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Paradox of an unlikely alliance

The first ten years of BRICS’ existence have not made it easy to define what BRICS is about. It is hardly a political organization, although it is more than just a forum for talks. Certainly, it is not a security organization, although at the 2015 BRICS summit in Ufa in Russia, Russia tried to bring BRICS and SCO closer to each other. Neither is it an economic cooperation organization or a free trade area. In internal BRICS trade China is an important partner to everyone else but, otherwise, mutual trade within BRICS is still insignificant. BRICS’ 11th Summit was held in 2019 in Brasilia, the capital city of Brazil. While the association has entered its second decade, it is still questionable whether it has come to stay, or whether its diversity will cause it to disintegrate. It is hardly ever mentioned in Western reports on the state of the world (see for instance, Global Trends, 2017; Global Trends to 2035,2017).

What we have learned from the first BRICS decade is that the five members have their own reasons to cooperate and that, as a group, BRICS is able to act in international fora. Many scholars argue that these reasons are not enough for a strong and viable political alliance and might drive the countries apart. For example, Katzenstein (1996) has argued that a strong alliance necessitates common culture, geographical proximity and a similar type of institution: BRICS can boast none of these.

For Russia, BRICS is an important element to balance the encroachment of the transatlantic world on its Western borders. It has brought Russia closer to China. In Russian world politics, BRICS is understood as an alliance by the major nonWestern powers against Western hegemony. Therefore, in the Russian imagination the goal of BRICS is to reorganize if not revolutionize the current international order (Novikov and Skriba, 2019: 587, 591).

For China, BRICS is a valuable tool to increase its own political weight to match its economic strength.This is not the only reason why BRICS matters for China. In the classical Chinese imagination, BRICS can be seen as one of the means to return China to the centre of world politics. At the same time, in Chinese foreign policy,

BRICS is hardly the top priority in transforming the international order. It is one element among others, like China-financed AIIB (Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank). According to some scholars, China’s main instrument in transforming the world is the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) (Xi, 2017). Others argue that for China’s foreign policy, BRICS is a mechanism to unite all major non-Western powers (Lukin and Xuesong, 2019: 622).

Russia and China are the strongest military powers in BRICS: of these two, only Russia is capable of confronting the United States. According to the traditional Chinese worldview, China’s own development is dependent on a stable and peaceful international order. Brazil and South Africa have an interest in BRICS for regional reasons. For both, cooperation with Russia, China and India can support their role as a potential regional leader. At the same time, membership in BRICS gives them a chance to participate in the construction of possible Asia-centric world order.

India is in a more complicated situation: it simply cannot stay outside and leave the gate open for a Chinese hegemony in Asia and maybe even in the future global order. For India, membership in BRICS allows it to keep an eye on China. For BRICS, India’s membership makes it hard to become an anti-Western coalition. This is because of India’s current close economic, political and cultural relations with the US, its participation in Quad (the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, which links it with Japan, Australia and the US) and strong commitment to the liberal international order (e.g., Pant, 2016;Juutinen, 2018).

Moreover, while BRICS political economies differ, for example, from the US economy and none are great fans of the Washington Consensus, this does not validate the hypothesis of systemic change or an alternative economic model (e.g., Muhr, 2016; Juutinen, 2019). Indeed, internally the BRICS are very different in terms of their economic structures. Russia is heavily dependent on its oil and gas exports and has a poorly diversified economy. India has a booming services sector but about half of its population survive on small-scale agriculture. There are as many poor Indians as there are Europeans all together, but there are also as many rich Indians as Germans. China, on the other hand, is the most important trading partner of all the major powers of the world and, while many are dependent on China, China is dependent only on a few. Interestingly, China’s economic ties are much closer to the European Union and US than to India, for example, or other BRICS countries. Indeed, China’s economic and military clout in South Asia intensifies the tension between the two (Pant, 2016).

In the context of integration theories, it is the diversity of BRICS members that makes the group a weak political actor. The diverse interests of its members make it complicated, if not impossible, for BRICS to define a coherent agenda and policy for changing the international order. However, BRICS has survived its childhood and is entering its teenage years. It has been argued that events in Eurasia have always defined world history (Frankopan, 2015; Cunliffe, 2017), and BRICS brings together huge parts of Eurasia. However, Islamic Central Asia, as well as the Islamic world in general, is outside the association. This may be changing, as China’s BRI brings Central Asia into close contact with BRICS. Russia’s interest in connecting

BRICS and the Eurasian Economic Union (the 2015 treaty which links Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia) has the same function.

BRICS diversity and the diverse interests of its members are not necessarily symptoms of weakness. The Xiamen summit in 2017 demonstrated how working together was important for BRICS members. Just a few days before the Xiamen summit, the potential conflict between India and China in Doklam on the border with Bhutan threatened the opening of the summit. To ensure the summit could go ahead, India and China found a solution, at least temporarily (Woody, 2018). BRICS and SCO are two of the few institutions where India and China are inclined to work together.

In forcing two of its members to settle their bilateral problems, the Xiamen summit demonstrated that BRICS still had a role. The interest shown by other countries in BRICS tells the same story. The Xiamen summit was organized in the form of BRICS+. China invited Egypt, Guinea,Tajikistan,Thailand and Mexico to participate in the summit. In addition to Egypt and Mexico, Argentina, Indonesia, Iran, Turkey and Nigeria are on the potential new members’ list. The next step could be to invite some of them as permanent observers.

In terms of China-India cooperation, another important achievement in Xiamen was the adoption of a mutual stance against terrorism. For the first time, the summit condemned Pakistan-supported terrorist organisations active in Kashmir (BRICS, 2017: Article 48). Here China took a stand against its all-weather friend Pakistan. China did this most likely to construct a peaceful context for advancing the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (part of BRI), which India sees with a great degree of suspicion, as it passes through the disputed area of Pakistan-administered Kashmir and ends up in the port of Gwadar, suitable not only for cargo but also for military purposes (Pant, 2016: 368, 369). Since then, India’s rapprochement with the US and China’s deepening ties with Pakistan may have disrupted this Sino-Indian understanding about terrorism, because neither one of the two summits after Xiamen mentioned Pakistan-supported or any other terrorist organization (BRICS, 2018:2019).

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