Since last year’s meeting in Durban, South Africa, the global context has changed significantly, with rising powers playing key roles in some of the major tectonic shifts underway.
First, the crisis that began in Crimea has pushed Russia to deepen its ties to the other BRICS countries in hopes of garnering support for its positions and actions in Eastern Europe, where it vies with the West for influence.
Second, in the realm of development, the ongoing debates about the post-2015 development agenda, set to replace the Millennium Development Goals, have intensified in several countries and regions, although to differing degrees. There is growing eagerness among Western stakeholders to better understand the interests and positions of rising powers within these debates, especially in light of the BRICS’ shared resistance to what they perceive to be Northern-led normative frameworks for development.
Finally, there are new or renewed loci of instability, such as Iraq, which are likely to affect not only the geopolitics of the region, where rising powers have accumulated significant stakes, but also, more broadly, relations among global and rising powers.
In light of this context of rapid change, what resolutions and what degree of resolve will the BRICS summit in Fortaleza generate?
China’s pivotal role amongst the BRICS and the BRICS development bank
Although China is not the only answer to these questions, it has come to assume a pivotal role amongst the BRICS. In the field of development, the sheer size of its economy and the global reach of its companies, diplomacy, and diaspora, give it considerable economic and political clout, both within and beyond the BRICS coalition. In the field of international development, the extent to which China may overshadow the other BRICS will be tested by the launch of the BRICS development bank, which, along with the contingency reserve fund, will represent the first concrete institutional innovation by the BRICS.
Financially speaking, this investment is but a drop in the bucket of China’s gargantuan South-South development cooperation. This is not the case for the other BRICS, all of which have experienced some degree of economic growth but also face much greater financial constraints, particularly in light of the recent economic slowdown.
What, then, are China’s interests in participating in the initiative?
In my article in the forthcoming IDS Bulletin 'China and International Development...', I argue that the Chinese government’s motivations are primarily political.
In addition to helping the coalition press for speedier reform of development organisations such as the Bretton Woods Institutions, the venture will allow China to further burnish its image as a willing multilateralist player in the field of development and to reinforce its frequent claim that it is working in solidarity with other developing countries, rather than acting as a lone-wolf rising power. Nurturing this role has become increasingly important for Chinese ruling elites given the common perception that China has relied heavily on bilateral ties in consolidating its South-South cooperation in Asia, Africa, and Latin America.
In order to reap the political benefits of this initiative, however, China has to maintain a careful balance so as not to dominate the bank, as doing so could underscore the asymmetries it brings to the coalition. Unfettered protagonism by China would risk delegitimising the BRICS as a multilateral effort, which was designed to accelerate the shift towards a more multi-polar configuration of the international system.
A balanced bank governance structure, in which all five coalition members have equal representation and equal say, will be essential in maximising the bank’s potential not only in addressing the financing gap in infrastructure and industrial policy, but also making it into an important platform through which to decide upon the rules of development cooperation. This will also be a chance for the BRICS to prove their capacity to generate innovative solutions to socio-economic issues that are dear to all of the grouping members, such as poverty alleviation, sustainable development, and inequality reduction.
Adriana Abdenur is a Professor at the Institute of International Relations, Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro (PUC-Rio) and a researcher at the BRICS Policy Center. She is a contributor to the forthcoming IDS Bulletin ‘China and International Development: Challenges and Opportunities’, which can be pre-ordered online.