What about the 2017 BRICS summit?

By Rafiq Raji, PhD

The BRICS group of five emerging economies (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) held its 9th summit in the Chinese city of Xiamen this year (3-5 September). Originally just an idea by former Goldman Sachs (an investment bank) executive Jim O’Neill in a 2001 publication dubbed “Building Better Global Economic BRICs”, BRICS countries today constitute almost a quarter of global output. They have not proved to be as inspiring since those heady days, though. Since its first substantive summit in June 2009, only China (GDP: US$11.2 trillion) and India (GDP: US$2.3 trillion) have proved to be consistent good performers, albeit China has since 2015 adjusted to a new normal of below 7 percent growth. India is forecast by the IMF to continue powering on above 7 percent, though; over the next two years, at least, after a 7.1 percent headline in 2016. But that is where the good story ends. Brazil (GDP: $1.8 trillion) only emerged from a 2-year recession (the longest in its history) in the first quarter of 2017. And South Africa (GDP: $0.3 trillion) exited a relatively short-lived one in the quarter afterwards.

Mostly about China
The 2017 meeting was somewhat overshadowed by coincidental negative global geopolitical happenings; top among them being the firing in late August 2017 of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) over Japan by the communist North Korean regime of Kim Jong-un. China, which consititutes more than 60 percent of BRICS output, was called on by world powers to reign in the North Korean regime, which depends a great deal on it for sustenance. Naturally, the key headline from the final communique was related to the crisis. In any case, BRICS has become a veritable platform for China to project power and influence, as it seeks to have more say in international affairs. (As the second largest economy in the world, China would like the IMF to be more representative of the new global economic order, for instance.) And judging from the paltry US$80 million funding commitment ($76 million for an economic and technological cooperation plan and $4 million for projects by the group’s development bank) China made at this most recent BRICS summit, the group probably serves no greater purpose than that; especially when you consider its US$124 billion funding commitment in May 2017 to its ambitious Belt and Road initiative or so-called new Silk Road plan. (It did pledge $500 million for a South-South cooperation fund, though.) As a counterweight to recent American insularity, China used the occasion to once again make the case for globalisation and climate change; two major global issues the Americans have been reluctant to show leadership on under its current president, Donald Trump. Specifically, Chinese president Xi Jinping posited the group “should push for an open world economy, promote trade liberalization and facilitation, jointly create a new global value chain, and realize a global economic rebalancing”. 

BRICS plus
The 2017 summit had one major distinction though. It was its largest gathering yet, with non-BRICS countries like Guinea, Mexico, Egypt, Thailand, and Tajikistan in attendance as observers. Their presence was informed by a so-called “BRICS-plus” initiative proposed by China, which could see the current 5-member group include more countries, although this was not formalized at the summit. Of course, it is not too difficult to see why Mexico might be interested in more global outreach, as it faces an imminent dissolution of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which if successful would see it lose lucrative market access to America. Considering it is a major campaign promise of President Trump, it is probably only a matter of time before this happens. Mr Trump desires that America get more from NAFTA, which he believes is currently lopsided in favour of neighbours like Mexico. In any case, China indicated it was interested in entering into a free trade agreement with Mexico; in line with a trend where it now increasingly fills the gap left behind by a less-ambitious America. One of the observer African countries, Guinea, got something as well: it secured a US$20 billion loan over about a 20-year period from China in exchange for mining concessions on its bauxite deposits. Structurally, it did not seem like a bad deal, as revenues from projects the loan would fund would be used to service it. They include a planned alumina refinery and two bauxite mine projects. Roads, a power transmission line and a university are other projects earmarked. Still, considering how shrewd the Chinese are, it is not likely the Guineans got the better side of the deal; especially as the Chinese would get to keep any potential gains down the line, often beyond that which could be reasonably valued at the early stages. Like its other international trade and foreign policy initiatives, the ulimate beneficiary of BRICS is China itself.

Also published in my Premium Times Nigeria column. See link viz. http://opinion.premiumtimesng.com/2017/09/08/what-about-the-2017-brics-summit-by-rafiq-raji/

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