On the Brink of a New Cold War, What is the Place of the BRICS?

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj, South African Minister of International Relations and Co-operation Lindiwe Sisulu, Chinas Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Brazils Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Marcos Galvao at a media briefing following the BRICS ministerial meeting in Pretoria earlier this month.Picture: Jacques Naude/African News Agency (ANA)

It would appear that with each BRICS summit, lying at the flank are naysayers criticizing and counting down the days for the association, now in its 11th year of existence, to crumble and fall into pieces. And yet, the grouping continually reaps outcomes, no matter how gradually and despite the mounting challenges both from within and outside the club of emerging economies. 

Perhaps the greatest signifier yet has been the New Development which has in its infancy managed to issue its first green bond, and successfully raising RMB3-billion in the Chinese bond market, enabled by the achievement of a triple-A domestic credit rating in China. The NDB has also committed US$1.5-billion in loans to BRICS countries so far, emphasising its investment on the renewable energy sector. In addition to this, plans are underway to reach the target of between US$10-billion and US$15-billion of loans by 2021, and to expand lending outside the BRICS membership. Ever ambitious, the grouping still has a number of plans on the drawing board and there is every reason to believe that they will achieve a sizeable portion of them.

Likely to be on the cards this year is the development of the BRICS Rating Agency. Indeed the time has never been riper for such a formation. The cry for the rating agency stems from the fact that the post-1945 world order is sapping under the weight of its own contradictions by the minute. The need has never been starker for an alternative, or set of alternatives, from the Western-centred world order, and one of the sorest areas in need of this balancing is that of global financial institutions. 

The rot is displayed most blatantly in the fact that the US ratings agencies Fitch, S&P and Moody’s failed to predict the then oncoming global financial crisis of 2008/9, leading the second Basel Accords to discourage reliance on the ratings agencies by banks. Further symptoms of decay are to be found in the fact that America is bent on a trade war with a myriad of states, including China, Canada and the European Union its closest and most important trading partners. South African has not been spared, particularly its steel sector.

This lends all the more weight to the pragmatic quarters in South African foreign policymaking. The country needs both the BRICS and the West, and therefore cannot afford overreliance on either. South Africa must hedge and formulate its foreign policy according to the dictates of its needs in this era.

What the BRICS represent, especially for Africa and the global south in general, is the reformulation a global order along the lines of parallel institutions. Indeed some of the beneficiaries of this are the developed states themselves. With the world in such a fragmented state, the reality is that there has been, and there can be, no attempt at reform. The only option is therefore the reformulation of the global order. This is part of what the BRICS represent.

For Africa this carries a lot of importance. Importantly, the BRICS countries do more trade with African states (even excluding South Africa) than they do with one another. But if they are to represent a shift in the global order, that shift needs to be concomitant with a shift in relations vis-à-vis the continent. As China and India (along with Japan) propose grand plans of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and the Asia-Africa Growth Corridor (AAGC), respectively, they should cooperate with African states so that they can co-plan the infrastructural framework in order to prevent them from replicating the infamously extractive railways and port systems of the colonial era.

This is probably the last BRICS summit before the formal declaration of a new cold war. The contours of this are already apparent in the increasing rate at which many global players, including the BRICS states themselves, are militarily posturing. Notwithstanding the fact that three of them are nuclear powers, these states have gotten into the business of developing military bases overseas, and particularly in Africa. At the same time, the North American Treaty Organization (NATO) has seen expansion into new territory into Latin America with the joining of Colombia into the fold. It is clear by now; we are on the brink of seeing the fabric of the international global order shaken as there is an increased fear of developing countries catching up, especially in the areas of high-tech, artificial intelligence and other signposts of the fourth industrial revolution.

This summit holds a particular importance for South Africa on two fronts. Firstly, this is to be President Cyril Ramaphosa’s first chaired BRICS session. Further underlining this is the economic downturn in the country of -2.2 in a year-on-year basis despite ‘Ramaphoria’ following his rise to the presidency earlier this year. Unemployment figures are also looking dim, and the rand/dollar exchange reached a six-month low at ZAR14.00/US$1.00. Secondly, South Africa has been elected into the UN Security Council for the 2019/20 term. This represents a golden opportunity for the country to be seized on. In this area, South Africa’s interests include the unemployment crisis and need to be dealt with and both the UN and the UNSC are potential avenues to be harnessed for growth.

At the same time, however, a point in need of constant awareness is the fact that the BRICS are not a revolutionary force in world politics, nor are there many indicators that they seek to be. Contrary to the views held by those in both the ultra-right and the ultra-left who (for different reasons) perceive the BRICS as bent on upsetting the global order of things; the latter inevitably reprimand it for not going far enough. In doing so they castigate it for not reaching standards they never declared as aspiring to. In truth, these countries, however unevenly, are – as is the nature of states – only pursuing their national interests in the global arena. They just happen to be formerly peripheral states now ascending to the core. 

What is needed is for South Africa to be just as effective as its BRICS counterparts at staking its own claim, with a conscience for the African agenda as well as matters of mutual concern and development that go back to Bandung in 1955, and which have remained at the front burner of the priority list for the global south.

Dr David Monyae is a senior political analyst and co-director at the University of Johannesburg Confucius Institute and Bhaso Ndzendze is a research coordinator at the same institute.