BRICS itself. Argentina and Iran, for example, are often mentioned as aspiring to full membership, along with Indonesia, Mexico, and others.
The problem with such an expanded membership of BRICS itself is that consensus on decisions would become more difficult. The five very different countries that makeup BRICS have since 2009 been able to achieve remarkable levels of consensus on key matters, but an expanded format would make that more complicated.
Currently, BRICS+ is seen as a process of deeper regional engagement by the five members of BRICS. Note their regions: Russia at the centre of the Eurasian landmass, China in east Asia, India in the Asian subcontinent, South Africa in Africa, and Brazil in South America. And note who participated in the meeting of Ministers of Foreign Affairs in June this year: alongside BRICS countries, there were representatives from Egypt, Nigeria, and Senegal in Africa; Argentina from Latin America; Indonesia and Thailand from Southeast Asia; Kazakhstan from central Asia; and Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates from western Asia. Key here is that in 2022 Senegal holds the chair of the African Union, the United Arab Emirates chairs the Gulf Cooperation Council, and Argentina is the chair of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC).
Clearly, the agenda of BRICS+ is developing in the direction of a multi-track approach that is concerned with deeper integration with regional organisations.
Which regions? All of these countries are developing countries. They have a history of being subjected to some of the most brutal imperialism and colonisation by the small club of countries known as the “West,” which comprises only fourteen per cent of the global population. As for Russia, there is a strong memory of the role played by the Soviet Union in supporting anti-colonial struggles for national liberation. They may be very different countries and have issues with one another, but they share this common experience and a desire to overcome the persistent poverty that had been exacerbated by the interventionist policies of the International Monetary Fund.
THE NEW G8
On the 11th June, the speaker of the Duma of the Russian Federation, Vyacheslav Volodin, coined a term, the “the new G8”.
As reported by RIA Novosti, Volodin wrote on his Telegram channel: “The United States has created conditions with its own hands so that countries wishing to build an equal dialogue and mutually beneficial relations will actually form a “new” G8 together with Russia.” Two criteria for the “new G8” are mentioned. First, the countries in question have flatly refused to join the Western sanctions against Russia. I would add that the vast majority of countries in the world have refused to do so. Second, their combined economic weight – in terms of Purchasing Power Parity GDP – is far greater than the imperialist club of the now irrelevant G7. Volodin wrote: “The group of eight countries not participating in the sanctions wars – China, India, Russia, Indonesia, Brazil, Mexico, Iran, Turkey – in terms of GDP at PPP is 24.4 per cent ahead of the old group.” In providing a table for each of these countries, Volodin pointed out that five of them are in the top ten largest economies: China (1), India (3), Russia (6), Indonesia (7), and Brazil (8).
While there are some obvious overlaps with BRICS and BRICS+, there are some clear differences. South Africa is notably absent. Further, the proposal of a “new G8” is confrontational, seeking to accelerate the sunset of the West. By contrast, BRICS+ seeks to be inclusive and non-confrontational.
It is also too early to tell whether a suggestion via Telegram will gain traction, even if further research and planning is undertaken. By contrast, BRICS+ is already highly developed and the core countries of BRICS have been working very hard indeed at deeper regional integration.
SEEKING COMMON GROUND WHILE PUTTING ASIDE DIFFERENCES
Earlier, I mentioned that the five countries of BRICS are quite different from one another. India and China have a rivalry that goes back many years: border disputes, spheres of influence (Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Myanmar), political systems, and so on. While China has a socialist economic system, India has a capitalist system. India is also a member of the QUAD, but it is also a full member of Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. Further, Brazil may have joined BRICS when Lula was president, but Bolsonaro is a somewhat different political figure.
Western pundits are nonplussed at how these countries can find common ground. Surely, they opine, such an organisation cannot hold together. Here the Western pundits betray their either-or mentality, their zero-sum approach to the world. They simply cannot understand a key feature of engagement between BRICS countries: seeking common ground while putting aside differences.
For example, Russia continues to be a key player in bringing together the old rivals, India and China. Bolsonaro has become an outspoken supporter of BRICS. And India is concerned with what is best for India, and is certainly not about to abandon an old friend, Russia.
Perhaps the Fortaleza Declaration, promulgated at the BRICS summit in Brazil in 2014 says it best. It speaks of “our shared views and commitment to international law and to multilateralism, with the United Nations at its centre and foundation.” These commitments are “widely recognised and constitute a major contribution to global peace, economic stability, social inclusion, equality, sustainable development and mutually beneficial cooperation with all countries.” Acknowledging the important role of State Owned Companies (SOCs), the declaration makes it clear that “we are committed to working towards an inclusive, transparent and participative intergovernmental process for building a universal and integrated development agenda with poverty eradication as the central and overarching objective.” This agenda should “integrate the economic, social and environmental dimensions of sustainable development in a balanced and comprehensive manner with concise, implementable and measurable goals, taking into account differing national realities and levels of development and respecting national policies and priorities.”
It should be no surprise that more and more developing countries are keen to be involved.