Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa seek a multipolar world – but some argue they're bound by anti-Americanism.
Today's one-day annual summit of the so-called Brics countries – Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa – has received scant attention in the west. That may be because the grouping has achieved little in concrete terms since its inception in 2009. Critics deride it as a photo-op and talking shop.
But this neglect, or disdain, may also reflect the fact that the Brics, representing almost half the world's population and about one-fifth of global economic output, pose an unwelcome challenge to the established world order as defined by the US-dominated UN security council, the IMF and the World Bank. The truth of the matter probably lies somewhere in-between. The five national leaders – presidents Dilma Rousseff of Brazil, Dmitri Medvedev of Russia, Hu Jintao of China and Jacob Zuma of South Africa and their host in Delhi, India's prime minister Manmohan Singh – are not noted for iconoclastic radicalism.
Rousseff has been the most outspoken, insisting that developing countries must be protected from the global "tsunami" of cheap money, unleashed by the US and the EU in the wake of the financial crisis, that was rendering their exports less competitive. "We will defend our industry and prevent the methods developed countries use to escape from crisis resulting in the cannibalisation of emerging markets," she said this month.
> BRIC Map
Brics boosters project a grandiose vision. India's commerce secretary, Anand Sharma, said this week the group sought nothing less than "to create a new global architecture". But commentators interpret such ambitions as essentially anti-American hot air. Pointing to a signal lack of substantive policy agreements, they suggest a desire to counter Washington's global dominance is the Brics' sole unifying objective.
"There are calls to establish a permanent secretariat and even a development bank in an effort to bolster the grouping's political impact," wrote Walter Ladwig of the Royal United Services Institute. "But this focus on institution-building is misplaced. It is the fundamental incompatibility of the Brics nations, not their lack of organisation, which prevents [them] acting as a meaningful force on the world stage". Ladwig continued: "Beyond the issues of economic governance, in many key areas the Brics nations are actually in strategic competition. Within Asia, India and Russia are potential obstacles to China's presumed regional dominance. At the international level, Russia, Brazil and India desire the emergence of a multipolar international system in which they are major actors, with the latter two seeking membership in an expanded UN security council.
"In contrast, China aims for a bipolar world in which it serves as the counterbalance to American power." So far, Beijing has opposed India's bid for a permanent security council seat.
A joint declaration issued at the close of the summit found common ground in strongly criticising western economic policy. "It is critical for advanced economies to adopt responsible macroeconomic and financial policies, avoid creating excessive global liquidity and undertake structural reforms to lift growth that create jobs," it said. There was agreement, too, to press ahead with plans to create a "south-south" development fund that might one day rival the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank.
The Brics renewed their demand for expanded voting rights for developing countries in the IMF and challenged western policy on Iran, stressing that military action to curb Tehran's suspect nuclear activities was unacceptable and suggesting the group was not bound by a looming ban on Iran's oil exports. Both the Iran and Syria crises must be resolved diplomatically, it said.
"We must avoid political disruptions that create volatilities in global energy markets and affect trade flow... We must ensure policy coordination to revive economic growth," the Indian leader, Manmohan Singh said. Brics countries would increase co-operation on terrorism and piracy, he added. On UN security council reform, he appealed for the group to speak with one voice.
The Brics countries' ambition to change the world in their image raises questions of fundamental values as well as geopolitical influence. Key members China and Russia have a tenuous attachment, or none at all, to democratic principles such as free elections, free speech and free media. India, too, faces rising criticism about perceived attempts to muzzle open debate. Tibetan activists said about 250 people were jailed this week in an Indian government drive to pre-empt anti-China demonstrations. The approach to basic human rights taken by China and Russia, most recently in relation to the Syrian uprising, is not a paradigm that developing countries might happily adopt.
In similar vein, less powerful non-aligned states are wondering whether the rise of the Brics merely marks the emergence of another selfish global elite, which will pay no more attention to their interests than do the western powers. Sreeram Chaulia, an international affairs analyst in India, told the New York Times that many smaller, poorer developing countries, especially in Africa, were watching to see if the five nations can evolve into true advocates for non-western interests. Developing countries wanted a multipolar world, rather than one dominated by the United States "or, for that matter, by China," he said.