Language : English 简体 繁體
Foreign Policy

Trends and Challenges in BRICS Cooperation

Feb 29, 2024
  • Wang Youming

    Senior Research Fellow of BRICS Economic Think Tank, Tsinghua University

The enlargement of BRICS membership has empowered the concept of “greater BRICS cooperation,” and the political and academic domains of member countries have increasingly embraced this concept. Past experience suggests that “BRICS fever” tends to be transient, usually peaking around the time of the leaders’ summit. This year bucks the trend, as news coverage of BRICS started early — first of all because this is the first year of greater BRICS cooperation, which coincides with a complex geopolitical conflict involving Russia, which holds the BRICS presidency. The international community is particularly concerned about how President Vladimir Putin uses BRICS as a platform for diplomatic breakthroughs.

Second, news outlets are concerned about whether the expanded BRICS will be tainted with the political bias of counterbalance against the West, and whether the world will once again divide along the line of two parallel confrontational systems. Based on the statements of Russian dignitaries and officials and scholars of some BRICS member countries after taking the baton, some emerging developments are set to catch the limelight this year.

First is the question of whether substantive progress will be made on the BRICS payment system. Among the many items on the agenda of last year’s summit in South Africa, the establishment of a BRICS payment system attracted the most interest and broad consensus in both political and academic circles. BRICS countries are keen to further explore payment instruments under the guidance of the BRICS Payment Task Force to create a secure and inclusive payment system. Leaders tasked finance ministers and central bank governors to study local BRICS currency cooperation, payment instruments and platforms and submit a report to the leaders’ meeting in Kazan.

Russia has long suffered from the Western payment system, with its major banks banned from SWIFT settlements, seriously jeopardizing Russia’s financial stability and security. After taking over the presidency, Russia is naturally the most enthusiastic party promoting the establishment of a BRICS payment system. Russia’s central bank governor said that the country is discussing the possibility, with other BRICS members, of engagement in financial information transmission systems and optimization of international settlement methods. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said the Kazan summit will discuss payment system proposals.

Early this year, Iran, a new BRICS member, announced that it has connected to Russia’s interbank communication and transfer system, creating an alternative to the Western-controlled SWIFT system. Some scholars see Russia’s presidency of BRICS as a catalyst for change. It is expected that the creation of a new payment system will be a priority for BRICS, and efforts toward this goal are bound to accelerate under Russia’s stewardship.

Second is the question whether the BRICS Year under Russia will usher in a new wave of expansion. After the expansion of BRICS, 34 countries continue to express interest in joining. This shows that while the new government of Argentina led by Javier Millei threw the BRICS “gift package” out the window, it has not dampened others’ enthusiasm for joining the group. The fact that so many countries want to join BRICS at the same time is rare in the history of international multilateral mechanisms. As for the reason, Indian External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar hit the nail on the head. He commented on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference: “Thirty countries want to join, and that means BRICS must have something good.”

As to how such countries will be admitted, President Putin said that “BRICS will consider membership in one way or another, and will actively study the criteria for BRICS partner countries.” South Africa’s Minister of International Relations and Cooperation Naledi Pandor said that the BRICS foreign ministers are working on a model for partner countries to include the 17 countries that are not yet full members.

Thus, this year is bound to usher in a new wave of BRICS expansion, and some countries that do not meet the criteria for full BRICS membership will be involved in the form of BRICS partner countries. Whether or not some medium-sized powers and major oil powers such as Venezuela will join will be a focus. How much traction the BRICS expansion will gain will be a priority this year.

Third is the question of how the United States and the West will attempt to undermine the BRICS Russia Year. As the grouping has evolved over its 18 years of activity, the West’s attitude has changed from indifference to condescension to “sit-up-and-look.” Its approach to BRICS is no longer singled-minded smearing; instead, it has coordinated the use of pulling rank, driving wedges and resorting to coercion as it sees fit to hinder the growth of the group. 

Last year, during South Africa’s presidency, the West on one hand pressured some Global South countries not to join, while playing up the case brought up by the International Criminal Court against Putin in a bid to prevent South Africa from inviting him to participate in the BRICS Summit. This year, with Russia taking over the presidency and the Ukraine crisis still lingering, the West will continue to see it as a political must to suppress Russia.

Against this political background and with the U.S. election coming up, the BRICS Russia Year will not be smooth sailing. More maneuvers can be expected to deter Russia from leveraging BRICS as a platform to pull off diplomatic breakthroughs and to forestall the evolution of BRICS according to Russia’s intentions in a way that reshuffles the international power system. This may lead to a new international order that is no longer dominated by the West.

The scale effect of BRICS expansion will certainly help improve and balance the global governance structure, but it will also be difficult for the BRICS mechanism to circumvent some of the structural constraints and practical problems of the multilateral mechanism.

First, how can the BRICS be bigger and stronger? In the global multilateral group, most members share the common problem of “big scale, low efficiency.” Some multilateral mechanisms have even been reduced to “talk shop” because of their desire for grandeur. As the BRICS mechanism has entered the track of greater BRICS cooperation, concerns such as “more members, less consensus” and “more initiatives, less implementation” have risen — as well as the debate on the pros and cons of horizontal expansion and vertical deepening. Some scholars from member countries believe BRICS may suffer from the “big boat effect,” which means it will become increasingly unwieldy as it grows. These concerns and debates are rooted in hard experience and lessons learned.

Ensuring that BRICS cooperation grows in both breadth and substance remains a challenge. Figuring out how to seek common ground and resolve differences in the establishment of the BRICS unified market, the BRICS rating agency and BRICS secretariat will test the wisdom and courage of the political and academic circles of the member countries.

Second, when will BRICS be able to take in Indonesia, Turkey and other medium-sized powers to increase its appeal? New members, such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt and five other countries meet (to varying degrees) the gold standard. But BRICS has not extended to Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim country, as Indonesia has not yet submitted a written application to join — and the reason is self-evident. Its incumbent President Joko Widodo does not want to be subject to the pressure of choosing sides and is more inclined to play a unique role in ASEAN. President-elect Prabowo Subianto is more outspoken in saying that Indonesia does not want to join a group that aims to counter another group, as Indonesia wants to be friends with them all. In fact, even Saudi Arabia, which has already joined BRICS, has had similar concerns. Likewise, Turkey, a member of NATO, will think the same way. Therefore, how BRICS positions itself is crucial, as integrating some countries that meet its membership standards is a real challenge.

In a nutshell, as a cooperation mechanism that is quite different from the Western alliance system, BRICS has become more prominent. It is a multilateral mechanism that represents the Global South in the new round of reconfigured industrial and value chains, and it is also the main driver in the reconstruction of the century-old international order. Greater BRICS cooperation will undoubtedly promote the transformation of the global governance structure from its center/periphery model to an equality/common governance model.

You might also like
Back to Top