BRICS summit raises hopes

Updated: 2013-03-22 07:05

By Swaran Singh (China Daily)

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The media have been speculating on the outcomes of the fifth summit of BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa), to be held at Durban in South Africa on March 26 and 27. While several deliverables are likely, no major breakthrough is expected as of now.

But then quantity has a quality of its own. The most firmed-up outcomes of the Durban summit include setting up of a business council, a consortium of think tanks, and an agreement each on infrastructure co-financing for Africa and sustainable development. Then there will be the eThekwini Declaration (named after Durban's picturesque sea front municipality where the Convention Center is located), contents of which are still being finalized.

Since the focus of this year's BRICS summit is on "partnership, integration and industrialization", summit leaders could also clinch a framework agreement, outlining their shared strategic interest in investing in infrastructure, energy and telecommunication sectors. They are also expected to set up a new mechanism for cooperation among their stock exchanges to unify trading platforms and time standards.

But their flagship initiative of starting a "BRICS Development Bank" remains in limbo. In principle, all member states strongly support the idea but there are still a few hiccups over how to put it into operation, because of the enormous gaps in the five countries' economic leverages.

Besides, the fact that Western capitals see the move as guided by BRICS' ambition to expedite the makeover of the world's "aging" financial infrastructure, led by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, has made the group cautious not to ruffle too many feathers.

In case there is no real progress on the development bank front, the BRICS summit is expected to launch a "virtual pool of reserves" to provide financial support to member states in times of need. While the pool was initially premised on the Chiang Mai Initiative and pegged at $240 billion, the group recently talked about making $50 billion the starting input from the five countries to be supplemented by market contributions. Perhaps the eThekwini Declaration could push the issue a little forward with some riders added to it.

Similarly, though no discussion has been held on any further expansion of BRICS, the summit may consider the membership request from Egypt. Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi has been personally pursuing this agenda. Following South Africa's sobriquet of being a "gateway to Africa" for BRICS, Egypt is underlining its credentials as an "emerging economy" and "hub for North Africa and Africa".

Morsi has even coined a new nomenclature: EBRICS. This focus on "gateway to Africa" may bolster Egypt's chances as BRICS leaders hold the BRICS-Africa Dialogue on March 27. About 16 important leaders representing the African Union and African countries, including Morsi, are scheduled to attend it.

This will also be the first BRICS summit for President Xi Jinping, who will also visit the Republic of Congo and Tanzania to reinforce China's expanding interest in Africa, which, in turn, should bolster Egypt's chances to ride the Africa wave among BRICS leaders.

Also, this will be the first BRICS summit for Russian President Vladimir Putin, though he attended the BRICS leaders' meeting in Mexico on the sidelines of the last G20 summit in June. Indeed, Russia has a special role to play since it has been the torchbearer of BRICS institutionalization and the first host of a BRICS summit at Yekaterinburg in 2009. The following three summits were held in Brasilia, Sanya and New Delhi.

Other meetings creating atmospherics for the summit include the Maritime Trade Forum on March 24 followed by the Economic Forum the next day and a meeting of BRICS Trade Ministers and BRICS Business Forum on March 26.

Durban recently hosted a seminar on defense that underlined the potential of defense cooperation. In the run-up to the Durban summit, South African defense delegations have visited Brazil, Russia and India. Russia - even South Africa - has important defense relations with China and India. But as Georgy Toloraya, executive director of Russia's National Committee for BRICS Studies, says, BRICS is not going to be a military bloc but an "alliance of civilizations" and as an "intellectual project for formulating new rules of global co-existence".

The 2013 Human Development Report, titled "The Rise of the South: Human Progress in a Diverse World", alludes how "the rise of the South is unprecedented in its speed and scale" and how "the South as a whole is driving global economic growth and societal change for the first time in centuries". So the BRICS summit will deliberate on issues of human development and innovative strategies that the South can use.

Indian, Chinese and Russian engineers have been flooding the Silicon Valley, but the ratings of BRICS' educational institutions remain low compared with Western universities. BRICS' researchers and scholars rely on publications in Western journals and magazines, and Western fellowships and awards to prove their worth. Setting up a BRICS evaluation mechanism would increase the exchange of students and scholars among the five countries. India already has about 10,000 students studying in China and wishes to revive its once substantial student community in Russia. Likewise, other BRICS member states could send their students to India's transforming and booming education sector.

BRICS member states have been showing increasing interest in political issues in the developing world. Syrian envoys, for example, recently visited the BRICS member states and have formally appealed to the BRICS leaders to play an active role to end the bloodshed in Syria, which has already claimed more than 70,000 lives. There is unanimity among BRICS that the Syrian crisis should be resolved peacefully and through dialogue, which could find mention in the eThekwini Declaration.

The author is a professor of international studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.