NEW DELHI - As it prepares to hold its latest annual summit in New Delhi on March 28-29, the Brics grouping - Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa - remains a concept in search of a common identity and institutionalised cooperation. That is hardly surprising, given that these countries have very different political systems, economies, and national goals, and are located in very different parts of the world. Yet the five emerging economies pride themselves on forming the first important non-Western global initiative.
The lack of common ground among the Brics has prompted cynics to call the grouping an acronym with no substance. To its protagonists, however, it is a product of today's ongoing global power shifts, and has the potential to evolve into a major instrument in shaping the architecture of global governance - the midwife of a new international order.
After all, the Brics economies are likely to be the most important source of future global growth. They represent more than a quarter of the Earth's landmass, over 41 per cent of its population, almost 25 per cent of world GDP, and nearly half of all foreign-exchange and gold reserves. The Brics, in fact, might also be dubbed the R-5, after its members' currencies - the real, ruble, rupee, renminbi, and rand.
At the New Delhi summit, the Brics leaders will discuss the creation of joint institutions, particularly a common development bank that can help to mobilise savings between the countries. Currently, the Brics countries constitute a loose, informal bloc. If the group's leaders fail to make progress on establishing an institutional structure, they will lend credence to the contention that it is merely a 'talking shop' for countries so diverse that their shared interests, to the extent that there are any, cannot be translated into a common plan of action.
It was just last year that Bric (Brazil, Russia, India, and China) became Brics with the addition of South Africa. The Bric concept, conceived in 2001 by Jim O?Neill of Goldman Sachs, was embraced by the four original countries only in 2008, when their foreign ministers met on the sidelines of a Russia-India-China (RIC) trilateral meeting. The addition of Brazil paved the way for the first Bric summit in 2009, which, interestingly, piggybacked on the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) meeting in Yekaterinburg, Russia, that year.
That association helped the SCO - still largely a Sino-Russian enterprise - to receive more publicity, but it left the Bric countries with little space to start formulating a unified action plan. The subsequent enlargement to include South Africa has made the Brics a more global grouping, which threatens to render irrelevant yet another initiative, the IBSA (India, Brazil, and South Africa).
For Brazil, Russia, India, and South Africa, the Brics grouping serves as a forum to underscore their rising economic clout and showcase their emergence as global players. But, for China, which needs no recognition as a rising world power, the Brics offers tangible - not just symbolic - benefits. As a result, China indeed has cast a lengthening shadow over the group, openly seeking, for example, to control the proposed common development bank - something that India and Russia, in particular, are loath to accept.
At a time when China is under pressure for manipulating the value of the renminbi to maintain export competitiveness, the Brics framework offers it a platform to expand its currency's international role. As part of its quest for a global currency that could rival the dollar or the euro, a cash-rich China plans to extend renminbi loans to the other Brics members.
Lending and trading in renminbi is likely to boost China's international standing and clout further. But its undervalued currency and hidden export subsidies have been systematically undermining manufacturing in other Brics countries, especially India and Brazil.
Proponents of the Brics concept nonetheless remain hopeful that the group can serve as a catalyst for global institutional reform. With existing international arrangements remaining virtually static since the mid-twentieth century (even as non-Western economic powers and nontraditional challenges have emerged), the world needs more than the halfhearted and desultory steps taken thus far. The formation of the G-20, for example, was an improvisation designed to defer genuine financial reform.
In fact, the modest measures implemented in response to the changing distribution of global power have been limited to the economic realm, with the hard core of international relations - peace and security - remaining the exclusive preserve of a handful of countries.
China is not on the same page as the other Brics countries when it comes to global institutional reform. It is a revisionist power concerning the global financial architecture, seeking an overhaul of the Bretton Woods system. But it is a status quo power with respect to the United Nations system, and steadfastly opposes enlargement of the Security Council's permanent membership. It wishes to remain Asia's sole country with a permanent seat - a stance that places it at odds with India.
If the Brics countries are to jell as a pressure group in international relations, they must agree on what they believe to be attainable political and economic objectives. For example, they are generally united in their frustration with - but not in their proposed response to - the dollar's status as the world's reserve currency. Indeed, the most important bilateral relationship each Brics country has is with the United States.
The Brics concept represents, above all, its members' desire to make the global order more plural. But it is uncertain whether the group's members will ever evolve into a coherent grouping with defined goals and institutional mechanisms. In the coming days, we might find out whether the Brics will ever be more than a catchy acronym with an annual boondoggle attached.
Brahma Chellaney, Professor of Strategic Studies at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research, is the author of Asian Juggernaut and Water: Asia's New Battleground.