Will BRICS stand against unilateralism?

2023-09-05 11:43:25
Will BRICS stand against unilateralism?

The BRICS bloc of developing nations convened in Johannesburg under the theme of “BRICS and Africa.” As this group, constituting a quarter of the global economy, contemplates its potential transformation into a geopolitical force against the West and its progress toward de-dollarizing its internal trade, the anticipated decision regarding expansion emerged from the summit. Despite differing opinions on the matter of expansion, Argentina, Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) were given the green light for full BRICS membership.

Leading up to the summit, media outlets from the BRICS nations depicted an ambitious vision for the future, while Western media emphasized the inherent contradictions within the group, labeling BRICS as a form of “benign optimism.” Nevertheless, the significance attributed to the summit is undeniable. The recent BRICS summit was convened with an atmosphere reminiscent of the 1955 Bandung Conference. The Bandung Conference marked the first occasion when Asian, African and Latin American countries came together to deliberate on regional and international order without the participation of Western developed nations.

‘Too many nations at the mercy of too few’

The “Big BRICS” group is a potential challenge for the West. While the BRICS members differ in terms of military, political and economic growth rates, they fundamentally share the same critique: Institutions like the UN Security Council, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) disregard the interests of developing countries. Indian External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar once explained this as “leaving too many nations at the mercy of too few.” Supporters of BRICS argue that the group will emerge as a significant stakeholder in reshaping the international landscape.

The involvement of six countries from three continents in BRICS could signal an escalation in the group’s influence over global issues. The new members hope to gain increased access to development finance, as well as enhanced investment and trade opportunities. For these new entrants, BRICS offers more than just financial and investment prospects; it holds geopolitical significance. The vice president of the UAE and ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, welcomed his country’s participation in BRICS, noting that it aligns with their philosophy of establishing international multilateral partnerships. In its strategy to transform its economy for a post-hydrocarbon world, Saudi Arabia also holds expectations from BRICS membership. Iran, grappling with sanctions, finds a new shield in BRICS, while Russia, after launching the war in Ukraine, aims to alleviate its diplomatic isolation through the expansion of the BRICS circle. Russia hosting the inaugural summit of the 11-member “Big BRICS” next year is noteworthy. The chairmanship of the group will pass to Moscow next year and the next BRICS summit will be held in October 2024 in the Russian city of Kazan.

Throughout the process leading to BRICS’ “historic” expansion, interactions among the concerned countries have seen a noticeable intensification. High-level visits by leaders of Argentina and Brazil to Beijing, India’s local currency trade agreement with the UAE, Saudi Arabia’s investment agreement with Brazilian company Vale as part of its energy transition plans to produce 500,000 electric vehicles annually by 2030 and the Saudi-Iran reconciliation brokered under Beijing’s moderation – these all constituted the building blocks of BRICS expansion. China, in particular, engaged in vigorous expansion diplomacy among all relevant parties. Seeing this recent expansion, one can’t help but wonder if the promise of BRICS membership played a role in facilitating the Iran-Saudi normalization process.

Examining the countries invited to BRICS, it becomes evident that diversity in terms of geography and economic potential was considered. Already a group with distinct members within its original five, BRICS is now on the path to becoming an even more diverse and intricate entity. One of BRICS’ core members, India, is also part of the US-led anti-China military bloc known as the Quad. How this will impact decision-making processes within the group and how BRICS will determine its expansion criteria in the next stage remains uncertain. With six new members, BRICS seems to have formed a “chain of the Global South” stretching from East Asia to Latin America. However, while hosting the two largest countries in South America, four of the six new members hail from the Middle East, a region where Beijing has been steadily expanding its economic and political ties. The extent to which this choice will transform BRICS into a “Middle East-centric” group and erode US influence in the region is a matter of keen interest.

A new energy club?

Following the expansion, one critical domain for BRICS will be energy and critical minerals. Some experts have started referring to the expansion as “BRICS plus OPEC.” With the inclusion of Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Iran, the BRICS group now constitutes over 40% of the global oil supply. The new 11-member BRICS brings together the world’s largest energy producers with the largest consumers in the developing world. Argentina holds the third-largest lithium reserves globally. The expanded 11-member BRICS transformed into a rich club for rare resources, possessing 75% of the world’s rare reserves and rich in graphite, manganese, nickel and copper. In the near future, BRICS could take a path similar to the US-led Minerals Security Partnership (MSP) to ensure its energy security.

