Economist Jim O’Neill (now Lord O’Neill) originally coined the phrase ‘BRICs’ in a 2001 Goldman Sach’s economic paper with the title ‘The World Needs Better Economic BRICs’ – which discussed the prospects for four emerging economies – Brazil, Russia, India, and China.
BRICs soon became a term used by journalists, pundits and politicians as a soundbite and buzz-phrase.
Last week in Johannesburg, South Africa the first conference of the BRIC countries took place and the media sat up and took note.
Many media outlets focussed on the unsurprising fact that Vladimir Putin didn’t attend in person as an international warrant would have been issued in South Africa for his immediate arrest.
However some media lead on what the conference of the BRICs would mean for trade agreements and bodies such as the G7 and the G20, would they form a trading bloc, how would they boost their economic power, was this a power grab by China and who else could join?
The BRICs is a diverse group with very different political and economic outlooks. Some want closer ties to the West, others want to go it alone, others want to expand the group’s clout.
“Right now, changes in the world, in our times, and in history are unfolding in ways like never before, bringing human society to a critical juncture. The course of history will be shaped by the choices we make” said China’s President Xi Jinping in remarks delivered at a BRICS business forum by Chinese Commerce Minister Wang Wentao, – and interestingly not Xi, who had that same day already met conference host South Africa’s Cyril Ramaphosa.
But it was Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da SilvaLula who opened up the issue of the divergence of views in the bloc saying: “We do not want to be a counterpoint to the G7, G20 or the United States. We just want to organise ourselves.”
Also on the agenda were the dependency of the U.S. dollar. In his pre-recorded message Putin described the latter as “the irreversible process of de-dollarization of our economic ties” which he said was “gaining momentum.”
The South African hosts responded by making it clear there will be no discussions on a common currency – an idea that had been previously floated by Lula as an alternative to dollar-dependence.
Also on the agenda was how the bloc could expand and what would be the criteria to allow other countries to join.
Reports suggest that India was wary of expansion, suspicious of China’s motives but said it kept an ‘open mind’.
Lula didn’t want to dilute the influence of the current bloc but said he wanted to see Argentina join.
Russia is keen to expand membership and South Africa’s Ramaphosa expressed support for expansion at his meeting with Xi. China is busy with its ‘belt and road’ policy to extend its influence plus it has lodged its application to join the CTPPT trade deal which the UK recently joined.
Certainly the BRICs pledge to embrace the developing world with an offer of an alternative to Western nations, finds favour with many countries.
Depending on which reports you read this varies between 15 and 40 countries, some of whom have their written applications in the post.
Returning to Lord O’Neill (and his fondness for acronyms) these applicants may include countries with the potential of becoming members of the world’s largest economies – the N-11 (Next Eleven) including Egypt, Nigeria, Turkey, Mexico, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Iran, Vietnam, Indonesia, South Korea and the Phillipines) and the MINTs (Mexico, Indonesia, Nigeria and Turkey) which differentiate between the variety of emerging economies.
At this early stage it is difficult see how such a diverse group of countries (and applicants) could work on the basis of reaching a consensus on just about anything – but that does not mean it won’t happen.
The U.S. repose to these events? The White House national security advisor Jake Sullivan told U.S. media he did not see BRICS turning into a geopolitical rival of the United States. We shall see.
Update: Iran, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Argentina, the UAE and Ethiopia have now been invited to join the the BRICs nations commencing in 2024.
First published in the Morning Star, August 26th 2023