The five nations cannot pack a punch,because their interests are too often incompatible
First conceived in a 2001 Goldman Sachs research report,the grouping that has become known as the BRICS (Brazil,Russia,India,China,South Africa),which collectively represents at least 25 per cent of world economic output and 40 per cent of its population,has come to symbolise a possible alternative to the Western-led international economic and political system.
As the heads of state of the leading emerging economies gather in New Delhi for their fourth summit meeting,there are calls to establish a permanent secretariat,headquarters,and even a development bank in an effort to bolster the groupings political impact. But this focus on institution-building is misplaced. It is the fundamental incompatibility of the BRICS nations,not their lack of organisation,which prevents this collection of emerging economies from acting as a meaningful force on the world stage.
Were BRICS to consist of states where commonalities outweighed their differences,this would be less of a problem. But aside from impressive economic growth over the past decade and an individual desire for a greater say in the institutions of global economic governance,these disparate countries have little in common.
India,Brazil and South Africa are democracies,while China and Russia fall well short of that mark. The stark gap in living standards across the BRICS nations is clear considering that the average Russian is twice as rich as a comparable Chinese citizen,who is in turn twice as well-off as an Indian citizen. In terms of the size of the groupings economies,China is by far the dominant player,whereas many commentators suggest that Russia and South Africa do not merit consideration as major emerging markets. In political terms,China,India and Brazil are touted as rising powers in global affairs,while Russia is steadily losing its claim to great power status and South Africa appears to be treading water.
The heterogeneity of the BRICS members hinders their ability to adopt a common position,even on issues of shared interest. Despite a shared commitment to end Europes monopoly over the leadership of the IMF,the BRICS nations pursued their own narrow national interests instead of adopting a common position in the horse-trading following Dominique Strauss-Kahns resignation last year. This opened the door for the French finance minister,Christine Lagarde,to take the role.
Beyond the issues of economic governance,in many key areas the BRICS nations are actually in strategic competition. Within Asia,India and Russia are potential obstacles to Chinas presumed regional dominance. At the international level,Russia,Brazil and India desire the emergence of a multipolar international system in which they are major actors,with the latter two seeking membership in an expanded UN Security Council. In contrast,China aims for a bipolar world in which it serves as the counterbalance to American power. Documents published by WikiLeaks demonstrate that behind closed doors China has long opposed efforts to accommodate other rising powers by giving them a seat on the Security Council. Changes to the international system that increase Chinas voice are welcome,while measures that dilute its existing status are not.
Bilateral relations between individual nations are also fraught with tension. Declaring 2012 a year of India-China Friendship cannot paper over an unresolved border dispute,Beijings role as a supplier of weapons technology to Pakistan,or the stark imbalance of trade that threatens Indias domestic manufacturing base.
The barrier to collective action for the BRICS nations is not a lack of institutional structure,but the fundamental incompatibility of their interests. As a result,establishing permanent organisational bodies will not enhance cohesion or policy coordination across the grouping. The major emerging economies gathering in New Delhi will certainly shape global governance in the future. But it will be as individual nations,not as an artificial bloc founded on a Goldman Sachs catchphrase.
Walter Ladwig is a visiting fellow at the Royal United Services Institute,a research centre on defence and security issues
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