Increased cooperation between the BRICS will reshape geopolitics more than the world economy. In 2018, China and India grew by 6.6 and 7 percent respectively, while the Russian economy grew by 2.3 percent. In the same year, Brazil recorded 1.1 percent annual growth, and South Africa stagnated at .8 percent. As a comparison, a weakening Eurozone grew by only 1.9 percent. Therefore, the distribution of economic potential among the BRICS is unequal. Their true collective strength is the mutual desire to reform the prevailing international system.
For Russians and other Eurasians, the West once symbolized economic opportunity. However, Russians now look eastward to China, where monthly salaries are twice the amount. While the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) helped grow Chinese towns like Manzhouli and Harbin, economic cooperation and the recent strategic partnership between Beijing and Moscow will also revise the geopolitical order. Since the 1990s, China and Russia increased cooperation on strategic geopolitical issues and diplomacy at forums like the United Nations. Russia leverages natural resources, while the Chinese direct investment to expand geopolitical influence around the globe. Look to the Middle East, Central Europe, the Balkans, and Latin America, and you will find Chinese money and reemerging Russian diplomatic influence. In Brazil, Chinese investment totaled $58 billion between 2007 and 2018, 40 percent of which came from state-owned firms. As Brazil’s largest trading partner, Beijing enjoys reciprocal diplomatic support on domestic issues in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Tibet, and Xinjiang. While their economies are not growing at similar rates, the BRICS countries share a common understanding of sovereignty and territorial integrity central to the future of international relations.
Therefore, the BRICS are a collective unit of regional powers within the broader leadership of Sino-Russian cooperation. The emerging world, regardless of the hard-economic indicators, is more politically active in Latin America, the Middle East, and Central and Eastern Europe than ever in recent history. While China and India lead in economic development and the United States and European Union stagnate, the remaining BRICS expand diplomatic and political influence at the expense of the declining western world order.
The BRICS currently account for about a quarter of global GDP, which increased ten percentage points over the last decade. The World Bank argues that for the first time in history, overall global income inequality decreased. Ahead of the 11th BRICS Summit, which occurred in mid-November in Brasília, Brazil, Bloomberg accurately noted that the “BRICS is About Geopolitics, Not Economics.” With increased wealth, the BRICS assume greater responsibility and influence on the international stage. Since 2000, the US and EU share of global economic output fell from 43.96 percent to 31.47 percent, while the BRICS collectively increased production from 19.24 percent to 32.60 percent, almost exclusively due to China and India. The Brazilian, Russian, and South African shares of growth actually declined. Since the BRICS are not liberal democracies, their emerging economic and geopolitical influence revises US-led international norms.
At the summit, BRICS representatives reiterated the importance of changing international relations for the benefit of emerging economies. For example, Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently emphasized the importance of ‘reforming multilateralism.’ During a recent Financial Times interview, Russian President labeled liberal democracy as "obsolete." When the Indian leader last met with Putin, he stated that Russia and India “are both against outside influence in the internal matters of any nation,” alluding to India’s recent conflict with neighboring Pakistan. In Brazil, President Jair Bolsonaro actively criticizes western NGO and media coverage of the latest Amazon fires. In October, Chinese Vice President Wang Qishan met with South African Vice President David Mabuza, where they cemented cooperation on diplomacy, the economy, science, energy, education, and natural resources.
Further, Chinese representatives disapprove of US unilateralism and trade protectionism. Instead, Beijing encourages multilateralism, the authority of the United Nations, increased free trade and investment, and the construction of a shared global economy. Even though the economies of the BRICS nations are noticeably different, their political ideologies support an international system rooted in the nation-state and opposed to US global hegemony. In short, the more the US flirts with economic nationalism under the Trump administration, the more populists in the emerging world, from Brazil to India and Russia, advocate for multilateralism led by power centers in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, and independent from Washington’s control.
‘Pragmatic cooperation,’ as advocated by Chinese representatives, requires flexible and open multilateralism in a global system comprised of nation-states that should not meddle in the domestic affairs of other countries. Criticism of the West for supporting oppositional sentiments on issues ranging from Hong Kong’s protests, Moscow’s local elections, and the Amazonian rainforest bind the BRICS together, and an anti-western sentiment among the BRICS led to the construction of alternatives to US-built international institutions. For example, the New Development Bank, designed to finance BRICS projects, sought to replace the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. The bank, alongside a $100 billion special currency reserve fund, aims to promote favorable political interests for the bloc abroad. In information technology, the BRICS plan to build an optical-fiber cable system for secure telecommunications communication between BRICS countries, safe from the infiltration of western intelligence agencies. A similar reason to fear eventual Eurasian economic integration, the BRICS countries account for more than 25 percent of Earth’s landmass and 40 percent of its population.
The expanding economic and political influence of the BRICS encourages a pragmatic anti-western sentiment in places like Central and Eastern Europe. In Poland, the economy grows under a nationalist leader as Hungary boasts a stable economy under populist Prime Minister Viktor Orban. Neighboring Serbia just inked a deal to enter the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) after increased pressure from the European Union on its Kosovo issue, a dispute for which Belgrade enjoys diplomatic support from both Beijing and Moscow. In a recent Open Society poll of around 12,500 citizens in Central and Eastern Europe, a majority of respondents in Slovakia (61 percent), Hungary (58 percent), Romania (58 percent), Bulgaria (56 percent), Germany (52 percent) and Poland (51 percent) believed democracy was under threat. During a general contraction of western economies, especially evident in Germany, Chinese representatives advocate for greater BRICS involvement in global hotspot areas, notably the Persian Gulf, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, and Afghanistan. The BRICS focus on trade and investment facilitation, digital economy, and local currency settlement; all moves opposed to the maintenance of the current US dollar-dominated world economy. Recent deals between China, Iran, and Russia also pushed for settling transactions in local currencies. Catering to like-minded politicians in Central and Eastern Europe and the Middle East, China recently called for “BRICS Plus” cooperation to expand its overall ‘circle of friends.’ At the last summit, the BRICS discussed digital economies, transnational crime, money laundering, and cooperation between the New Development Bank and the BRICS Business Council. However, the overarching theme was one of geopolitical strategizing outside of the purview of Washington’s direct control.