With China's President Xi Jinping planning to make his first foray into international diplomacy since his election at the BRICS annual summit in Durban and his singer wife slated to perform, the organization will hit the headlines. Again, there will be talk about this loose grouping of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa filling the emerging void left by the troubled US and European Union. But yet another summit and ritual show of unity won't hide the emptiness at the core of BRICS. The strong display of China's newfound power by its president will only underline the organization's lopsided nature and lack of actual clout.
Representing around 40 percent of the world's population and nearly a quarter of its economic output, BRICS does offer promise of clout. The economic profile of the five nations, especially that of China, has continued to grow with suggestions that BRICS collectively could become bigger than the US by 2018 and by 2050 even surpass the combined economies of G7 states.
Yet a major challenge for ongoing influence from BRICS is China's dominance over the other four members. For all its promise, BRICS has remained a talk shop aspiring for greatness.
The first formal summit meeting was held in Russia in June 2009 with South Africa joining the group in December 2010, changing the nomenclature from BRIC to BRICS. The Yekaterinburg summit called for "a more democratic and just multipolar world order based on the rule of international law, equality, mutual respect, cooperation, coordinated action and collective decision-making of all states." Since then the joint statements of the various BRICS summits have repeatedly underscored need for a realignment of the post-World War II global order based on the untrammelled supremacy of the US. As the US is preoccupied with internal troubles and the eurozone is mired in a debilitating debt crisis, a vacuum is increasingly being felt in the international system. This presents an opportunity for the BRICS to emerge as major global players. Plans are underway for some joint projects. The New Delhi summit resulted in a proposal to create a joint BRICS development bank that would finance investments in developing nations, and this year's summit is expected to conclude negotiations for setting up this bank.
But overall momentum for BRICS, a much-hyped initiative, seems to be flagging. Growth-rate estimates for all the BRICS are steadily declining. Fluctuating economic trends, however, are not the leading reason behind the unworkability of the BRICS idea, but rather the structural disparity at the heart of the grouping.
China's rise has been so fast and so spectacular that others are still trying to catch up. The Chinese economy is not only the second largest in the world but also larger than the economies of the other four members combined. China's power makes the other members nervous, leading them to hedge bets by investing in alternative alliances and partnerships even as China's rapid accretion of economic and political power adds to its own challenges to make friends. Given the leverage that China enjoys in BRICS, it should come as no surprise that Beijing has suggested that IBSA - the grouping of democracies India, Brazil and South Africa - be shut down in favor of BRICS.
China's manipulation of its currency has resulted in significant problems for manufacturing sectors of other emerging powers. India, Brazil and South Africa all have expressed disenchantment with Beijing's economic policies at various times. New Delhi has even imposed anti-dumping duties on a range of Chinese goods. China's dominance of the intra-South trade remains overwhelming with other emerging powers struggling to get a share of the pie. Central bankers from Brazil and India spoke against the undervalued yuan in 2009 and 2010 to little effect.