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Key issues likely to dominate the 2017 BRICS Summit

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Key issues likely to dominate the 2017 BRICS Summit

30 Aug 2017

6min min read
  • Economic development

he ninth annual BRICS summit gets underway in Xiamen from 3 – 5 September under China’s chairmanship. This year’s theme is “BRICS: Stronger Partnership for a Brighter Future”. President Xi Jinping has outlined four priorities for the summit: 1) deepen BRICS cooperation for common development; 2) enhance global governance to jointly meet challenges; 3) carry out people-to-people exchanges to support BRICS cooperation; and 4) make institutional improvements and build broader partnerships.

What are the key issues that member states should prioritise? Five experts on Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa share their views. 

South Africa: Economic growth

South Africa is currently experiencing low economic growth. In 2016, gross domestic product grew at a mere 0.3%, with predictions for 2017 showing slow recovery at 0.8%. Latest employment figures (June 2017) also point towards challenges within the economy, with the unemployment rate at 27.7% – the highest since 2003. It will be pertinent to see how South Africa can leverage the BRICS relationship to assist in addressing its domestic economic constraints. 

The New Development Bank (NDB) could potentially have a significant impact by providing additional finance to South Africa, which can be leveraged to spur infrastructure investment which in turn creates demand for goods and services and creates jobs. The NDB recently pledged $1.5 billion over the next 18 months to develop infrastructure projects in South Africa. 

Other areas of cooperation, such as facilitating greater intra-BRICS investment, will be important. South Africa’s recently established investment one-stop-shop should assist in this regard. Actively advertising this mechanism will be important.

South Africa, along with the other BRICS, has signed the World Trade Organisation’s Trade Facilitation Agreement (TFA). The TFA aims to improve trade flows between countries by minimising bureaucracy. All the BRICS members except South Africa have also ratified the agreement. The country should expedite this process (that is already underway) to take full advantage of the TFA within the BRICS. 

For South Africa, challenges facing other African countries will also be high on the agenda – issues such as financing development efforts to meet the SDGs, infrastructure development and peace and security will be pertinent. 

 Cyril Prinsloo, researcher with the Economic Diplomacy Programme at the South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA). 

Russia: Institutional improvements, economic benefits

If we look at Russia’s involvement in the BRICS and its stake in the institution’s future, there are two major aspects to take note of.

The first is Russia’s interest in promoting further institutional development of the BRICS. Perceived by some analysts and policymakers as a bulwark against western influence, the BRICS has over the years managed to strengthen its cooperation frameworks across a significant number of policy areas and has begun reaching out to other major developing economies. One of China’s announced priorities – “making institutional improvements and building broader partnerships” – is clearly in line with what Russia has in mind for the BRICS.

The second aspect deals with more pragmatic considerations of drawing tangible economic benefits from participation in the group. In this regard, Russia needs to steer the BRICS agenda towards more effective and concrete cooperation on issues which represent structural bottlenecks for the country’s economy. For example, advancements on trade and investment policy coordination within the BRICS could complement and boost Russia’s export diversification efforts through fostering small and medium-sized enterprises’ access to foreign markets and their participation in global value chains.  

The priorities set by China for the 2017 BRICS are conducive to achieving both goals outlined above. The host wants to focus on boosting cooperation on core economic issues by building upon and furthering the implementation of plans such as the Strategy for BRICS Economic Partnership (adopted in 2015 under the Russian chairmanship). 

– Andrei Sakharov, researcher at the Center for International Institutions Research (CIIR) of the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration (RANEPA) and adviser of the International Relations Department of the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs.

China: Unity

The most important issue for China at this year’s BRICS summit is unity. As President Xi Jinping has put it, the BRICS are like five fingers, each with their own strength; when the BRICS come together, they pack a powerful punch. There are three aspects to this:

First, unity in spite of conflicts. Tensions between China and India, the two most populous countries in the world, recently escalated due to the re-emergence of months-long conflict over the Doklam Plateau. On Monday 28 August the two countries reportedly decided on “mutual disengagement” but a permanent solution is still required. At this summit, Beijing and New Delhi need to explore more effective ways of crisis management, since they are the only neighbouring countries within the BRICS with some unsolved historical and geopolitical issues.

