Author: Sourabh Gupta, Institute for China–America Studies
During the first week of September 2017, President Xi Jinping chaired the 9th BRICS Summit in Xiamen in China’s Fujian province between member countries Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa.
Fujian province once launched a hundred ships along the ancient Maritime Silk Road from its great ancient port city of Quanzhou. But after Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi cast aspersions on Xi’s present day incarnation of the Maritime Silk Road and spurned the Belt and Road Forum in Beijing earlier this May, the question emerged — how would these duelling strongmen manage their differences in Xiamen?
In the event, the summit turned out to be a worthy success. The five countries re-dedicated themselves to a second ‘golden decade’ of partnership based on principles and aspirations that had originally bound them together 10 years ago.
The BRICS have come a long way since the formal establishment of the BRIC grouping by their foreign ministers in September 2006. Since the induction of South Africa in 2010, the five countries have established the New Development Bank and the Contingent Reserve Arrangement facility in July 2014. At Xiamen the group agreed to jointly establish a BRICS local currency bond fund and proposals for a transnational multilateral payments system and a credit rating agency have also been mooted.
With a view to institutionalising their international political and security cooperation, the five countries held their first stand-alone BRICS Foreign Ministers Meeting earlier in 2017. The BRICS High Representatives for Security Issues have also met over a half-dozen times. As the 24 paragraph-length section on ‘international peace and security’ in the Xiamen Declaration attests, the BRICS share reasonably harmonised approaches on a range of global security challenges from Syria to the peaceful uses of outer space.
Going forward, the broad vision that Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa lay out for the next 10 years should be informed by the principles, purposes, associations and ambitions that guided them through their first decade of collaboration.
First, the grouping must retain its character — and core strength — as an informal association without compulsory elements and where every cooperative action flows from a common and conscious interest. There must be no recourse to litmus tests on intra-group cooperation. Bilateral frictions, such as China–India strategic competition in South Asia, should be kept out of larger group dynamics. Geographic or functional issues where interests do not overlap should also be set aside, with the hope that they can be addressed positively another day.
Second, BRICS must expand its privileged membership, but do so on a selective basis. The five BRICS countries individually share the rare attribute of being among a selectively precious list of non-Western states which, with variances, can afford the luxury of genuine independent-mindedness within the international system. Expansion must respect this basic attribute. Candidate countries must not be constituents of closed-ended alliance systems or have their security guaranteed by an external power.
Indonesia — an internationalist and secular-minded Muslim-majority state with a defined doctrinal tradition of pluralism and independent mindedness — should be an obvious front-runner. Down the line, as Nigeria gets its house in order, its entry should also be evaluated.
Third, BRICS must become the premier developing country platform to pilot South–South cooperation. The Xiamen summit’s Dialogue of Emerging and Developing Countries and the variable geometry of the mooted ‘BRICS Plus’ format were formative steps in the right direction. The New Development Bank should mark its unique imprint in the global development space by implementing faster loan approvals, operate with a leaner organisational structure that results in lower loan cost, broaden the range of financing instruments at its disposal and adopt country systems whenever possible to respond to local needs.
Fourth, the BRICS grouping must become the most important emerging market economy forum to discuss the overhaul of the international monetary system. Modernising the IMF’s concessional financing facilities to adapt to today’s capital flow realities should be at the top of the list. Concurrently, BRICS should enlarge and convert their Contingent Reserve Arrangement into an Emerging Market Crisis Prevention Fund that is large enough to lean against sharp swings and self-fulfilling market panics. Over the medium-term, the BRICS should also aim to broaden the existing Special Drawing Rights arrangements within the monetary system, making its issuance automatic and regular.
Finally, the BRICS should ramp up their political cooperation and speak in one voice on security challenges. The purpose should neither be to splinter the international high table into rival political blocs nor soften the ground for the ‘Rest’ to wrest global leadership from the West. Rather, it should be to return the international system to the United Nations-centred moorings envisioned by its founders, which has taken a repeated beating — with attendant loss of countless innocent lives — during this post-Cold War ‘unipolar moment’ under the guises of humanitarian intervention, war against terrorism or weapons of mass destruction and transformative neo-conservatism.
Employing force for self-defence purposes or in vindication of a common international interest must strictly abide by the UN Charter’s provisions. A more deliberative approach to the myriad global security challenges must become the order of the day. For that to be the case, the BRICS too must set an example by constraining their actions within the ambit of international law.
The BRICS countries stand at the cusp of a second decade of partnership. They must rise to the challenge and restore a sense of fairness and equilibrium to the international economic and political order.
Sourabh Gupta is a Senior Fellow at the Institute for China–America Studies in Washington DC.