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Oct 23, 2016 | 13:00 GMT

7 mins read

The BRICS Without Mortar

The BRICS countries, Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, find they have less and less in common.
(MONEY SHARMA/AFP/Getty Images)

In 2001, Goldman Sachs analyst Jim O'Neill was looking for a quick and catchy way to refer to countries poised to drive growth in the coming decade. The solution he settled on was BRICs, for Brazil, Russia, India and China. From there, a group was born. The countries began meeting annually in 2009 and adopted a capital S when South Africa joined the following year. Though they had little in common beyond their promising economic futures and O'Neill's slick moniker, the BRICS made the most of their serendipitous union. Over the years, their annual gatherings laid the groundwork for new international institutions, such as the New Development Bank.

But the BRICS' eighth annual summit, held Oct. 15-16 in Goa, India, was lackluster, and the group's representatives struggled to agree on the content of their declaration. Even the statement's message about combating terrorism proved contentious as Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the summit's host, tried and failed to persuade his peers to condemn Pakistan-based militant groups. This disagreement is just one of many signs that the ties that once united these countries are loosening, making it harder for the BRICS to work together toward common goals.

The Ties That Bound

When O'Neill coined the acronym, the BRICs countries appeared destined for rapid economic growth. Led by China and India, whose economies experienced double-digit growth at times, the group fulfilled this prophecy. In recent years, however, some of the BRICS' fortunes have turned. An economic slump in the West and a relative slowdown in China tanked global commodities prices, dragging Russia and Brazil into recession. South Africa, meanwhile, is currently in the throes of a currency sell-off fueled by misgivings over its current government. These difficulties have demonstrated that growth is not a strong basis for a lasting partnership because, unlike wealth, it can vanish overnight.

15 years after the name BRICS was coined, and seven years after the group's first summit, trade relations among Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa remain disjointed.

Still, BRICS members have forged some bonds in the 15 years since they got their name. But for the most part, closer trade ties are not among them. China is the sole exception to this trend, ranking among the top three export destinations — and as the top source of imports — for each of the other BRICS countries in 2015. Beyond China, though, the trade links among the BRICS are weak. As South Africa's fifth-largest source of imports, India is the only other BRICS country to make it into a fellow member's top five export or import destinations. Notwithstanding their nominal affinity, the BRICS countries focus the bulk of their trade activities toward either developed Western powers or geographically convenient neighbors.

The BRICS Against the World

Even when these other links falter, the BRICS have historically been united in their collective rebellion against the existing economic and financial establishment. Their rapid growth propelled them to the top in terms of international gross domestic product (although South Africa has since been relegated to Africa's second-largest economy thanks to an accounting change). On arrival, however, the BRICS found that many existing international institutions were slow to acknowledge their increased importance. For instance, an International Monetary Fund reform to increase the countries' influence in the institution languished for five years after its proposal in 2010 because the United States invoked its veto power. This limbo period breathed new life into BRICS meetings and prompted the group to create its own institutions, such as the New Development Bank, since it could not rely on existing ones.

When the United States finally agreed to pass the IMF reform in December 2015, the BRICS lost some of the sense of common purpose that had held its members together. The international playing field is not entirely level, of course: India still wants a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council. But Russia and China, which already hold seats, are less interested in that struggle. India would be more likely to find an ally outside the group in Germany or Japan, which share its plight; in fact, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe penned an op-ed in September demanding U.N. reform.

Relations Return to Form

As the ties that once bound the BRICS loosen or break altogether, old divisions once masked by cooperation are re-emerging. India and China, for example, have shared a disputed mountainous border since India attained its independence in 1947. In 1962 they fought a war over it, which India's first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, described as "two new nations meeting at their frontier for the first time in history," after years of separation by "buffer zones." Though China won the war, the dispute has endured, and to this day, the border is prone to infiltration and outbreaks of violence. History has shown many times that great powers rarely sit comfortably up against one another for long.

Since the 2008 financial crisis, the paths of the BRICS countries have diverged.
India and Russia, by contrast, have historically had a more amicable relationship. The India that Nehru ruled had just emerged from two centuries of Anglo-Saxon imperial dominion, and as the Cold War took shape India was drawn to the side that looked less like its old masters. Nehru adopted a succession of Soviet-style five-year plans to industrialize his newly independent country, and the Indian leader got a rapturous reception when he visited Moscow in 1955. The United States later tipped the balance back in its favor by providing much-needed aid during an Indian famine. Even so, relations between India and the Soviet Union remained fairly warm throughout the Cold War, as New Delhi pursued a nonalignment policy. More recently, India has been working to build stronger energy partnerships with Russia, and its efforts to modernize its military are proving lucrative for Moscow, which signed a $10.8 billion defense deal with New Delhi at the summit.

A Search for Common Ground

In the absence of mutual growth, trade or goals, the BRICS countries are having more and more trouble finding common ground on which to base declarations at their annual summits. India is currently preoccupied with terrorism following an attack by Pakistan-based insurgents on a military base in Uri, near its western border. With this in mind, Modi attempted to insert a joint condemnation of terrorist groups based in Pakistan in the BRICS statement, but China and Russia resisted. Both countries have drawn closer to Pakistan as it tries to expand the usage of its deep-water port at Gwadar on the Indian Ocean.

Russia and China's refusal is vexing for India, especially in light of the solidarity that other countries in the region have shown. Immediately after the Uri attacks, Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Bhutan joined India in withdrawing from the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation conference in Islamabad. Likewise, at a meeting of the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation held concurrently with the BRICS summit, the organization — which includes Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Thailand — condemned the attacks. The contrast signaled to India that its neighbors hear its voice much more clearly than its fellow BRICS members do.

Nonetheless, it may yet be too early to proclaim the end of the BRICS. The New Development Bank and Contingency Reserve Account, the BRICS' World Bank and IMF equivalents, are just two years old and could prove useful to the group's members as an alternative source of capital. The IMF reform, meanwhile, may have escaped the U.S. veto, but it has not yet been fully implemented, and the BRICS will be there to make sure that corners are not cut. As the new powers look to further establish themselves in the global order, the BRICS could find themselves with more such battles to fight. Brazil, South Africa and Russia will emerge from their slumps in due time, and if India achieves the growth spurt that Modi is pushing for in his manufacturing-centered "Make in India" campaign, the country will need commodities. Though India's enduring challenges will make this a difficult feat to pull off, it could shoot up the export tables of the other BRICS countries. Finally, China and India may be uneasy neighbors, but both will appreciate having a forum in which they can continue to negotiate and collaborate. And so, the initial spark may be gone from the BRICS' relationship, but it is probably still too soon to start thinking about a divorce.

 

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