– As the leaders of the BRICS five meet in the Russian city of Ufa for their annual summit Jul. 8–10, their agenda is likely to be dominated by economic and security concerns, triggered by the continuing economic crisis in the European Union and the security situation in the Middle East.
The seventh annual summit of the large emerging economies – Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa – also takes place with a background of escalating tensions between Russia and the West over Ukraine and the eastward expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), as well as the growing economic power of Asia, in particular, China.
Nearly a decade and a half has passed since the BRIC acronym was coined in 2001 by Jim O’Neill, a Goldman Sachs executive, now a minister in David Cameron’s U.K. government, to refer to the four fast-growing emerging markets. South Africa was added in 2011, on China’s request, to expand BRIC to BRICS.
Although in operation as a formal group since 2006, and holding annual summits since 2009, the BRICS countries have escaped much comment in international media, partly because of the different political systems and socio-cultural norms, as well as stages of development, within this group of large and diverse nations.
The emergence of such groupings coincides with the relative economic decline of the West.
This has created the opportunity for emerging powers, such as China and India, to participate in global governance structures hitherto dominated by the United States and its Western allies.
That the centre of economic gravity is shifting away from the West is acknowledged in the view of the U.S. Administration of Barack Obama that the ‘pivot’ of U.S. foreign policy is moving to Asia.
And there is evidence of this shift. In the Fortune 500 ranking, the number of transnational corporations based in Brazil, Russia, India and China has grown from 27 in 2005 to more than 100 in 2015. China’s Huawei, a telecommunications equipment firm, is the world’s largest holder of international patents; Brazil’s Petrobras is the fourth largest oil company in the world, while the Tata group became the first Indian conglomerate to reach 100 billion dollars in revenues.
Since 2006, China has been the largest holder of foreign currency reserves, estimated in 2015 to be more than 3.8 trillion dollars. According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), China’s gross domestic product (GDP) surpassed that of the United States in 2014, making it the world’s largest economy in purchasing-power parity terms.
More broadly, the major countries of the global South have shown impressive economic growth in recent decades, prompting the United Nations Development Programme to proclaim The Rise of the South (the title of its 2013 Human Development Report), which predicts that by 2020 the combined economic output of China, India and Brazil will surpass the aggregated production of the United States, Britain, Canada, France, Germany and Italy.
Though the individual relationships between BRICS countries and the United States differ markedly (Russia and China being generally anti-Washington while Brazil and South Africa relatively close to the United States and India moving from its traditional non-aligned position to a ‘multi-aligned’ one), the group was conceived as an alternative to American power and is the only major group of nations not to include the United States or any other G-7 nation.
Nevertheless, none of the five member nations are eager for confrontation with the United States – with the possible exception of Russia – the country with which they have their most important relationship. Indeed, China is one of the largest investors in the United States, while India, Brazil and South Africa demonstrate democratic affinities with the West: India’s IT industry is particularly dependent on its close ties with the United States and Europe.
Although the idea of BRIC was initiated in Russia, it is China that has emerged as the driving force behind this grouping. British author Martin Jacques has noted in his international bestseller When China Rules the World, that China operates “both within and outside the existing international system while at the same time, in effect, sponsoring a new China-centric international system which will exist alongside the present system and probably slowly begin to usurp it.”
One manifestation of this change is the establishment of a BRICS bank (the ‘New Development Bank’) to fund developmental projects, potentially to rival the Western-dominated Bretton Woods institutions, such as the World Bank and the IMF. Headquartered in Shanghai, China has made the largest contribution to setting it up and is likely that the bank will further enhance China’s domination of the BRICS group.
Beyond BRICS, Beijing has also established the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), which already has 57 members, including Australia, Germany and Britain, and in which China will hold over 25 percent of voting rights. Two other BRICS nations – India and Russia – are the AIIB’s second and third largest shareholders.
Such changes have an impact on the media scene as well. As part of China’s ‘going out’ strategy, billions of dollars have been earmarked for external communication, including the expansion of Chinese broadcasting networks such as CCTV News and Xinhua’s English-language TV, CNC World.
Russia has also raised its international profile by entering the English-language news world in 2005 with the launch of the Russia Today (now called RT) network, which, apart from English, also broadcasts 24 hours a day, 7 days a week in Spanish and Arabic.
However, as a new book Mapping BRICS Media – which I co-edited with Kaarle Nordenstreng of the University of Tampere, Finland – shows, there is very little intra-BRICS media exchange and most of the BRICS nations continue to receive international news largely from Anglo-American media.
The growing economic cooperation between Moscow and Beijing – most notably in the 2014 multi-billion dollar gas deal – indicates a new Sino-Russian economic equation outside Western control.
Two key U.S.-led trade agreements being negotiated – the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) and the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), and both excluding the BRICS nations – are partly a reaction to the perceived competition from nations such as China.
For its part, China appears to have used the BRICS grouping to allay fears that it is rising ‘with the rest’ and therefore less threatening to Western hegemony.
The BRICS summit takes place jointly with Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) Heads of State Council meeting. The only other time that BRICS and the SCO combined their summits was also in Russia – in Ekaterinburg in 2009.
Apart from two BRICS members, China and Russia, the SCO includes Kazakhstan, Kyrgystan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. SCO has not expanded its membership since it was set up in 2001. India has an ‘observer’ status within SCO, though there is talk that it might be granted full membership at the Ufa summit.
Were that to happen, the ‘pivot’ would have moved a few notches further towards Asia.
Edited by Phil Harris
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, IPS – Inter Press Service.