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Managing Multilateralism within BRICS: a Future Model?

Published onJun 02, 2023
Managing Multilateralism within BRICS: a Future Model?

No one has doubted the necessity of international cooperation and multilateralism in dealing with global challenges today. However, international cooperation is quite rare in an increasingly uncertain world. Lack of cooperation has defined today’s great powers in tackling global challenges such as the pandemic, Ukraine crisis, as well as the post-pandemic economic recovery. Competition is the dominant US approach to China, which brought about more difficulties in providing multilateral cooperation within the existing international institutions. The confrontation between US and Russia on Ukraine issue also affected their cooperation within the multilateral arrangements including the UN Security Council and G20. Besides this new round geopolitical competition among great powers, the wide global south is looking for more international attention to its development agenda. Against this backdrop, the BRICS mechanism as a multilateral forum mainly representing emerging powers and developing world is gaining more influence in today’s world politics.

A functional multilateralism needs to adapt itself to changing international context. The legitimacy of traditional influential multilateral forums such as G7 has been consistently questioned by global south. Presidents of the major international financial institutions such as IMF and World Bank were mainly assumed by candidates from European countries and the United States. With the international financial crises in East Asia and the United States respectively, G20 represented an improved thinking of multilateralism by adopting capable players of current international system. The establishment of BRICS also represented collective efforts of major emerging global players to participate in global governance. It seems that there are two parallel global fora, namely G7 and BRICS. However, the past 15 years of BRICS agenda shows that the group is not aiming at challenging either the main channel of UN system or the role of G7 in global system.

The BRICS group does have different vision, priorities, and approaches from the ones of G7. BRICS members aim at improving their voting power in international financial institutions rather than replacing them. The Priorities of BRICS clearly focus on international development agenda especially sustainable developments though they also paid attention to international security issues. In achieving their development-oriented priorities, BRICS members established the New Development Bank (NDB) with a rotating presidency which is different from IMF and World Bank. The five funding members of the NDB own same voting share based on sovereign equality, which obviously decreased the financial capacity of bank since its most capable players can’t contribute more financial resources. The late established Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) is more capable by adopting a World Bank style governance structure.

BRICS is also working to build a community of member states by encouraging meetings of different ministries, social and academic sectors, which showed that BRICS countries’ intention to know each other better and overcome their diversity in terms of culture, economic structure, etc. BRICS has been led by leaders' meetings and supported by ministerial meetings such as the High Representatives' Meeting on Security Affairs and the Foreign Ministers' Meeting. Pragmatic cooperation in dozens of fields including agriculture, culture, education, health, think tanks, and sister cities are progressing gradually. These broad engagement in various areas and pragmatic cooperation have minimized the gap of mutual knowledge and enhanced mutual economic and social ties among member countries.

Different from the closure of G7, BRICS has developed regular dialogue mechanisms with regional countries, and is starting enlargement of its membership. Though G7 countries still not take BRICS very seriously because of the latter’s diversity and weak power, BRICS has attracted a few influential emerging economies and developing countries in joining the group. Bangladesh and United Arab Emirates have joined the NDB with Egypt and Uruguay as the bank’s prospective members.

BRICS showed that countries with different culture, history, social system, development path and political system can achieve multilateral cooperation based on common interests, shared values, and mutual respect. BRICS countries working together by focusing on what they can cooperate rather than what the disagree with each other. Guided by UN Charter, BRICS follows the spirit of dialogue on an equal footing and consensus-building through consultation. BRICS doesn’t have a bloc confrontation and intervention strategy towards the third party, which makes it look like a neutral grouping in contributing to global governance. As major emerging markets, BRICS countries generally support the sound development of globalization, oppose unilateralism and protectionism, and ensure a fair, open, peaceful, and stable international environment for developing countries. BRICS has been trying to make the global economic governance more reflective of developing countries’ needs by promoting the Quota and shareholding review of IMF and World Bank. BRICS also touch upon some security issues around the world, and its approach is emphasizing political settlement and expressing concerns rather than adopting sanctions or interventions.

