Rebuilding Brics

The seventh summit of the Brics (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) group of nations now taking place in Ufa, Russia, comes at a critical moment when emerging markets have diminishing economic clout and amidst mounting doubts about the grouping's potential role to shape a new world order.

The summit's proud host, Russia, is facing a third successive year of sharp economic downturn after being flattened by the slump in global oil prices and hurt by Western economic sanctions related to the crisis in Ukraine.

Brazil has hit rock bottom of near zero per cent gross domestic product (GDP) growth due to a similar shock from commodity price declines, corruption scandals in state-run corporations and falling consumer demand.

The same holds for South Africa, which has been surpassed by Nigeria as the African continent's largest economy. President Jacob Zuma's lacklustre governance has compounded the bursting of the commodities bubble and raised prospects of capital flight.

China, which used to be the most dynamic of all Brics economies, is bracing itself for an unstoppable retreat away from double-digit GDP growth of the past, no thanks to anti-competitive state-owned enterprises.

India is the brightest spot among all Brics countries, with an upbeat prognosis of over 7 per cent growth this year.

But as it has dramatically changed its method of calculating GDP, it is looking artificially healthier than its core infrastructural bottlenecks would convey.

Given all this negative sentiment, there is a lot riding on the Brics summit in Ufa to correct course and recreate the magic that is fading.

Institutionally, of course, Brics do deserve respect for sticking to a daring plan of challenging the formerly Western-dominated financial order. They now have their own answer to the World Bank. Headquartered in Shanghai and headed by an Indian economist, the Brics' New Development Bank has just held its first board meeting and will soon be lending large sums of money internationally for infrastructural upgrades. It has a capital base of US$50 billion (S$68 billion) at present and is open to new shareholders to come up to US$100 billion.

It aims to focus on infrastructural ramp-up within Brics nations to begin with, unlike the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, which has a mandate to cover the whole of Asia. The Brics' other system-transforming initiatives, like the Contingency Reserve Arrangement(CRA) and trade and financing using local currencies, are being operationalised, signalling that the era of hegemony of the US dollar is not forever.

The CRA will be available as a large emergency fund to enable Brics member nations to override liquidity crunches or macroeconomic shocks caused by US dollar fluctuations or interest rate changes.

It is a buffer that Brics nations consider fairer than the International Monetary Fund.

One common malaise dragging down growth in all Brics member countries is a contraction in exports in an adverse global market. The Ufa summit's promise of unveiling a "new economic partnership strategy", and the simultaneous push for opening up a "North-South transport corridor" that intersects with another vital group, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), which has decided to admit India as a full member, are trade-multiplying strategies that could add the sheen back on Brics.

What Brics direly needs is a reform agenda for internal economic revitalisation via commonly agreed standards and goals. A multilateral-level commitment can act as a beneficial pressure from outside to push aside deadweight obstructionists and vested interests within individual Brics countries that stymie innovation and productivity.

The ultimate test of Brics after Ufa will be to implement the dream of an uplifting new model where equitable economic cooperation is realised in fact as much as in rhetoric.

• The writer is a professor and dean at the Jindal School of International Affairs in Sonipat, India.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 09, 2015, with the headline 'Rebuilding Brics'. Print Edition | Subscribe