The expanded BRICS represents 37% of the global economy and 46% of the world’s population, but to put it in football terms, possessing the ball doesn’t necessarily guarantee victory. The G-7, while playing less with the ball, can continue to function as a team that capitalizes on every opportunity, like a team in the UEFA Champions League. To continue the useful football metaphor, BRICS has strengthened its squad by making six new transfers and aims to enter the new season ambitiously. However, it still plays a game that revolves around ball possession in its own half. Fundamental questions need answers: Who is the team’s coach? How will this squad of 11 players from countries that haven’t played together create team spirit? If there are further signings in the future, which positions will the new countries/players be brought in for?

The issue frequently discussed before the summit, breaking free from dollar hegemony and conducting trade within the group using local currencies, might have been overshadowed by the expansion news after the summit. However, in the days ahead, it will be one of the tasks that will keep BRICS members quite occupied. A common BRICS currency could facilitate economic cooperation and foster more integrated action within the group. However, while the trend of “de-dollarization” is gaining momentum globally (and ironically, a fundamental driving force behind this is the use of the US dollar as a “proxy warfare tool” against countries targeted by the US), the US dollar remains the preferred currency for global transactions. Developing a common currency among BRICS countries to challenge the US dollar should be considered a medium to long-term goal.

On the other hand, the extent to which trade in local currencies threatens the dollar is debatable. The rising usage of alternative currencies does not seem to threaten the dollar but rather increases the competition among the regional currencies. All the currencies of BRICS countries start with the letter “R”: real, ruble, rupee, renminbi and rand. Therefore, the collective currency that BRICS countries could use could be called “R5.” However, on the path to a common currency, BRICS needs more than such symbolic coincidences. BRICS countries are far from meeting the minimum standards required to establish a monetary union regarding economics and politics.

BRICS against the West?

What currently holds BRICS together is the shared acknowledgment that the existing international system favors the US and its close allies, with international norms being established and imposed by these countries onto others. Undoubtedly, this provides a strong common ground for agreement. However, much more is needed for BRICS to evolve into a geopolitical bloc. Some analysts believe that the existing contradictions within BRICS hinder its growth. Others argue that expansion could help overcome these contradictions.

An expanded BRICS could certainly amplify an alternative voice against the Western-led world, but this might not be sufficient to present a reasonable alternative to the current order. Moreover, the ambivalent messages from BRICS countries create inevitable confusion regarding the group’s vision and mission. If there’s a rejection of “leaving the fate of many nations at the mercy of a few,” it necessitates a profound wave of change to reverse this situation. Statements from certain Brazilian and South African officials, such as “We don’t intend to confront the West; we are focused on collaboration,” might point to the underlying unease within BRICS. For instance, the South African ambassador to BRICS, Anil Sooklal, dismissed the notion that the bloc competes with Western alliances like the G-7, labeling such claims as an “unfortunate narrative.” However, the same individual said in another interview: “The so-called Western liberal order created to post the Second World War don’t want to make space for new players.” The issue that BRICS needs to clarify is precisely this: Is BRICS demanding more space, or is it content with playing within its own field?

Did China get what it wanted?

The decision to expand from the recent summit in South Africa, where Chinese cars like Chery, BYD and Great Wall line the streets and Huawei inaugurated an innovation center last month, is undeniable regarding the strategic significance for China. The original five-member BRICS did not serve China’s more advanced strategic objectives. A larger BRICS could be a desirable platform for China. However, I am not convinced that China’s sole intention is to form a front against the “collective West.” At this stage, bloc politics might not yield practical benefits for China. The assumption that China is transforming BRICS into an anti-Western bloc implies that China has already taken a stance against Western powers, which is not entirely accurate given the current reality. Looking at German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s and French President Emmanuel Macron’s high-profile visits to China in succession, it’s hasty to speak of a unified Western front against China.

Amid rising geopolitical tensions and US sanctions on critical sectors of China, it’s plausible that China wants to invest more in multilateral mechanisms like BRICS. Despite objections and reservations within the group regarding expansion, it seems that BRICS is considering China’s proposals. Ignoring China’s demands, given that it accounted for 47% of the economic output in 2001 and now contributes to 70%, is unimaginable. Whether the expansion meets China’s desired scope or how Brazil was persuaded despite its concerns about diverting BRICS from its original purpose remains unknown. Brazil’s government argues that any expansion should be gradual, maintain regional balance and keep preeminent roles for the “five permanent members.” The emphasis on permanent members draws attention. If the initial five BRICS members were to position themselves as permanent members, it could pose a new “world is greater than five” challenge for emerging countries in the future.

