October 12, 2022

The BRICS, a bloc comprising Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa, has in its short existence rapidly expanded its diplomatic activities, advocated a larger voice in global economic and security forums for its members, and created brand new financial institutions. The member countries share a desire for the world to accord them a larger role, but despite their common platform for global reform, two of the five—China and India—have some deep differences between them.

From September 3 to 5, national leaders will gather in Xiamen, China, for the Ninth BRICS Summit. All eyes will be on the interaction between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, whose troops up until a few days ago were locked in a months-long standoff high in the Himalayas. The frosty bilateral security relationship has at times threatened to overwhelm their common pursuits.

The Origin of the BRICS

The conversion of the “BRICs” from an idea, originally coined in two early-2000s Goldman Sachs papers, into an institution began with the meeting of the then leaders of China, India, and Russia (Hu Jintao, Manmohan Singh, and Vladimir Putin) on the margins of the 2008 Group of 8 (G8) meeting in St. Petersburg. (Russia was a member of the G8 before its 2014 expulsion over its invasion of Ukraine’s Crimea, and India and China attended the gathering as part of G8 “outreach” to emerging economies.) The following year, the first summit of “BRICs” countries, excluding South Africa, took place in Russia. In 2010, at a foreign ministers’ meeting, the initial four agreed to invite the African nation; by its 2011 summit, the five-country organization

“BRICS” as a shorthand nicely encapsulates the rise of emerging markets around the world. But it’s less clear whether this grouping also provides durable common interests for a multilateral organization, especially given the vast economic differences among the five. China and Russia, of course, enjoy two of the five permanent seats on the UN Security Council (P5), so they already participate in global security governance in a qualitatively different manner than their BRICS peers. Additionally, the pair—particularly China under Xi Jinping, and Vladimir Putin’s Russia—represent authoritarian systems of government, not democracies. For this reason, India, Brazil, and South Africa have their own separate trilateral consultation known as the “IBSA Dialogue Forum.”


What Does the BRICS Do?

In the early days, at least if assessed by their joint statements issued at summits, the BRICS focused on highlighting the need for emerging powers to have a greater voice in global governance.

In the wake of the global financial crisis, the 2009 joint statement contained strong declarations on the importance of coordinating financial policy through the G20. But it also made several specific points about the need to reform international financial institutions to create “greater voice and representation” for emerging economies, including a more transparent process for leadership selection. These statements also addressed the longstanding traditions in which the World Bank’s president has been an American, the IMF’s Managing Director a European, and the developed Western economies have had the most weight in the voting and quota shares.

The third summit’s joint statement (2011) included the phrase that “China and Russia reiterate the importance they attach to the status of India, Brazil, and South Africa in international affairs, and understand their aspiration to play a greater role in the UN.” That said, neither China nor Russia appear to have actually done much to help their BRICS compatriots join them as permanent members of the Security Council. By the fourth summit, held in New Delhi in 2012, the collective arrived at the phrase that echoes in many subsequent communications: the BRICS represents “43 percent of the world’s population,” signaling clearly their concern for more representation in global institutions.

With each passing year, the BRICS diplomatic calendar has expanded, with a host of interactions to both coordinate policy positions as well as expand official and people-to-people dialogue, generally on non-contentious topics. What began with summit-level gatherings and, separately, meetings of foreign ministers, now includes meetings during the year for finance ministers and central bank governors, national security advisors, science and technology ministers, agriculture ministers, environment ministers, disaster response authorities, health ministers, labor ministers, a Business Council, a Think Tanks Council, a Parliamentary Forum, a Culture Festival, and a “Friendship Cities and Local Governments Cooperation Forum.” In turn, the joint statements have ballooned to reflect all this activity: last year’s ran twenty-seven pages, and in 2015


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