On the Relevance of BRIC…

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BRIC Leaders in 2008, courtesy of Kremlin Press and Information Office

On 16 April, the BRIC nations (Brazil, Russia, India and China) will meet in Brasilia. The group has managed to develop  a presence on the geopolitical stage in the past years and is increasingly able and willing to counter the influence of western power on various fronts. They share many characteristics and interest- primarily in the economic realm- and account for more than 40 percent of the world’s population and 25 percent of its land area.

The four are also pushing for a more multilateral world and use BRIC as a vehicle to pursue this end. The international community and media have enthusiastically embraced this concept and often view or treat the group as a coherent political actor, granting it clout and weight on the international stage.

But has the BRIC concept graduated from mere theory (and labeling) to real, actionable practice? Beyond the push for a more “multilateral world”, do the BRIC countries have much in common? Do they share anything beyond their inclusion in the 22  “emerging markets” index and perhaps most importantly, does the bloc have political relevance?

Even in numerical terms, the BRIC countries come across as a pretty varied bunch. The Human Development Index ranks Russia 71st, while India comes in at 134. The military expenditure of Brazil is less than one quarter of China’s and if we look at current account balances, China is in 1st place with India tails the list at 169. When it comes to public debt, India occupies the 29th position while Russia is much further down on the 117th spot.

Even in the area of population growth the picture is highly mixed. While the population of India is expected to double in the next 50 years, Russia’s population will drop by a quarter.

What about their foreign policies then?

China and Russia are both members of the UN Security council while Brazil and India are struggling to gain seats.  China is increasingly being seen as the main rival to the US, while Russia tries to hold on to the remnants of its former glory. As an old and bitter border conflict between China and India continues to fester unresolved and as tensions in the ocean space of the Asia-Pacific continue to rise, it is far from clear how aligned the national and foreign interests of the BRIC giants are now or will be in the future.

Even beyond shared interests, the very fact that China, India and Brazil are dynamic and rising, and Russia continues to battle its decline seems to negate the existence of a shared identity or vision for the bloc. Moreover, while Brazil and India are two functioning and efficient democracies, China continues to be a strictly authoritarian state, Russia inhabiting a middle ground between the two. As a result, the international respect each actor garners varies widely. Although China seeks engagement internationally it still faces significant obstacles, even fear, among neighbors. Brazil, on the other hand, is increasingly seen as an engaged and trustworthy regional leader.

While BRIC leaders might want to portray themselves as a unified group with clout and a shared vision for their countries,  the grouping remains a theoretical concept that relates to economic issues mainly and is merely a convenient (even in parts misleading) label for a group of leading emerging economies. I don’t believe it makes sense to discuss the policy relevance of the BRIC group. Not yet, anyway.

To move on from an alliance of “emerging markets” towards a new, powerful political group, Brazil, Russia, India and China need to define coherent political objectives that they all want to reach. This will require much more work than just meeting once a year. With a nominal GDP of more than $8’000 billion, the BRIC group clearly has the economic potential to become politically relevant, but does it have the political will to do so?

You can find a wealth of resources on BRIC in our digital library.

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