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QUAD and BRICS Want to Grow as U.S.-China Rift Deepens

Jun 11, 2022

As the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) becomes more institutionalized, the BRICS is raring to induct new members. These moves reveal how great powers compete to draw countries by their side as their rivalry deepens. On May 24, leaders of the United States, Japan, Australia, and India met in Tokyo to push for greater cooperation on maritime security, health, education, climate, cyber and space. Four days before the second in-person Quad leaders’ summit, foreign ministers and representatives from nine potential candidate countries joined the virtual BRICS Foreign Ministers meeting. Brazil-Russia-India-China-South Africa looks to grow. So does the Quad. 

The U.S. and China, informal leaders of Quad and BRICS respectively, are stepping on the gas to court countries far and wide. A week before President Joe Biden’s visit to South Korea and Japan, he hosted leaders from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Washington. The summit was the second of its kind since former President Barack Obama invited his Southeast Asian counterparts to Sunnylands in California in 2016. Two days after the Quad meeting in Tokyo, Beijing responded in kind. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi embarked on a ten-day eight-country tour of the Pacific Islands, starting with the Solomons and ending in East Timor, which recently concluded elections. Southeast Asia and Oceania have become key battlegrounds in the brewing diplomatic game between the two elephants. 

QUAD vs. BRICS: Tale of the tape 

While the Quad has been gathering steam and focusing on the Indo-Pacific, BRICS already boasts a longer continuous history, is more formal and farther in reach. The five-country club has been holding annual leaders’ summits since 2009. It set up its own bank, the New Development Bank (NDB), in 2014, which moved to its new headquarters in Shanghai last September. NDB already have regional offices in Africa (Johannesburg), Americas (Sao Paulo, with a sub-office in Brasilia), Eurasia (Moscow) and will soon open one in Gujarat to cater to financing needs in India and Bangladesh, In contrast, the recent Tokyo meet was just the second for the Quad since 2017. With no permanent secretariat and a fixed hub, the quartet has a long way to go to institutionalize and work on the ambitious goals it set out.

While the Quad can trace its origins to an ad-hoc group created in response to a devastating earthquake and tsunami in the Indian Ocean in 2004, the BRICS is more deliberate. The latter was born from a yearning to carve a greater role for emerging economies in reforming the global financial and economic architecture long dominated by the West. The Quad was revived in 2007 but had been on a hiatus until 2017. But China’s rise and its challenge to the prevailing geopolitical order have driven the Quad’s renewed vitality.

The Russia-Ukraine War, China’s activities in the South and East China Seas and Taiwan Strait, and its growing footprint in the Pacific provide much context for the Quad’s resurgence. Washington is working with European allies to isolate Russia for its attack against its neighbor and is putting Beijing’s continued trade with Moscow to notice. Concerns that the war in Ukraine may expand elsewhere breed regional anxieties. Fears that Russia’s assault may embolden the use of force to settle longstanding disputes in Asia’s hotspots send jitters to nations still reeling from the pandemic and burdened by the war’s impact on their energy and food supplies. China’s increasing military wherewithal and desire to seek strategic access overseas to secure its maritime traffic raised red flags from traditional Indo-Pacific powers.

Will security trump economics?

But overemphasis on security held back interest in the Quad, especially from countries not wanting to antagonize their burgeoning economic ties with China. Worries that it may become the nucleus of an Asian NATO made many cautious in engaging the foursome. But as tensions in intractable flashpoints and the menace of foreign illegal fishing grows, Quad’s maritime security pitch resonates. One of the key outcomes of the recent Quad meeting was the Indo-Pacific Partnership for Maritime Domain Awareness. The initiative leverages data obtained from commercially-available technologies and regional information fusion centers to provide near real-time monitoring of waters in Southeast Asia, the Pacific Islands, and the Indian Ocean. This can help coastal states combat illegal and unsustainable fishing, as well as gray zone actions by state-backed maritime actors. 

This said, the Quad’s prospects for expansion remain hinged on its ability to offer more than security goods. For instance, South Korea, New Zealand, and Vietnam took part in a Quad Plus format in 2020 to discuss ways to deal with the pandemic. To this end, vaccine provision, infrastructure and climate change solutions, and asserting leadership in updating and defending norms in cyber and space domains are welcome developments in its evolution. The four countries are also investing in human capital development, offering fellowships in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. This can help ensure a competitive edge in innovation as Beijing ramps up spending on research and development and attracts foreign experts. 

BRICS, on the other hand, shows how an economic club may have better chances of enticing new members. Argentina, Egypt, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Nigeria, United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Senegal, and Thailand participated in recent consultations. In fact, UAE along with Bangladesh and Uruguay became the first expansion members of BRICS’ NDB, last September. But the timing may also make even keen parties cautious. Indonesia is hosting the G20 summit in Bali this November and is doing its best to insulate the meeting from politics. Argentina’s bid may also trouble its ties with the U.S. which will host the Summit of the Americas on June 6-10 in Los Angeles. China’s push for expanding BRICS’s roster may alleviate external pressures on its relations with Russia and its own actions in disputed spaces with neighbors. But doing so may cause rupture among the world’s biggest economies. If South Korea finds affinity with the Quad on the one hand and Argentina, Indonesia, and Saudi Arabia join the BRICS on the other, G20 may be polarized by the conflict in Ukraine or China’s behavior in contested areas. 

Thus, talks of a Quad Plus or BRICS Plus reflect how these groupings figure in the great power contest that is likely to be a fixture in international relations in the years to come. 

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