Can the BRICS Withstand the Pandemic?


The COVID-19 pandemic is creating new challenges to international political and economic relations, and raising many questions about the future of international organizations and multilateral cooperation frameworks. Will the tendency of states to look inwards, and the growing inequality between rich and poor states, prevent further cooperation? Will global institutions be able to reform and address the transnational problems highlighted by the pandemic, such as global economic inequality, climate change, or the digital divide?

These questions are particularly relevant for the BRICS, an acronym that refers to the five major developing economies—Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. 

With more differences than commonalities, this group has always been somewhat of an institutional puzzle for observers of world politics. Recent developments have increased the gap between its members and raised concerns about its ability to adapt to the post-COVID-19 world. 

A forum of cooperation for emerging markets, the group seeks to establish a “parallel order” to Western-led international institutions and provides alternative frameworks for integration, mostly economic. In recent years, however, the BRICS’ work expanded into other spheres, including technology, education, anti-terrorism, infrastructure, health and culture. 

BRICS countries like to emphasize their multilateral approach to solving world issues in contrast with rising unilateralism in many Western countries. They remain members of existing institutions like the Western-led World Bank while seeking to shift the center of power away from the developed world. For example, they have their own New Development Bank (NDB), which they present as a partner to the World Bank or the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

Their efforts organizing dozens of intra-ministerial meetings every year demonstrate a slow but steady institutionalization of cooperation in different areas. Recently, Trump’s isolationist policies and Brexit have strengthened the BRICS’ argument that such change is needed in global governance. 

Bound to Fail?

BRICS members are often criticized for their lack of a common vision, and many predict the group will fall apart in the near future. As many columnists like to point out, there are several fundamental geopolitical, economic and social differences between members which make it an uncertain alliance. 

Brazil, India, and South Africa qualify as democracies, while Russia and China are authoritarian. Brazil recognizes Juan Guaidó as the president of Venezuela, while the other BRICS recognize Nicolás Maduro. The election of Jair Bolsonaro in 2018 led some to believe that Brazil would leave the group, given Bolsonaro’s anti-communist views and interest in cooperating with the U.S. rather than the Global South.

Moreover, there are border tensions between India and China that could escalate into a more serious armed conflict and threaten the BRICS framework. Last year, India banned a number of Chinese apps and has increased cooperation with Japan reportedly to counter Chinese influence.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated some of these tensions, raising questions about the BRICS’ future. India, Brazil and Russia are in the top five countries with the most COVID-19 cases, and have demonstrated their inability to reduce their numbers in recent months. The social consequences, including gender inequality, economic inequality, an educational gap, and high unemployment, are serious. 

Economically, China was doing better than the other four in the last few years, and the trend continues. According to the IMF’s World Economic Outlook, China’s GDP grew by 1.9% in 2020, while all the other BRICS economies contracted. The NDB has been issuing loans to fight the pandemic, but a strategy for the long-term recovery of the worst-hit BRICS economies is missing. With each BRICS member at a different stage of recovery and with different priorities, finding common goals among these disparate countries could become harder.

The Advantages of the BRICS Framework

Despite these challenges, the group not only continues to exist and remain active in its previous projects, but it has also launched new ones last year. The annual summit bringing together the five leaders took place online in November 2020. It highlighted cooperation on the production of COVID-19 vaccines and new initiatives such as the creation of a network for female entrepreneurs from BRICS countries.

Ultimately, the BRICS forum provides some of its leaders with the chance to seem engaged with the world while remaining isolated in other ways. For instance, Russia is still under Western sanctions and excluded from the G7, and Bolsonaro’s relations with Brazil’s neighbors and the E.U. are growing tense. It would also be a blow to Chinese soft power and foreign policy interests if the BRICS ceased to exist, as Beijing seeks to counter balance the U.S.-based global system with other institutions. 

Moreover, the framework gives these states the opportunity to be more visible about countering the unipolarity of the U.S. and the liberal world order. This is especially relevant as Donald Trump—who has criticized international institutions and retracted the U.S. from its role of “benevolent hegemon”—will not return for a second term. 

Into the Post-Pandemic World

The BRICS is not a homogenous bloc, but it never aimed to be. Despite their differences, the group will endure as its members have many interests in keeping it alive. However, the BRICS’ handling of COVID-19 undermined their soft power and credibility in creating a multipolar global order. Their economic, political, and social problems, and China’s visible economic lead, exacerbated by the pandemic, are major obstacles for this group’s ambitious mission. 

Undoubtedly, the soft power of the U.S., the U.K. and many E.U. countries has also been hit by their mismanagement of COVID-19. This gives the BRICS an opportunity to critique Western-led institutions and promote their own initiatives. But it will be harder for them to claim that they can provide alternative global institutions for emerging economies if they cannot show how they will address the pandemic’s consequences at home and around the world.

To truly become a symbol of multipolarity in the post-COVID international system, they will need to demonstrate their common strategy and innovative solutions for tackling issues such as sustainable economic recovery, rising protectionism, and global health cooperation. But it is hard to see them coming to such a consensus anytime soon.

Anna Nadibaidze is Editor at Foreign Policy Rising.

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