Brick by Brick: BRICS Past and Future

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Written by Samantha Thorne

Johannesburg, South Africa—Leaders of the world’s largest emerging national economies are poised to meet at the 10th annual BRICS Summit today in the wake of capricious international summits. As Brazilian, Russian, Indian, Chinese and South African heads of government convene to discuss the fourth industrial revolution and collaborative approaches to achieving inclusive growth and prosperity, many question how the bloc’s proceedings and member cooperation will compare to what was witnessed at the G7 and NATO summits. This year’s summit takes place in Johannesburg, South Africa and its agenda is focused not only on developing BRICS member states, but also the African continent as a whole.

A Look Back at the 2017 BRICS Summit in Xiamen, China

Last year’s summit, themed “BRICS: Stronger Partnership for a Brighter Future,” prioritized economic collaboration in addition to political and security cooperation. However, achieving political and economic cooperation appeared unlikely going into the summit due to the “Dolkam standoff”—a military impasse between China and India over disputed borders in the Himalayas. Though many questioned whether Indian Prime Minister Narenda Modi would attend the BRICS Summit, Prime Minister Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping declared a mutual disengagement and maintained face as all BRICS members met in Xiamen, China to discuss development amongst the bloc’s semi-periphery nations. Convening in the midst of geopolitical tension and strained Indo-Chinese relations set the stage for the summit and its intent to strengthen partnerships.

The summit’s priorities centered around international inclusivity and development. To deepen member development cooperation, the meeting focused on partnerships, global governance, common development programs, and people-to-people exchanges. To achieve these goals, BRICS leaders aligned their efforts with G20 aims and the United Nations’ 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Chinese President Xi and foreign minister Wang Yi invited the leaders of Egypt, Guinea, Tajikistan, Mexico and Thailand to the summit as part of China’s “BRICS-Plus” initiative. The initiative aimed to involve nations outside of BRICS membership in revitalizing regional assimilation. By creating a “new platform for forging regional and bilateral alliances across continents,” in which core BRICS economies help unify the regional blocs, the initiative sought to overcome South-South development challenges.

In addition to practical approaches to economic partnerships and financial integration, key takeaways from the Xiamen Declaration involved counter-terrorism. Though BRICS is mainly viewed as an economically-focused body, the 2017 summit witnessed the naming and condemning of specific terrorist groups, including the “Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement, Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, the Haqqani network, Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Mohammad, TTP and Hizb ut-Tahrir.” Indian leaders saw this as an improvement to the GOA Declaration and also an accommodation by the Chinese hosts to recognize India’s apprehension of Pakistani-based terrorists. Though China’s exclusion of Pakistan as a “BRICS-Plus” member appeased India, Indians leaders had reservations about the declaration’s failure to discuss China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

Another achievement of the 2017 BRICS Summit was its launch of the African Regional Center of the New Development Bank (NDB). The NDB’s first regional office, the South African branch in Johannesburg, endeavors to strengthen African infrastructure and support the continent’s sustainable development. Its launching paved the way for the 2018 BRICS Summit as South Africa’s president, Cyril Ramaphosa, will chair the meeting for the first time and focus on African development.

The 2018 BRICS Summit in Johannesburg, South Africa

Nelson Mandela’s birth centenary contextualizes this year’s BRICS summit. As South Africa hosts the summit following July 18’s Nelson Mandela Day, BRICS members will expand the meeting’s agenda to include human rights issues in an effort to embrace the “Mandela Spirit.”

President Xi Jinping will arrive prior to the summit’s commencement to discuss bilateral relations with President Ramaphosa. As China and South Africa share historic relations strategically, economically, socially and politically, the leaders will discuss continuing that cooperation in South Africa’s infrastructural development, following statements made by South Africa’s presidential spokesperson, Khusela Diko. President Xi’s travels to various African nations are a part of China’s “Belt and Route” initiative, which strives to link Eurasia to Africa in terms of energy and transportation, specifically through power plants, ports, railways and special economic zones. Prime Minister Modi will also meet with President Ramaphosa prior to the summit in bilateral discussions.

This year’s summit theme, “BRICS in Africa: Collaboration for Inclusive Growth and Shared Prosperity in the 4th Industrial Revolution,” reveals that South Africa hopes to leverage its hosting benefits for all Africans. President Ramaphosa has fed off of the Xiamen summit’s “BRICS-Plus” initiative by inviting other African countries to attend the summit, including Egypt, Angola and Zambia. Argentina, the head of this year’s G20 summit, Indonesia, a leading member of the ASEAN community, and Jamaica, the head of CARICOM, have also been invited to the summit. This is in an effort to use the international summit’s high level of interest to showcase the country’s capabilities and potential.

To prepare the developing world for the fourth industrial revolution, the summit will focus on intra-BRICS cooperation, trade imbalances and dissolving non-tariff trade barriers. Other BRICS agenda items include establishing a working group on peacekeeping, a vaccine research center, a gender and women’s forum, and a tourism cooperation track. The cooperation track is comprised of three aspects: formal diplomatic interactions between national governments, engagements via government-affiliated institutions such as state-owned enterprises and business councils and “people-to-people” civil societal interactions.

The five BRICS leaders will come to the summit with certain objectives. Brazilian president, Michel Temer, is expected to discuss Brazil’s trade imbalances with China while taking a less active role in the meeting as he will not run for re-election in 2018. Following fallouts with western leaders, Russian President Vladimir Putin will likely prioritize building stronger trading partnerships with fellow BRICS members and receiving loans from the New Development Bank to boost the Russian economy, following statements from the Russian Deputy Finance Minister. Prime Minister Modi is likely to discuss financing projects in Africa related to sustainable development, as well as furthering the bloc’s efforts in counter-terrorism. President Xi Jinping is anticipated to build upon last year’s summit by highlighting trade partnerships and China’s contributions to fund African development projects, in addition to criticizing American protectionism. South Africa will promote improved human rights in Africa, its cooperation track and improving African infrastructure and development.

On to Johannesburg

As the world’s semi-periphery countries convene in Johannesburg, BRICS leaders have agreed to collectively stand against trade protectionism in the face of American tariffs. BRICS members plan to build upon previous summits to ensure that emerging national economies can compete and grow into the future—even when facing economic downturns and a development headwind. To barricade nations against these development headwinds, trade cooperation and partnerships must be laid down, brick by brick. As the 2018 BRICS Summit takes place this week, the world will see how globalization and trade cooperation stack up against recent protectionist stances on the international stage.