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Prospects for the 2018 Johannesburg Summit

Alissa Xinhe Wang, BRICS Research Group
June 21, 2018

On 25-27 July 2018, the tenth annual stand-alone BRICS summit will take place in Johannesburg, South Africa. In the aftermath of the G7 summit in Charlevoix, Canada, on 8-9 June 2018, and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit in Qingdao, China, on 9-10 June 2018, several pressing issues stand out. The G7 and SCO summits both took a common stance on the security of the Korean peninsula, pushing toward the denuclearization of North Korea. However, divisions at and after G7 summit left open the possibility of a trade war, and the SCO summit was divided over China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The upcoming BRICS summit, shaped by these pressing global challenges as well as its unique position in the network of global summit institutions, is expected to produce a rich, targeted and productive discussion on the most imminent issues of the day.

First, in the economic sphere, the issue of international trade was left largely unresolved by the G7. Not only was trade one of the most divisive issues from the start of the G7 summit, but the G7 communiqué, which appeared unanimous at first, was rapidly repudiated by U.S. president Donald Trump shortly after the summit in Twitter posts expressing anger at Canadian and European trade policies. Trump's withdrawal of U.S. endorsement of the G7 communiqué immediately brought trade back as one of the most pressing tensions in the global economy. On the other hand, the SCO summit declaration produced a stronger and much more concerted statement on international trade, saying that "the Member States stand for the joint forming of an open world economy, the consecutive strengthening of an open, inclusive, transparent, nondiscriminative and multilateral trade system based on rules, as well for the prevention of fragmentation of international trade relations and rejection of any forms of trade protectionism." By implication it voiced support for China in its trade dispute with the United States. The upcoming BRICS summit, especially after the recent U.S. imposition of tariffs on China, will likely build on the strong statements from the SCO summit and reaffirm the position of developing countries and emerging economies as the new guardians of an open world economy.

On security, the most imminent issue remains that the denuclearization in North Korea. The G7 unanimously called on North Korea to "to completely, verifiably and irreversibly dismantle all of its weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and ballistic missiles as well as its related programs and facilities." The SCO summit declaration produced a similar, albeit more toned-down, statement, advocating "the settlement of the situation on the Korean Peninsula solely through a political and diplomatic approach based on dialogue and consultations." It voiced its members' support of "the peace initiatives of the international community, including those of Russia and China, aimed at the normalisation of the situation, including the denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula, and securing long-term peace in Northeast Asia." In addition to the shared if distinctive security approach of the G7 and SCO summits, a historic summit between the U.S. and North Korean leaders took place in Singapore on 12 June 2018, which set the stage for more normalized relations between the countries. This was followed by another meeting between the leaders of North Korea and China in Beijing, where China expressed approval of the détente in the U.S.-North Korea relationship. With this coinciding security approach of the summit institutions and their members, the BRICS leaders have a firm foundation and will likely made stable progress on normalizing relations with North Korea and gradually achieving the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.

The most challenging and divisive issue on the table will likely be related to China's Belt and Road Initiative. This division was foreshadowed at the SCO summit. While the so-called Shanghai Spirit of mutual respect, win-win cooperation and shared development shaped the overall atmosphere in Qingdao, the section of the final declaration regarding members' support for the BRI was not endorsed by India. Indian prime minister Narendra Modi said that India "welcomes new connectivity projects that are inclusive, sustainable, transparent, and those that respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of nations." India is concerned about sovereignty because the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor — a portion of the BRI — passes through the disputed region of Kashmir. However, even against this backdrop, Modi reiterated that "connectivity with SCO and neighbours is a priority for India." Thus, while there were unresolved disputes, there was no fundamental disagreement in principle. Getting unanimous support from the BRICS for China's BRI will be a challenge, but not an impossible one. Furthermore, in Canada for the outreach session of the G7 summit, South African president Cyril Ramaphosa used his visit to engage with the business community to attract investment to South Africa as a part of his broader plans to grow the economy, create jobs, and reduce poverty and inequality. In this drive to attract investment into South Africa, China's BRI is an important opportunity and Ramophosa will likely push for an even greater boost from the forthcoming BRICS summit coming up. Whether the Johannesburg Summit accomplishes unanimous support for the BRI will be a key factor in determining its overall success.

Overall, the BRICS summit in Johannesburg will provide both challenges and opportunities. As a coalition of the world's leading developing countries, the upcoming summit provides yet another opportunity to make clear the members' united stance in safeguarding an open world economy amidst the fragmentation in the western world. The Johannesburg Summit is also likely to make solid progress on security, given the recent boosts from the G7 and SCO summits, as well as the bilateral meetings with North Korean president Kim Jong-Il. The BRI will likely be the most divisive issue on the agenda, but could also provide an opportunity for this summit to be a significant milestone for economic development, infrastructure investment, as well as connectivity and cooperation in the developing world.

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The BRICS Research Group is grateful to the
University of Toronto's Asian Institute and Department of Political Science
for their support of its research on the 2018 Johannesburg Summit.

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Alissa Wang
Alissa Wang is the chair of summit studies for the BRICS Research Group, and a research assistant at the G7 Research Group, the G20 Research Group and the Global Health Diplomacy Program, based at the Munk School of Global Affairs in Trinity College at the University of Toronto. She is pursuing a combined JD/PhD degree in political science with a focus on international relations and comparative politics. She was an editor for the reports produced by the G20 Research Group summit studies team, an analyst for the G7 Research Group summit studies team, and works on compliance research. Alissa is interested in Chinese history and politics as well as China's role in global governance. She was a member of the field teams at the G7 summits at Schloss Elmau in Germany in 2015, in Ise Shima in Japan in 2016 and in Charlevoix in 2018, and at the G20 summits in Hangzhou in China in 2016 and Hamburg in Germany in 2017.

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