Dealing with the tough issues: Trade, UNSC Reform and Conflict in the BRICS Agenda

240718 SA Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene, National Development Bank President Mr KV Kamath and SARB Governor Lesetja Kganyago on the panel at the BRICS and Africa navigating Global Economic Turbulance together held in Sandton.Photo Simphiwe Mbokazi/African News Agency/ANA boi

More than any other moment in history, we are in a period of uncertainty, rooted in the fact that there have been changes taking place in the global order. This fracture to the global order, which commenced in the wake of the 2008/9 financial crisis, is reaching its zenith now. In a situation such as this, a reshuffle of the global power structure is inevitable. This is at the root of the BRICS phenomenon.

While the global economy has shown some recovery, with the US employment experiencing an apparent golden age, with unemployment around 4%, the European Union remains stagnant (with annual growth averaging 2.4% in the past five years, and 1.77% over the past two decades). Similarly, three of the BRICS countries – Brazil, Russia and South Africa – are still battling to sustain an upward trajectory despite earlier projections of higher than average growth a decade ago (indeed the very basis of the group’s formation).

There are many reasons for this. The primary reason is the lack of agreement on the basic issues. This is most pointed and visible in the much-talked about trade war at the behest of the US, targeted against China, and the EU, and Canada being its main targets. What is worsening this is not just the Trump-instigated trade war, but another compounding factor are the unresolved regional conflicts taking place in Ukraine, the Middle East, and intra-state conflicts in Africa, as well other harbingers of conflict as seen in the South China Sea.

This lack of global consensus in dealing with these political, economic, and social matters of global governance is posing the greatest threat to the entire phenomenon of globalisation. The possibility of full-scale war is still not to be ruled out.

It is at the backdrop of these that BRICS leaders are meeting in Johannesburg this week to attempt to build a common position. Indeed the flagrant issues facing the crumbling global order heighten the relevance of the BRICS that much more. In light of the absence of a global consensus, the BRICS provide a glimpse of hope that it can still be achieved. Indeed they provide an alternative for humankind for dealing with these global issues confronting all nations.

BRICS summits have been going on for many years, and they still seem to be teetering. The greatest challenge facing them, and the one which will finally establish them as a formidable association, is that of closing the glaring leadership gap in the world today. There is plenty of leadership to be exercised by all of them in their respective regions and neighborhoods.

The BRICS’ ambition is to be extracted in the fact that this might be the last BRICS summit composed of the five current members. To begin with, an invitation has been extended to President Recep Erdoğan of Turkey, and there is reason to expect future summits to also include Indonesian, Malaysian, and even Mexican participation as other emerging economies are repelled away from the US’s machinations, and drawn towards the rhetorically inclusive and open-door minded BRICS order.

BRICS relevance and attractiveness will be determined, therefore, by its ability to address – as embossed as this year’s running theme – issues of inclusion, growth and the fourth industrial revolution; the last of which poses new challenges and brings to the fore some new challenges including worsened inequality, both within and among BRICS countries. How is this to be ensured? Particularly for South Africa, closing the financial infrastructure gap through regional integration. 

Therefore, global south institutions are of great importance, to complement other international financial institutions’ ongoing efforts, especially in infrastructure development. This is to ensure they are done in a manner favorable to developing states. Another important challenge to be overcome is the issue of the lagging trade between the BRICS countries, and the global south more broadly. Trade is crucial so as to cement the relationship, and move it away from summitry to being people-driven.

For South Africa, trade is made all the more important due to its staggering unemployment rate of 26, 7%. It does not help for South Africa to be a part of these summits without servicing the National Development Plan. If all politics is truly local, then this time they are all the more so – Pretoria will need to accrue and extract tangible results.

As the host country, South Africa is the subject of some attention. What has been clear is that President Cyril Ramaphosa’s hand is not as strong as originally assumed. Facing elections next year, the caprice of politics force him to move carefully. Nonetheless, he has gained perceptual victories, especially in diminishing the image of corruption.

At the top of the agenda for areas of cooperation is also skills and information transfer among the BRICS countries. This is particularly relevant in areas of health, culture and the fourth industrial revolution, so that none are left behind. This, more than anything, will give meaning to the title of the summit.

The tenth summit needs to look into moving away from rhetoric to tangible agreements and indicators for self-assessment. The BRICS also needs to be a platform for honest reflection. One particular issue which may be a bone of contention (especially between China and India) is the reform, and even expansion, of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). If the BRICS cannot be reflective about such difficult matters, then the various leaders will have forfeited its value and promise.

David Monyae is the Co-Director of the University of Johannesburg Confucius Institute.