If you’re an emerging market and there’s a geoeconomic grouping you’re looking for, you’ve got a few to choose from. In Asia there is Asean - ten countries in search of common ground. In Latin America there is Mercosur - five countries in search of common tariffs. And from the Atlantic west to the Black Sea there is Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation – four adjectives in search of a noun.
But none of these has the distinction of having been a marketing campaign by Goldman Sachs got out of control. The Brics nations, apparently noticing a small clearing in the densely-thicketed field of international relations, seized on the designation to set up their own diplomatic process. The sixth leaders’ summit will take place next week in Fortaleza, Brazil, with the host nation hopefully performing better than at its other major international gathering.
From the start, there has been considerable puzzlement from jaded or indeed constructive but sceptical observers about what this new grouping was for and what it could achieve. Most associations are based on either shared geography, like Asean, or similarity of economic development and foreign policy interest, such as the G7/G8. The G7/G8’s unity of identity and purpose has recently been boosted by the suspension of Russia, which should never have been admitted in the first place, over the Ukraine crisis.
Five countries whose only shared characteristic was being large (except South Africa) middle-income economies was always likely to struggle to define itself as being in favour of anything except more power for the developing world. It is rather as if Japan, Botswana and Singapore had decided to set up a troika in the early 1970s on the grounds that they were among the world’s fastest growing countries, and a diamond-drilling nation from southern Africa and two manufacturing exporters from east Asia had a lot to talk about.
The sceptics have largely though not entirely been proved right. It is five years since the leaders first met at Yekaterinburg in 2009. Only now is the first actual product close to rolling off the production line in the form of the Brics development bank. The Brics bank could end up being a big player, but the uncertainties around its eventual size and governance suggests that it will be a long time before it can rival the World Bank, and – ironically enough – even more before it can match the massive development finance firepower of China acting alone. China in any case may well prefer to concentrate on the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, which it will very likely be able to dominate and use for security purposes in its region far more than the Brics bank.
Indeed, in the time elapsed since the last summit, there have been a string of security and economic issues which have shown that the first instinct of the Brics nations is to act alone and look to the US, rather than each other, as their immediate interlocutor or obstacle.
The Brics have failed collectively to have any coherent influence on the situation in Ukraine, though Russia is fairly obviously pretty heavily involved on a freelance basis, nor on Syria – though again Moscow has been active protecting its interests. Similarly, the other Brics have let Beijing get on with the important task of stirring up trouble in the South China Sea, with the US the only significant player from outside the immediate region.
As for the economic front, it has been a relatively quiet year with the global economy continuing to grow, if not spectacularly, and currency tensions remaining somewhat quiescent, if not entirely. The few indicators that we have, though, suggest that emerging market solidarity is as far off as ever. The World Trade Organisation is currently limping towards implementing a deal (admittedly of very little substance) to make it easier to trade across borders. India has been blocking the deal until the WTO has addressed its main concern, agreeing rules to protect “food security” (another name for agricultural protectionism). But China, as a huge manufacturing exporter including to the developing world, has supported the agreement.
It is not as if China is refusing altogether to address economic and security issues. Rather, it finds the US rather than its fellow Brics to be the go-to superpower on most of them. The more salient meeting this coming week is not the Brics summit but the regular Strategic & Economic Dialogue between China and the US, on this occasion being held in Beijing. Not much progress is being made across the wide front of issues including energy, trade, security and cyber-theft – engagement at the forum often takes the form of skirmishes rather than peace agreements – but that there is serious involvement at the full range of levels is not in doubt.
The Brics grouping wants to be seen as a hub of global governance: in reality each country’s relationship with the US remains generally more important than their relationships with each other. The Brics bank, as and when it emerges, could be a significant change, but apart from that the grouping remains far from the kind of economic and political power to which it aspires.
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