President Cyril Ramaphosa addressing the BRICS Stakeholders Round-table meeting at the Sefako Makgatho Presidential Guest House. Picture: JAIRUS MMUTLE/GCIS
President Cyril Ramaphosa addressing the BRICS Stakeholders Round-table meeting at the Sefako Makgatho Presidential Guest House. Picture: JAIRUS MMUTLE/GCIS

The 10th Brics (Brazil, Russia, India, China, SA) summit, which began in Johannesburg on Tuesday, will be important from collective and individual perspectives. How the member countries balance their individual aspirations with the collective goals of the Brics will be instrumental in deciding the organisation’s role in global affairs.

The Brics was formed as an organisation of emerging economies that would co-operate with each other in development. It started as Bric, with Brazil, Russia, India and China being the first four members, and this was the structure when the first two summits were held in 2009 and 2010. Since SA was admitted as a full member in 2011 the organisation has operated mainly in the trade and economic domain.

However, the foreign ministers’ meeting in Pretoria in June ahead of the summit indicated that Brics is looking to expand its outreach to the strategic domain. The foreign ministers also unequivocally affirmed their commitment to multilateralism and international institutions. This stand by the members is a positive development, but it is necessary to assess the likely effectiveness of the Brics from these two perspectives.

Multilateralism and strengthening institutions are areas of collective potential, while the strategic domain is an area of individual challenges. With regard to multilateralism, in the foreign ministers’ meeting all of the members categorically stated the need for this aspect to be strengthened.

US attempts to reshape the global order in two poles — one led by itself, standing in opposition to China and Russia — would only raise the instability and possibility of conflicts. Besides uncertainty and protectionism, US policies are causing disruption in global trade.

The Brics should not only protect the interests of its member countries but engage with other such institutions

Represented by countries from Asia, Eurasia, Africa and Latin America, Brics is an ideal model for promoting multilateralism in economic and strategic domains.

The second area is strengthening institutions. This role is concomitant to and necessary for promoting multiculturalism. As a part of its protectionist policies the US has been in conflict with institutions such as the EU and the Group of Seven.

It also walked out of the Trans Pacific Partnership, saying it has been detrimental to US interests.

The Brics should not only protect the interests of its member countries but engage with other such institutions. This approach was started in 2016 when the 8th Brics summit and the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi Sectoral Technical and Economic Co-operation Summit were held together in Goa, India. There is scope for more such engagements in future.

The strategic domain is possibly the most challenging and complex area for the Brics to enter and play a meaningful role. The challenge is that all the members of the Brics have specific interests and stakes at the regional level. Working through overlapping interests successfully will be important for members to create a strong Brics structure.

Defining the role of Brics with regard to geopolitical conflicts and security issues, the rivalry between India and China and various interests of Brics members outside the grouping are the principal areas of challenge.

Sharp polarisation in the geopolitical domain complicates the role of Brics. In the Middle East, for example, Russia and the US are engaged in intense strategic competition over Syria, while China has been expanding its outreach to Middle East countries.

Any efforts to achieve stability can only be achieved by engaging the US, along with other concerned entities. It would also require China and Russia not to compete with each other.

Co-operation between India and China in such areas, despite their rivalry in the economic sphere, is imperative for Brics to succeed. Territorial disputes between the two, and China’s outreach through its Belt and Road Initiative, are irritants to India-China relations that have so far not affected economic relations. However, both countries have ambitions at the regional and global level, and for Brics to be effective as an entity compromises will have to be reached regarding geopolitical and economic goals.

The Brics stand on international issues could also be affected by India’s policy that the alliances it forms must not be directed against any particular country.

It has deep engagements with the US as well as China and Russia, and how this vision is accommodated by other members will affect the progress of Brics.

Some analysts have suggested that the challenges facing the Brics as a grouping outweigh its potential. But it is an emerging entity and with time, commitment from its members and clarity on their relationship going forward, it should be able to exert more global influence.

Marjani is an independent researcher and columnist based in Vadodara, India.