Until a year ago it had seemed that BRICS, the association of five emerging economies—Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa—was morphing from a loose economic alliance into a geopolitical force willing and able to challenge the global order. Its members’ potential to do so appeared impressive: They account for three billion people (two fifths of the world population), with a combined nominal GDP of $16 trillion and growing. In July 2014 they agreed to set up a $100 billion development bank, with another $100 billion in a joint currency pool, with the explicit purpose of eventually creating an alternative to the World Bank and the IMF. Two months earlier presidents Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping had signed a landmark energy deal, followed by a comprehensive Sino-Russian finance and technology agreement last October.
The international association’s seventh summit was held in the Russian city of Ufa (July 8-10), jointly with the 14th summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). It produced an impressive array of agreements to continue expanding member countries’ cooperation. Whether they have the means to effect a major change in the global geopolitical balance anytime soon remains to be seen. Their growth rates have slowed significantly over the past year, with Russia going into recession because of falling oil prices and Western sanctions. They share a common goal of leveling the international playing field, but their mutual differences and incompatibilities still prevent the emergence of coordinated foreign and security policies.
A major stumbling block is the mistrust between Asia’s two giants, China and India. Their territorial dispute at both ends of the Himalayan divide—Aksai Chin in the Ladakh region in the west, and Arunachal Pradesh (which China calls “southern Tibet”) in the east—remains frozen, and significant military resources are still deployed on both sides of the demarcation lines. India is wary of China’s construction of a direct pipeline and rail access to the Bay of Bengal port of Kyaukphyu in Burma (Myanmar), which bypasses the potential choke point in the Strait of Malacca. Delhi is also unhappy with its huge and growing deficit in the bilateral trade, which is worth $100 billion per year. There is no natural affinity between these two ancient civilizations.
More significant is the asymmetrical relationship between China and Russia. Moscow’s prevailing image of China as a natural ally—on account of Russia’s resistance to what she perceives as major Western encroachment on her southeastern flank—does not accurately reflect China’s long-term plans.
Last year, Russia was China’s tenth-largest trade partner ($100 billion between the two), accounting for only two percent of China’s foreign trade. China is Russia’s top trading partner, however, exporting almost nothing other than oil, gas, and timber. Even their long-term energy partnership represents only a fraction of China’s total foreign trade. The relative power of Russia and China has been spectacularly reversed over the past quarter-century.
Moscow has lost the ability to plan in grand strategic terms, as evidenced by its largely reactive posture over Ukraine and by its failure to project soft power abroad. China, by contrast, is as much the Middle Kingdom now as she has been for two and a half millennia, coldly contemptuous of foreign “barbarians.” Russia responds to immediate threats, real and perceived. China methodically and single-mindedly plans for the long term, as evidenced by her current muscle-flexing in the South China Sea. It is a carefully calculated ploy to achieve regional advantage at little or no cost, as business with America continues as usual.
For now, China enjoys favorable global trade flows and financial solidity, and she is harnessing her resources for a possible showdown with the United States sometime later this century. Russia’s need for allies is immediate. Within BRICS China will agree to incremental increases in cooperation, but she will politely dash Russia’s hopes that their decade-long strategic partnership will develop into a geopolitical alliance.
As for the rest, Brazil is geographically and culturally too far from the three Eurasian powers to forge a comprehensive strategic partnership with them. Having posted 7.5 percent annual growth in 2010, her economy has lost steam since and gone into negative territory this year. South Africa is plagued by endemic corruption within the ruling ANC establishment, crumbling infrastructure, rampant crime, and an ongoing brain drain. Both are highly indebted and unable to resist IMF-World Bank monetary policy without risking financial and social meltdown.
A better balanced, multipolar world would be a good thing, especially for an overstretched America that needs to come home. Its emergence is probably inevitable, but the early promise of BRICS to provide the institutional framework for its development has not been fulfilled.