Second, unity as one is power. The unity and stability of the BRICS group have been a source of confidence and “positive energy” in China and beyond, and is a kind of rare public good in this chaotic world. In recent years, many big "Black Swan" events have occurred, such as Brexit and Donald Trump’s US presidential election victory. 

Finally, unity after enlargement. After 10 years of development, the future direction of the BRICS is a hot topic. China’s foreign minister Wang Yi stated in March that the country will explore the modality of 'BRICS plus' by holding outreach dialogues with other major developing countries and organisations within them. I believe an expanded BRICS group could surely face more difficult internal integration challenges. 

 Zhu Ming, research fellow at the Center for West-Asian and African Studies & Institute for Global Governance Studies at the Shanghai Institutes for International Studies (SIIS).

India: Counter terrorism, institutionalised partnerships

In the wake of the recent Doklam Plateau standoff, India must be careful to uphold its international image and be pragmatic in its position during the summit. 

International terrorism is a key issue for India. It will seek strong co-operation on counter terrorism, including clamping down on terrorist networks, weapons and financing. In this regard, India will look forward to positive changes in China’s position on Masood Azhar and India’s bid to have him declared a global terrorist by the United Nations.

Another issue of importance for India is its trade deficit with China. In fact, all of the other BRICS countries have a trade deficit with Beijing and India will want to focus on reducing it through multilateral co-operation. India is also keen to see the BRICS rating agency accepted at the summit as it will reduce developing countries’ dependency on western credit ratings.

China has proposed a new ‘BRICS plus’ model, which will incorporate more countries from the global south and strengthen south-south cooperation. Arriving at a consensus on the viability of this concept, and on which countries will be invited to join, will be difficult. Should China try to bring its ally Pakistan into the grouping, India will protest.

The more co-operation and engagement is institutionalised in the BRICS, the lesser the likelihood of its failure. Indian policymakers are well aware that India needs the BRICS more than the BRICS needs India. Therefore, the country looks forward to a new decade of deepened, institutionalised partnership within the bloc.

  Raosaheb Bawaskar, chief executive officer and associate fellow and program director of China’s Global Strategy at the Mumbai School of Thoughts (MST), a foreign policy and global studies think tank. 

Brazil: Domestic concerns, sustainable development

The political and economic turmoil that has engulfed Brazil shows no signs of fading. The ‘fight against corruption’ led by the judiciary in coalition with segments of the media has backfired into a defensive posturing from all actors in the political system. Amidst polarised positions and a growing feeling of frustration, street activism has been replaced by apathy and resignation. 

To guarantee its very own survival, the current government, perhaps the most unpopular in Brazilian history, trades political support for the advancement of the interests of its most conservative allies.The result is a condescending response to and, in some cases, complicity in, serious human rights violations, from mass killings in prisons to massacres of rural workers and attacks against indigenous peoples. For the third consecutive year, Brazil has topped the list of countries with the highest number of homicides of human rights and environmental activists.

In this scenario of so many internal distractions, the crucial question is how Brazil will influence this summit's agenda. As a democracy (per most of the accounts), Brazil has often been portrayed as a member that would bring to the BRICS bloc a human-centred perspective to sustainable development. 

In Xiamen, the BRICS will discuss how a deepened partnership may pave the way for a “brighter future for economic development and social progress of all developing countries”. However, with no signs that Brazil is honouring, at home, its own constitutional values and its professed commitments to human rights and environmental protection, the group will be under additional pressure to explain to the international community how they are effectively contributing to the achievement of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

 Caio Borges, lawyer and coordinator of the Business and Human Rights Program at Conectas Human Rights in São Paulo

(Main image: Getty/AFP/Prakash Singh)

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of SAIIA or CIGI.