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The BRICS Summit at Durban and Beyond

John Kirton, Co-director, BRICS Research Group
Submitted for interview with Julia Netesova, Rosbalt, March 12, 2013

Россия – связующее звено БРИКС

The Significance of the Big, Booming, Broadening BRICS

The BRICS group of Brazil, Russia, India, China and now South Africa is still a significant and indeed strengthening forum, both among and for its own members and for global governance as a whole. It is big in the collective gross domestic product (GDP), territory, population, natural resources and geographic relevance and reach that its members possess. It is booming in its economic growth, for, despite the recent slowdown of all its members, China is bouncing back and together their growth rate beats that of the still beleaguered, often recession-ridden members of the G8 and Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). The BRICS is also broadening as an international institution, in its membership with South Africa added in 2011, in its agenda, and in the intensity and depth of its institutions as well.


What began in 2001 as a concept and accompanying acronym from Goldman Sachs executive Jim O'Neill has now become a global governance reality of considerable consequence for how the world works. It stands alongside the older G8 and G20 as a centre of global governance that counts.

BRICS Members' Views of their Group

Each of the five members has a common core in its concept of the BRICS club and distinctive difference that give it a diversity, dynamism and source of rich internal debate. All members are united in the common cause that gave the club its birth as a summit in 2009 — that the old centres of global financial governance had failed as the 2008 financial crisis showed, and that they should come together to lead in prompting or producing a reformed or alternative centre in which they would have a greater place, as appropriate for a newly multipolar world.

Within this commonality, as the newest, smallest member South Africa is most committed to making the club work, and making it work for South Africa and its neighbouring African continent as a whole. India, long a big, influential, well-connected global power, still needs the BRICS to help it get the investment for infrastructure that it needs at home and to get the coveted seat on the United Nations Security Council that it wants abroad. Similarly Brazil — also a member of the democratic IBSA forum with India and South Africa — wants the BRICS to help secure for it a bigger place at the old centres of global governance established in 1944-45 — in its case the International Monetary Fund. China, while big and booming enough to go it alone, still wants and needs the BRICS as a club that it can quietly lead from within, to assist it with its peaceful rise and its efforts to reform global governance as a whole.

The BRICS as Russia's Alternative Centre of Influence

In this configuration Russia is not only the founder of BRICS summitry, as host of the first summit in 2009, but also the great connector of the BRICS with the G8, with Russia joined as a full member in 1998, as well as a connector with the G20 forum. Russia is constantly seeking to make the BRICS work with the G8 and to make both work for the broader G20. Russia will see the BRICS as an alternative centre of influence if the G8 and G20 fail, which, thanks in part to Russia's efforts, they are unlikely to do.

The BRICS Becoming as Big as the West

Behind Russia's view lies in part the reality that the BRICS as a group is unlikely to become as big as the West now is. One must always beware of linear extrapolations of countries' rising relative capabilities, as those who proclaimed "Japan as number one" some decades ago know all to well. Once countries become bigger it is more difficult for them to keep growing in percentage terms as rapidly as they did when they were small. Moreover, the BRICS countries face many natural limits to growth — aging populations, natural resource constraints, and challenges of social cohesion and political stability. Moreover, some live in dangerous neighbourhoods where war could break out at any time. Democratic polities are the wave of the future, as of the past, and not all BRICS members are there yet.

BRICS Countries: Complementary Convergence Not Commonality

The BRICS countries, despite their diversity, do share many commonalities. But their strength lies primarily in their complementary convergence, as dramatically shown by China's need for South Africa's and Africa's resources, in return for Africa's need for Chinese investment. Yet to reap the rewards of complementary convergence, the interdependence among the BRICS countries must increase. Their trade and investment are still overwhelmingly with countries other than their fellow BRICS members, rather than with their colleagues within.

Beyond the BRICS Economic Agenda

The common view that the BRICS is largely and economic body is false. This impression is based on a dated carryover of the initial economic-centric logic identified by O'Neill in 2011. Since its start as a ministerial forum and as a summit, the BRICS has been a full-strength summit institution, covering finance and economics, social and environmental issues, and political-security ones. Of late it has done far more for global health than the G8, which has long had the lead in this domain. The analysis of the subjects covered in its annual summit communiqués, as assessed by the BRICS Research Group show how comprehensive its agenda has been and has become.

Prospects for the Durban Summit

Based on this foundation, the prospects for the forthcoming BRICS summit in Durban, South Africa on March 26-27, 2013, are promising indeed. In addition to its now normal contribution, South Africa's BRICS summit will add advances in three ways. It will allow South Africa to show its stuff as an accomplished, full-strength global power and player. It will demonstrate that the BRICS works not just for its big country members but for all of Africa and thus for the poorest countries and peoples in the world as well. And it will give birth to a BRICS development bank in some form.

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