Rajiv Bhatia / After Xiamen, a stronger BRICS?
The ninth BRICS summit represented the victory of pragmatism over narrow nationalistic impulses. All BRICS members are likely to craft the grouping’s future script as it enters its second decade, but more crucially, the Big Three will have to show a large dose of statesmanship
That the BRICS holds value as an instrument for managing vexed bilateral relationships among the grouping’s member-states was amply demonstrated at the ninth summit held at Xiamen last week (4 September 2017).
The diplomatic establishments of Russia, Brazil and South Africa remained transfixed by Doklam in the run-up to the event, wondering if the shadows of the India-China border stand-off would wreck the summit. The link between Doklam and Xiamen became clear when, within hours of the two countries reaching agreement to defuse the crisis, India formally confirmed Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s participation in the summit.
The day after the summit concluded, Xi Jinping and Modi held an important bilateral where they decided to cooperate on improving ties, trust and strategic communication between Beijing and New Delhi.
If BRICS served here as conciliator, its political role in the multilateral context stood strengthened when agreement was secured on the specific mention of at least 10 terrorist organisations that caused violence in the region. India’s insistence on the inclusion of the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed helped bridge differences between the Indian and Chinese sides: cooperation–or the lack of it–on counter-terrorism measures had somewhat marred last year’s summit in Goa.
While expressing “full confidence in the future of BRICS”, the leaders spelt out the key priorities clearly. They were: energise practical cooperation; enhance communication and coordination in improving global economic governance; cooperate to safeguard international and regional peace and security; and embrace cultural diversity and promote people-to-people exchanges to garner greater popular support for the idea and cause of BRICS.
Its political stand apart, the heart of BRICS’ cooperation in practical terms lies in the economic realm—and the Xiamen Declaration held enough indication of where the grouping was headed in the future even as it upheld past achievements, such as the New Development Bank (NDB) and the Contingent Reserve Arrangement (CRA). The broad ambition is to deploy “all policy tools” and adopt “innovation-driven development strategies” to enhance the resilience and potential of BRICS economies and contribute to the global economy.
From the Indian perspective, BRICS’ failure to launch the new credit rating agency and support the International Solar Alliance may have been disappointing, but the issues remain on the table.
It is also worth noting that China could not secure endorsement of its Belt and Road (BRI) initiative. The four agreements, signed at Xiamen, indicated future directions. They related to economic and trade cooperation, action plan for innovation cooperation, framework for customs cooperation, and arrangements of strategic collaboration between the NDB and the BRICS Business Council.
The central feature of BRICS remains unchanged: despite China’s overwhelming dominance in economic strength and resources, the other four members matter, because it is a grouping of equal sovereign nations. In reality, they are not equal, of course, with the three Eurasian powers, Russia, China and India, playing a more assertive role than the two smaller members, South Africa and Brazil. Diversity and difference keep them apart, but they are slowly learning to recognise that their agreements and shared interests are more important than what divides them. Xiamen represented the victory of pragmatism over narrow nationalistic impulses. If this orientation continues, BRICS should have a promising future.
The BRICS leaders, flying in the face of skeptics, endorsed strengthening people-to-people exchanges as a means to empower BRICS. The grouping has facilitated an impressive series of dialogues, meetings and other activities involving stakeholders in culture, education, science and technology, sports and health, and involved media organisations, local governments, political parties and think tanks. This is designed to create a strong constituency in each of the five countries in support of what BRICS stands for.
A word may be added here about ‘BRICS Plus’ on which much obfuscation was created in the months leading up to the summit. Did the Chinese really want to expand the membership of BRICS or did media reporting on the subject misinform? A clear answer is not available, but this turned out to be yet another outreach meeting, which has been a regular feature since 2013. This involved not China’s immediate neighbours, but a medley of its friends from different regions. The presence of leaders of Mexico, Egypt, Guinea, Tajikistan and Thailand seemed to have made little impact.
BRICS governments will need to pay closer attention to those who argue that BRICS’ development financing should now be extended gradually to its partners, the outreach countries, before they begin to take the grouping seriously. NDB’s future decisions on grant of loans will, therefore, be under scrutiny.
BRICS has a fairly decent record of progress to show in its first decade (2006-16). Will it advance into a second “Golden Decade?” China, the host nation, exuded much confidence. Russia shared this sentiment. India too was optimistic, but cautious.
All BRICS members are likely to craft BRICS’ future script, but a large dose of statesmanship on the part of the Big Three will be crucial.
Rajiv Bhatia is Distinguished Fellow, Foreign Policy Studies Programme, Gateway House. A former high commissioner to South Africa, he is an expert and regular commentator on BRICS-related developments.
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 Please see Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India, BRICS Leaders Xiamen Declaration, (New Delhi: Ministry of External Affairs, 2017), <http://www.mea.gov.in/Uploads/PublicationDocs/28912_XiamenDeclaratoin.pdf>
 President Xi Jinping observed: “Let us set sail from Xiamen and join hands to usher in the second “Golden Decade” of BRICS cooperation and deliver greater benefits to the people of our five countries and around the world.”
Office of the President, Government of the People’s Republic of China, Full text of President Xi’s speech at the Plenary Session of the BRICS Xiamen Summit, (Beijing: Office of the President, 2017), <http://en.people.cn/n3/2017/0904/c90000-9264302.html>
 President Putin said that he was convinced that the Xiamen Summit would “help invigorate our countries’ efforts towards finding solutions to the challenges of the 21stcentury and will propel cooperation within BRICS to a higher level.”Putin, Vladimir, “BRICS: Towards new horizons of strategic partnership”, The Times of India, 1 September 2017, < https://blogs.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/toi-edit-page/brics-towards-new-horizons-of-strategic-partnership/>
 Prime Minister Modi expressed the view that the next decade would be crucial. “If we at BRICS can set the agenda in these areas (i.e. stability, sustainable development and prosperity), the world will call this its Golden Decade.” Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India, Intervention by Prime Minister at the Plenary Session of 9th BRICS Summit, Xiamen, China (September 04, 2017), (New Delhi: Ministry of External Affairs, 2017), <http://www.mea.gov.in/Speeches-Statements.htm?dtl/28913/Intervention_by_Prime_Minister_at_the_Plenary_Session_of_9th_BRICS_Summit_Xiamen_China_September_04_2017>