Opinion: How the war in Ukraine has challenged the BRICS alliance
The BRICS nations (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) constitute more than 3 billion of the earth’s inhabitants and account for approximately 25% of global economic production
In 2001, Goldman Sachs identified Brazil, Russia, India, and China as strategically significant middle-income countries on the cusp of membership among fully developed nations. The quartet validated the BRIC label in 2006, with the first of ongoing meetings to identify common political, economic and strategic interests. In 2010, the suite of nations welcomed South Africa to the group.
While the BRICS designation was novel, the idea of nations on the brink of full development went back at least a century. In the mid- to late-19th century, Egypt, Japan, Argentina and Hungary aspired to the designation of “civilized nation.” Not surprisingly, war and international crises laid bare the feasibility of those prospects.
For Egypt, the Suez Canal represented the latest in starchitect infrastructure; however, mounting debts submerged national sovereignty in British colonial oversight until 1956. Argentina’s pampas-based bounty of beef and wheat eventually gave place to the ravages of populist handouts pedaled politically by Juan and Eva Peron. Hungary boasted continental Europe’s first totally electrified metro system in Budapest in 1896, only to succumb to defeat by association with the Central Powers after World War I.
Only Japan, which defeated China in the Sino-Japanese War in 1895, as well as the Russians in 1905, seizing Port Arthur from czarist control, was recognized as “civilized” by the Europeans and Americans. The Japanese squandered their fortunes, however, in World War II. Nevertheless, a half century of industrial development under the Meiji emperor in the late 19th century set the stage for economic recovery under the aegis of the United States beginning in 1945.
Ultimately, transitioning to developed nation status proved difficult then and often depended on decisions involving other countries. These were sometimes short-term decisions made with long-term consequences.
During the current Russian assault on Ukraine, a United Nations’ resolution condemning the unprovoked attack called to account the intent of the BRICS alliance. China, India and South Africa abstained from condemning the Russians. Brazil went along with the resolution, but only with the great reluctance of President Jair Bolsonaro, keen to keep the flow of fertilizer and other energy inputs across the Atlantic.
At first glance, this should give reason for pause. The BRICS nations constitute more than 3 billion of the earth’s inhabitants and account for approximately 25% of global economic production ($19.8 trillion, 2018).
A deeper look, however, reveals weaknesses and cracks in this alliance, whose actions have at best been neutral, if not openly antagonistic, toward the United States and Europe.
As for its weaknesses, the five BRICS countries are anything but diversified industrialized economies (except in the case of China). None of the countries find themselves among the top 50 nations in the United Nations’ 2020 Human Development Index. Russia ranks as the 52nd most developed nation; Brazil at 74th; China at 75th; South Africa at 114th (based on the 2019 survey, numbers were not available for the 2020 index); and India at 131st.
Aside from China, most of these nations rose to economic prominence during the late 2000s based on the surge in value of petroleum and soybeans, among other commodities. The proof was visible to visitors to these countries, including this author. Brazil was called “Belindia” (Belgium, plus India) because of the disparities in wealth and poverty side by side; India’s infrastructure development stalled miserably; and South Africa succumbed to fresh allegations of corruption, racial unrest and economic uncertainty.
The qualitative cracks seem even deeper when we look at the friction between countries within the alliance. While India genuflects to its source of military hardware — Russia — by abstaining from casting blame for the Ukrainian assault, it remains miles apart politically and diplomatically from China. India and China share a volatile border riven by military crisis since 1962. Would Indian acquiescence to Russia for short-term gains (and possibly cheap oil) simultaneously thrust the Chinese and Indians into genuine geo-political embrace?
Add to this the unsettling dependence of India on China for consumer goods, as chronicled in Ananth Krishnan’s eye-opening “India’s China Challenge: A Journey through China’s Rise” (Harper Collins India, 2020).
Or we might pivot to the deepening relationship between Russia and China, newly invigorated in a highly visible photo-op between Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping before the opening of the 2022 Beijing Olympics. While the two nations share complementary positions vis-à-vis energy production and consumption, Johnathan E. Hillman meticulously catalogs, in “The Emperor’s New Road: China and the Project of the Century” (Oxford, 2020), how territorial ambitions past and future between the two countries, particularly as they relate to relations with Central Asian countries, might fracture Sino-Russian rapprochement.
Thus, while the outcome of Russia’s unprovoked aggression remains to be seen, it is doubtful, based on the historical difficulty of the path to full economic development, as evidenced in the last century, as well as by fissures in existing relations within the BRICS alliance, that temporary efforts to benefit from acute global shifts will deepen long-term ties between its members or catapult any of them into diversified economic powers.
Evan Ward is an associate professor of history at Brigham Young University, where he teaches courses on world history.