BRICS bond in times of Trump

The hand impressions of the leaders were strikingly different but the impression of solidarity was lasting amid capricious unilateralism epitomised in President Donald Trump’s repeated assaults on the liberal trading order

JOHANNESBURG: On a crisp sunny winter day in the land of Madiba and Mahatma, leaders of BRICScountries clasped their hands together at the Sandton Convention Centre, Johannesburg and decided to sculpt a new edifice of reformed multilateral order as a bulwark against rising tides of unilateralism and parochialism. This joint intent to re-shape the global order was telescoped in the imparting of virtual hand impressions at the Cradle of Humankind at Maropeng by leaders of BRICS countries.

The hand impressions of the leaders of India, China, Russia, Brazil and South Africa were strikingly different, but the impression of solidarity was lasting. For those sceptical of this annual ritual of BRICS leaders, they should rewind to the ‘Trump moment’ only a few weeks ago when the G7 summit of the world’s major developed economies ended in chaos after the maverick US President walked out of the G7 summit in Quebec after tossing some choicest abuses at his Canadian host, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, over trade tariffs.

Reformed multilateralism

In a seminal sense, the major takeaway of the 10th BRICS summit in Johannesburg was the solidification of the BRICS’ stature as the voice of moderation, stability and balance amid capricious unilateralism epitomised in President Donald Trump’s repeated assaults on the liberal trading order. The BRICS’ solidarity on a wide array of issues, ranging from reform of global governance and the rules-based order to Syria and Iran, stood out even as other older multilateral groupings led by the West, including G7 and NATO, are showing signs of fissures and dissonance.

For Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the Johannesburg summit was a milestone of sorts as this was his fifth and last BRICS summit during his current tenure before the General Election in May next year. In his remarks at the summit, Prime Minister Modi unveiled his vision of reformed multilateralism and urged his counterparts from other emerging economies to advance a just, open and transparent rules-based international system.

Reformed multilateralism, which may sound like another fancy buzzword, fittingly encapsulates the overwhelming strategic imperative to go beyond the West-defined status quo order to reinvent the world order to reflect the increasing weight and aspirations of emerging economies and global South. The timing of the Johannesburg summit imbued the concept with an added piquancy and urgency as it came at a time when Trump, the populist, is brutally shaking the Atlantic alliance. “We reiterate our determination to work together to strengthen multilateralism and the rule of law in international relations, and to promote a fair, just, equitable, democratic and representative international order,” said the Johannesburg Declaration.

Reforming global governance

The democratisation of the international order has been a recurrent theme and foundational rationale for the BRICS right since the first summit of the leaders in Yekaterinburg in 2009. The record of the BRICS in this area is somewhat mixed, with some significant successes like the launch of the New Development Bank, the first multilateral bank of the global South, but there is still a long way to go.

While the Johannesburg Declaration renews its pressure on developed countries to expedite and conclude the IMF quota reforms by spring of 2019, Russia and China, the two permanent members of the UNSC, have chosen not to go beyond their formulaic support for “the status and role of Brazil, India and South Africa in international affairs and their support for their aspiration to play a greater role in the UN.” This disconnect on the issue of UNSC reforms and expansion needs to be addressed urgently if the BRICS has to achieve its long-term objective of democratisation and reform of the international order.

In a world bristling with contradictions, power-shifts and competing agendas, it’s unrealistic to expect the five BRICS countries to be in complete harmony on all issues. A decade is not a long time for a multilateral grouping, and hence, the success of the BRICS, which originally started as an economic concept coined by Goldman Sachs banker Jim O’Neill, in shaping a counter-narrative on global hotspots and regional crises, is quite remarkable. In this respect, the 10th BRICS summit marks the consolidation of the grouping’s status as a pressure group and a counterpoint to the agenda-driven approach of the West on crises like Syria and Iran.

The BRICS’ joint call for rescuing the Iran deal from the caprices of Trump and advancement of Syrian-led inclusive national reconciliation are along predictable lines, but they underline the primacy of dialogue and diplomacy over sanctions and coercive diplomacy. This is not to suggest that the BRICS is becoming an anti-US or anti-West front, as Russia and China may like it to be. In this regard, Indian negotiators can justifiably claim some credit for balance and poise on key issues in the Johannesburg Declaration, thereby preventing the BRICS from becoming a forum for anti-West ranting and posturing.This approach emanates from India’s big-picture worldview, as articulated in Prime Minister Modi’s Shangri-La Dialogue speech in Singapore, to move from the world of rivalries and confrontation to co-existence and co-prosperity.

Partnering in fourth industrial revolution

Besides geo-economic and geopolitical issues, which have been recurrent BRICS themes, the 10th summit in Johannesburg has initiated a new network of partnerships for the fourth industrial revolution and placed people-centric development cooperation at the heart of the burgeoning intra-BRICS cooperation. South Africa should be commended for taking the initiative in making “Collaboration for Inclusive Growth and Shared Prosperity in the fourth Industrial Revolution,” the overarching theme of the summit. BRICS Partnership on New Industrial Revolution (PartNIR) is a pioneering idea which seeks to bring professionals and innovators closer in the quest of creating better lives for ordinary people in these countries. BRICS will acquire greater traction and resonance by addressing people-centric issues of inclusive growth, skill development and job creation.

In sync with the theme of the 10th BRICS summit, Prime Minister Modi stressed on tech-driven inclusive growth and transformation. Technology and digital interface presented a host of opportunities and challenges, he said. Widening the canvas of BRICS agenda, the 10th summit also fleshed out modalities of enhanced intra-BRICS cooperation in combating corruption.

Widening arc

The widening arc of BRICS was more than evident at the Johannesburg summit, which saw the largest-ever BRICS outreach to the emerging African continent. Contrary to skewered media narratives of India-China rivalry in Africa, the summit saw all the five countries pledging their unstinting support to African Agenda 2063, which encapsulates the continent’s vision of its own resurgence.

Amid all this talk of competition, what is being missed is the unfolding story of rising engagement of all BRICS countries in the African continent. Taking cue from China and India, Russia is now planning to host its own Russia-Africa summit in the near future. The organic integration of the African aspirations into the BRICS agenda will only bolster the grouping’s stature as the voice of the global South.

People-centric BRICS

Away from the noise of big-bang headlines, the Johannesburg summit marks a milestone in the growing institutionalisation of people-to-people contacts. India has played a pioneering role in buttressing P2P contacts in the architecture of intra-BRICS cooperation.

Starting from his first BRICS summit in Fortaleza, Brazil in August 2014 and the enunciation of Das Kadam (Ten Steps) at the Ufa summit, Prime Minister Modi has been a passionate advocate of bolstering P2P connect between BRICS countries. These initiatives have now been absorbed in the mainstream BRICS agenda as each country is now trying to raise the bar by hosting people-centric events during their presidency. From youth summit and BRICS Games to BRICS film and culture festivals, the BRICS looks set to acquire greater resonance among people. Going forward, the 10th summit in Johannesburg has set the stage for a more robust role for the BRICS in shaping global governance architecture and creating new pathways of people-centred cooperation to reflect surging aspirations of the global South.

Author Profile

Manish Chand
Manish Chand
Manish Chand is Founder-CEO and Editor-in-Chief of India Writes Network ( and India and World, a pioneering magazine focused on international affairs. He is CEO/Director of TGII Media Private Limited, an India-based media, publishing, research and consultancy company.