On 14th April 2011, China hosted the 3rd Heads of State Summit of the BRICS forum. The Summit was deemed to be a special event since it formally admitted a fifth BRIC member into its ranks. The entry of South Africa into this alliance has provoked a set of issues relating to the desirability of this African Nation fitting in with the other BRIC members.
Even though South Africa may be seen amongst certain quarters as perhaps punching above its weight, at the other end of the spectrum there is definitely a compelling counter view that the original fantastic four are also caught in their own struggle of who wields more influence than the other.
The BRICS certainly raises a significant issue of strategic influence between and amongst members. The difficulty with such a star studded group of countries is that each of them have entered the Forum as chief economies in their respective regions, notwithstanding as the major political regional powerhouses. And hence managing the egos and conflicts does invoke an inherently daunting task.
Nevertheless, Beijing has noted that the 3rd Summit comes at a critical juncture in the architecture of the international system. The Chinese authorities have labeled the Summit as instilling confidence, integrity and commitment towards strengthening the international governance structures and the multilateral order. This is deemed a priority that underlines the political agenda for the BRICS partners.
With China playing host, it will important to glean how Beijing manages to achieve consensus amongst its BRICS partners around such issues of core interests even after the Summit has come and gone.
At the cursory level there is general agreement amongst the BRICS countries regarding the normative issues and steps that should be undertaken towards reforming the international system and gaining fair representation for the South in strategic global decision-making bodies. This is indeed evidenced by the rhetorical platitudes, the common ideological identity and the principles of Non-Alignment that each member espouses in accordance with their historical leanings of South-South Cooperation.
Even on the economic front there is broad consent over how the power should be redistributed in the international financial institutions as well as the integration agenda of new actors.
Clearly, then, from this standpoint there is a shared purpose and vision between the BRICS members.
So Beijing does not have any difficulty here in terms of trying to leverage other partners. But where it does become hazy is when there are conflicting and overlapping interests which are not that neatly defined. Or where these interests are in conflict with the interests of other members states.
For now with BRICS being a new entity, there has been no real litmus test to gauge how the internal dynamics within the club may be affected and issues resolved when such circumstances arise.
Yet, like the G8 and other such groupings, one always gets the sense that there needs to be one country which takes the lead to influence and shape the institutional directives of the organizations.
In the in case of BRICS is it China?
Maybe from the position of economic weight, Beijing could be identified as playing such a role. But this definitely belies the terse undercurrents and salient features that characterize relations between and amongst the BRICS countries.
For one, China and India are not best friends. And therefore if China is seen as attempting to leverage its position in the club by using its rising soft power, New Delhi will not give in to such stage acting or manipulated control by Beijing.
Undoubtedly the sensitivities of Sino-Indian relations cannot be ignored within the confines of BRICS. Not only is there the sensitive historical issues of a border dispute, China’s more than cozy relationship with Pakistan, and the exiled presence of the Dalai Lama within India, but New Delhi is also aware of the image that it is playing in the shadows of, or seen as trying to catch up with, its East Asian neighbor.
Moreover, the Indian authorities are very aware that China has been in recent years putting on the charm offensive in its regional neighborhood and gaining significant diplomatic allies. Although both sides have downplayed the relevance of Beijing’s geo-political and economic maneuvers, which have extended from the South Asian sub-continent right down into the Indian Ocean Rim, Delhi is clearly frazzled by how this may impinge on its strategic interests within the Indian Ocean, which it considers as its most important commercial shipping lanes.
Second, there seems to be a contrived attempt to project a united front. Already there seems to be strains regarding China’s trade dynamic with its BRICS partners.
According to a recent Reuters report published on the eve of the Summit (13 April 2011: BRICS grapple with China’s Dominance: http://in.reuters.com/article/2011/04/13/idINIndia-56298320110413):
Cheap Chinese exports have decimated Brazil's shoe industry and South Africa's textile sector. India has slapped anti-dumping duties on an array of Chinese goods. Russia is sparring with Beijing over the price of oil it sells to China.
Such underlying tensions cannot be peppered over or dismissed as healthy competition. It does, however, highlight whether BRICS is really about Beijing trying to exert influence over its alliance partners or, if, indeed, it is seen by other partners as a way to reign in China’s economic prowess.
At the moment it is still early to determine China’s charm offensive in BRICS. Obviously being hosts of the 3rd Summit will be significant since it produced the first declaration of the Forum. This could be seen as China giving the Club more of an overall global identity.
But to gauge how much influence China can effect within BRICS will also entail asking the same question of China the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which was actually initiated at the behest of Beijing.
For now, perhaps Beijing will enjoy being just one of the players in BRICS.
Sanusha Naidu is a senior researcher in the African and the Global South unit in the Democracy Governance and Service Delivery Programme based at the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC).