When the leaders of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa met for a day-long summit in the south China resort city of Sanya last week, they may all have privately marvelled at quite how quickly their small group has risen to become one of the world’s most influential international concepts.
Indeed, the summit—only the third in the group’s history and the first in which South Africa has participated—overshadowed the concurrent meeting of the G-20, which is now seen as the world’s official collective manager of the global economy. Yet despite the media hoopla that now surrounds BRICS, there are some serious issues facing the collective if it wants to build on its success.
On paper, BRICS certainly has considerable potential. Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa are influential actors at the regional level, with their combined populations amounting to nearly three billion people; they account for one-quarter of global gross national output and possess much of the world’s stockpiles of key national resources.
BRICS governments also share a commitment to state sovereignty, a multi-polar world in which no single country dominates, and respect for the authority of the United Nations. At the closing news conferences at Sanya, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev declared that, ‘We must act to boost the potential of the United Nations, and to ensure that all the decisions adopted by the UN General Assembly and UN Security Council are effective and respected.’
But by going on to note the position of Russia and China as veto-wielding permanent members of the Security Council, Medvedev also drew attention to one of the biggest challenges facing BRICS—the frequently diverging interests of its two most powerful members.
Of course, you wouldn’t know this judging by the rhetoric of Chinese and Russian writers, who have been keen to laud the BRICS’ rise. ‘The current global economic order, established over decades after World War II, had long been dominated by developed countries,’ one Chinese commentator wrote explaining BRICS’ importance. ‘The arrangement had worked for decades, but appeared increasingly incompetent in the past decade as the rise of major emerging economies dramatically changed the world economic landscape.’
Russian analyst Leonid Ivashov, meanwhile, argued that ‘the agreements sealed in Sanya represent a serious bid to reconfigure today's world.’ He added: the ‘process…helps Russia both maintain its status in international politics and preserve its statehood and territorial integrity.’
But despite such effusive praise on both sides, the reality is that the Sino-Russian relationship can hardly be described as harmonious. Despite years of negotiations, Russian and Chinese energy companies have proved unable to reach agreement on the appropriate price the Chinese should pay for natural gas imports from Russia. And, although their oil ties have seen greater progress, the Russians now believe the Chinese are underpaying them for these deliveries. In addition, Chinese and Russian officials have repeatedly announced grandiose oil and natural gas deals that, until recently, have failed to materialize.