The potential of the group’s role in global governance is huge, but BRICS has very limited actual influence on the ground. NDB, established in 2015 by BRICS countries, is a multilateral development bank aimed at mobilizing resources for infrastructure and sustainable development projects in BRICS and other EMDCs. Currently, NDB is mainly serving member countries’ domestic sustainable development projects rather than providing financial resources to the wide developing world. NDB is trying to provide more public goods to global south by establishing four regional offices across the world.

In China’s eyes, BRICS is an important multilateral platform among others. China has committed itself to building a community with a shared future for mankind. In doing so, China needs to work with broader members of international community via different multilateral tools. The most important multilateral institutions for China are the post-Second World War arrangements represented by UN, WTO, IMF and World Bank. Besides these global institutions, China also attaches importance to emerging regional and global multilateral arrangements such as the G20, BRICS, Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), AIIB, etc. As founding member of these emerging institutions, China has a larger chance to practice its vision of multilateralism with like-minded partners.

China treats BRICS cooperation mechanism as a constructive force for promoting world economic growth, improving global governance, and promoting the democratization of international relations. In its three presidency years, China has contributed new elements to the evolution of BRICS. The participation of South Africa in BRICS’s Sanya summit in 2011 enhanced the global feature of the group. Xiamen summit in 2017 set up three pillars of BRICS cooperation, namely economics, trade, finance, political security, and cultural exchanges. Xiamen summit also created the "BRICS+" model by holding dialogues with emerging markets and developing countries. The 2022 BRICS summit focused on building high-quality partnerships and global development. These contributions and visions of China’s presidency show that China treats the BRICS cooperation mechanism mainly as an important platform for cooperation among emerging market countries and developing countries.

China’s vision on BRICS cooperation as a platform for developing countries is understandable since the BRICS countries were born in the historical tide of the collective rise of emerging markets and developing countries. BRICS mechanism is a product of new international reality. Facing the divisions between the North and South and sluggish reforming process of existing international institutions, BRICS countries can practice multilateralism according to their worldviews, approaches, and priorities. Besides financial and development agenda, BRICS also coordinate their positions towards security issues, especially those non-traditional security challenges such as anti-terrorism, cyber security, etc. BRICS members also gave their thoughts on how to achieve the persistent peace, security, stability, and development in their recent agenda.

Some scholar summarized China-called true or genuine multilateralism as inclusive multilateralism. Different from the G7 style, multilateralism with BRICS or China style emphasizes extensive consultation, joint contribution and shared benefits, advocates openness and inclusiveness, and opposes isolation and exclusion. Multilateralism shall better reflect the legitimate concerns and reasonable demands of most countries, especially developing countries. The priorities of most developing countries are to achieve security and development. In doing so, developing countries are highlighting their autonomy to diversify their external relations globally. BRICS countries, as the most capable emerging markets, can help developing countries by promoting better global governance and share their development opportunities. BRICS countries focus on pragmatic and sustainable cooperation, which allows developing countries benefiting from partners from both North and South without pressures to choose sides.

Today’s world has changed a lot compared to the starting years of BRICS. The trend of "anti-globalization" is on the rise, and unilateral sanctions and technological barriers are prevailing, which have seriously affected the economic and social development of emerging markets and developing countries. The United States is officially treating China’s rise as a security challenge, adopting a competition strategy towards China, and implementing a protective industrial policy in maintaining the leading edge technologically and economically. The United States also persuaded BRICS member country to join the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD). India-China border issue also affect both countries’ strategic trust negatively though both sides still commit to BRICS cooperation and peaceful solution of the issue. The Ukraine crisis has greatly deteriorated Russia’s relations with the North Atlantic countries. BRICS’ non-Russia members do maintain their economic and diplomatic ties with Russia against this backdrop though they also hold different positions on that issue.

Despite the above challenges, BRICS remains its unique advantages of its prominent members and its vision for developing world at large. BRICS has been a collective identity for its member countries by its comprehensive engagement agenda. BRICS members and developing countries share their sustainable development priorities and have common interests to raise their influences within current global governance structure. China, aiming at playing a larger role in promoting global development and security, is willing to stay in the group and work with other members in making the group more dynamic and promising in future global governance framework.

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