The 10th BRICS Summit commences in the South African city of Johannesburg at a time of global disruption as well as geopolitical refashioning. As the grouping of five states – Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa – enters its second decade, it has to simultaneously manage these shocks, as well as attune itself with emerging geopolitical and geoeconomic constellations. Such engagements must be in line with the key principles and norms that have mediated BRICS behaviour in the past.
In order to understand these principles and norms, one must start with what BRICS is not. Is it a coalition of emerging economies? Not really. China has emerged as the second-largest economy in the world. And Brazilian, Russian and South African economies have all but lost their past lustre. Is it a security bloc? Again, no. The foreign-policy orientations of the five countries – and their threat perceptions – are too diverse for the BRICS to serve as a geopolitical club. BRICS is not even a formal organization, lacking as it does, a formal charter and permanent secretariat.
The best way to understand what BRICS is, is through the lens of international regimes. With ORF’s Samir Saran, we have put forth the view that BRICS is, at its core, a collection of interacting norms about global governance, and international institutional architectures.
These norms are, in turn, shaped by two principles. The first is that of the preponderance of sovereign power. The BRICS states value sovereignty above all, resisting the influence of external actors in how these countries conduct statecraft and shape their trajectories. The second principle is that of democratic equity — as a collective, the BRICS reject any hierarchy of countries in the international system.
These principles, as well as the disruptions in contemporary global politics, suggest a three-pronged strategy for BRICS going forward — engage, resist, and ideate.
The two great emerging geopolitical and geoeconomic configurations of our age is the maritime Indo-Pacific and the continental Eurasia. These two new geographies will increasingly become the key sites of economic activity as well as geopolitical competition. As such, both are ripe for norm setting. They can also become key economic geographies with which BRICS can engage. When it comes to the Indo-Pacific, India's and Japan's views include the western Indian Ocean (the eastern coast of Africa) as well as littoral Asia. Indeed, Japan’s strategy of “Two Oceans, Two Continents” recognises the enticing prospect of Asia-Africa cooperation.
One direction in which BRICS could engage the Indo-Pacific, is through cooperation on the Japan-funded Asia-Africa Growth Corridor.
From the Indian point of view, Prime Minister Modi's view of the Indo-Pacific, as laid down in his 2018 Shangri La Dialogue speech, is inclusive and equitable, fitting well with BRICS’ norms and principles. For example, India has started consulting with both China as well as Russia on the architecture of the region.
If Indo-Pacific is one geopolitical re-imagination, Eurasia is the other. The 19th century geographer Halford Mackinder called the Asian and African landmasses the ‘world island’. Eurasia, in Mackinder’s telling, is the ‘heartland’ of this geography – the confluence and intersection of Asia and Europe. As such, Russia is a quintessential Eurasian power. China's mega Belt and Road project is an archetypal Eurasian project, inspired as it is by Marco Polo’s travel in the late 12th century. BRICS cooperation in Eurasia could involve partnering in the development of the International North-South Corridor which seeks to connect coastal Iran with Europe through Central Asia and Russia.
True to the principle of democratic equitability, the BRICS has a strong tradition of resisting unilateral decisions. Opposing American interventionism in the Middle East as well as North Africa, are key expressions of this collective belief. Contemporary American unilateralism is geoeconomic as well as geopolitical in character — witness, as example, Trump's position on tariffs that threaten to start a global trade war. In order to combat this, BRICS’ coordination at the World Trade Organization is necessary.
The US’ decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal has the potential to weaken global non-proliferation regimes.
The BRICS must coordinate at the UN and other forums to check American unilateralist impulses, by framing common position on this, and other global governance issues.
However, the US is not the only country given to unilateralism. Part of India’s objection to the Chinese Belt-Road Initiative is because of the non-consultative character of the design, whereby a Chinese plan is – for all manner and purpose – imposed on the world. This runs counter to the BRICS’ advocacy of inviolable sovereignty. Other members of the BRICS should make it clear that all geoeconomic projects – Chinese or otherwise – should be such that they do not constraint the foreign-policy preferences of the target /recipient countries.
Resistance alone is not enough. It is important for the BRICS to not use its (unstated) founding principles as part of an oppositional and/or anti-western politics. Doing so will quickly consign the grouping to the same fate as the erstwhile G77. In order to hedge against this outcome, concrete co-ideation on issues of global governance – and not just economic ones – is an imperative.
For some time now, India has pushed for a BRICS brain trust. The grouping should ensure that this proposal is implemented, and that it serves as a forum of ideation and coordination on issues of common, as well as global concerns. Among the issues that must become front-and-centre to this enterprise, should be the governance of global commons, maritime and cyber being the most important examples.
(Abhijnan Rej is a Senior Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. He tweets @AbhijnanRej. This article is based on his presentation at a side event to the 10th BRICS Summit, organized by the South African Institute of International Affairs. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)