China has an impatient approach to achieving its strategic ambitions but also possesses a diplomatic tradition of patiently attaining its long-term goals through small gains. After the outcomes of the recent BRICS summit, leaders in Beijing likely echo an old Chinese saying: “The road has to be walked step by step and the meal has to be eaten bite by bite.” Whether BRICS’ expansion signifies a sign of the group’s growing diplomatic influence or merely reflects China’s increased impact in shaping the bloc’s future will likely become apparent in the short term. How long it takes to achieve BRICS’ long-term goals will also serve as a test of China’s strategic patience.

Taking a glimpse at China’s news media in the past week, it’s evident that Chinese politicians and academics are eager to present a “Chinese style modernization” narrative based on the principle of “unite and prosper” for the African continent, contrasting with the Western “divide and rule” approach. As China’s media criticizes the inequities of the current international system, it laments that everything can be weaponized: the dollar can be a weapon, payment systems can be a weapon, trade can be a weapon, technology can be a weapon, food can be a weapon, even climate issues can be a weapon. Therefore, it’s argued that an increasing number of countries, particularly developing ones, are eagerly anticipating joining BRICS. Zhang Weiwei, a professor from Fudan University, offers a more ambitious viewpoint, stating in an interview with the Chinese news platform Observer: “Today, the whole world witnesses the awakening of the non-Western world. After the BRICS summit, the world will be even more different.” Some Chinese commentators, while critiquing the current international system, do not solely attribute the issue to institutions established post-World War II; they ground their analyses in a broader historical context dating back to the 1500s and the Great Geographical Discoveries followed by Western global expansion.

BRICS vs. G-7?

The originator of the BRICS acronym, former Goldman Sachs economist Jim O’Neill, stated in an interview with the Financial Times that creating a common currency for five quite diverse economies would not be feasible. However, in the same statement, O’Neill doesn’t neglect to leave a door open, stating, “It’s a good job for the West that China and India never agree on anything, because if they did, the dominance of the dollar would be a lot more vulnerable.” While he found the idea of a common currency “ridiculous” in his comments to FT, O’Neill paints a more positive picture in his statements to China’s English-language publication, Global Times. In the interview, the British economist told the Global Times that the idea of expecting the G-7 to play a greater role in global governance is “stupid.” It appears that Jim O’Neill is criticizing BRICS in his comments to Western media and criticizing the G-7 in his remarks to Chinese media, saying what everyone wants to hear.

O’Neill was more optimistic in a previous assessment: He wrote that over the past decade, Brazil and Russia have been disappointing, but if the proper steps are taken, BRICS has greater potential than the G-7. He called for transparent expansion criteria and argued that by adding Mexico, Türkiye and some Asian countries, BRICS would genuinely gain a global dimension and convey a sense of a real “rising powers bloc.” However, in his initial evaluation after the latest summit, O’Neill asserted that the US and China would have to overcome their differences and allow the G-20 to regain a central position. While the supposed “BRICS versus G-7” contrast might sound appealing to some, it should not be overlooked that this is still an artificial dichotomy.

‘Another brick in the wall?’

It should be noted that Türkiye now has two BRICS member neighbors (Iran and Russia). Considering the critical role of Egypt in the balance of the Eastern Mediterranean issue, the expansion of BRICS takes on significant importance for Türkiye. The analysis of what opportunities and risks the group’s expansion and Türkiye’s potential inclusion might bring to Türkiye is likely taking place in Ankara these days. Türkiye, while not necessarily reliant on BRICS membership to elevate its international status, could benefit from potential membership in bolstering its multilateral diplomatic efforts. Potential BRICS membership could lead to partnerships that strengthen Türkiye’s energy security.

On the other hand, given its geopolitical position, incorporating Türkiye into the fold would be an invaluable gain for BRICS. The decision to accept or not to accept a NATO member in the near future will also provide insights into BRICS’ global vision. Türkiye’s participation would benefit the group’s objectives to be more defined. Türkiye would not decline more trade, investment and finance from BRICS, but a BRICS membership for Türkiye that requires abandoning its alliances in the “Global North” would be nothing more than a gamble.

As BRICS sets foot into this new era of expansion, it faces a critical juncture in defining its role and purpose in the evolving global landscape. The true test lies not only in the number of members it embraces but in its ability to reshape the narrative, challenge established norms and forge a path that aligns with its aspirations.

The term “Global South,” even the name of the group itself, BRICS, is a result of Western interpretations. With the recent expansion opening a new chapter for the BRICS group, if it genuinely seeks an alternative to the Western-centric world order, it should first start describing the world on its own terms. The motto “We don’t need no education” from the iconic song by Pink Floyd might be sufficient to keep BRICS united against Western impositions; however, it is still too early to determine whether BRICS cooperation will be a retaining wall or “just another brick in the wall” within the international system.

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