“Multipolar” system? Russia and China are turning the BRICS into an increasingly political bloc

Created in 2009 as a partnership to deepen economic ties between the world’s greatest emerging powers, the BRICS (acronym for Brazil, Russia, India , China and South Africa – the latter entered later, in 2011) have been instrumental in easing the sanctions imposed on Moscow by the West due to the war in Ukraine.

In addition to mechanisms parallel to the Swift banking transaction communication system, from which the main Russian banks were disconnected, Chinese and Indians increased their oil imports from the country ruled by Vladimir Putin, predicting a reduction in purchases and/or or the establishment of a price ceiling for the Russian product by European countries.

The Brics aim to expand – in September, Argentina formally requested its entry into the bloc -, until even with contradictory movements: after speculation that Iran could join the group, in recent weeks there has been talk about an accession of Saudi Arabia, enemy that of Tehran.

Regardless of where these questions go, what seems certain is that the BRICS, which were born as an economic bloc, are increasingly becoming a group political.

This was made clear in a statement by Putin in June, during the bloc’s virtual summit. “For the BRICS countries to assume a leadership role, today it is more necessary than ever to develop a unifying and positive policy in order to create a system truly multipolar”, pointed out the Russian president.

In a recent article for the Economics Observatory website, Matthew Bishop, a researcher at the University of Sheffield (England), considered that Russia and China (which reaffirmed in February, shortly before the start of the war in Ukraine, an “unlimited” partnership) have even more similar political profiles, with the consolidation of Xi Jinping’s power in the Asian country and the authoritarian escalation of Putin, while India under Narendra Modi also reinforces a nationalist rhetoric, with widespread human rights violations.

“Consequently, some European and American public policymakers fear that the BRICS could become less of an economic club of rising powers that seek to influence global growth and development, and yet another political club defined by its authoritarian nationalism,” highlighted Bishop.

In an article wholly sympathetic to the Kremlin, Fyodor Lukyanov, and chief editor of the website Russia in Global Affairs, said that until the beginning of this year there were no major efforts within the BRICS to deepen economic ties or to transform the bloc into an alternative to the G7, the group of seven most developed countries in the world, “because links with the West were crucial for all its members.”

However, according to the journalist, this has changed since the Russian “special military operation” (as the Kremlin describes the invasion) in Ukraine and the sanctions subsequently imposed by the West. The non-adherence to these measures by other countries, especially those of the BRICS, indicates that there is room for an alternative to Western “hegemony”, in Lukyanov’s opinion – the so-called “multipolar” system defended by Putin.

“All other countries, especially the big BRICS states or those that claim a role of their own in the world, not only distanced themselves from joining the Western campaign but openly rejected it, despite such a stance entailing the risk of repercussions for the United States and its allies”, wrote the Russian journalist.

“A centralized international system, led by a hegemonic actor, is doomed to end. This will happen regardless of the outcome of the conflict in Ukraine [Lukyanov não usa o termo guerra no artigo em nenhum momento]. And so other formats will be in high demand. The new circumstances will open perspectives for the BRICS.”

Internal contradictions

For Ana Flávia Pigozzo, professor of the course of international business at the Pontifical Catholic University of Paraná (PUCPR), the BRICS were already born with a political bias – the proof is that they did not become a traditional economic bloc, in the sense of tax exemptions, lasting strategic partnerships between all its members and others movements.

“The BRICS have a broader background, to bring academia, central banks together, to create equal policies, but it ends up not having much impact in practice. There is no automatic tax benefit, as in Mercosur. So, the bloc ends up being kind of forgotten by the businessmen of each country”, argued Pigozzo.

“Certainly what Russia is looking for is to strengthen itself in other regions, for losing strength in the United States and in Europe. As if she asked herself: ‘Who are my friends?’ There’s already China, India, so if Moscow wants to get closer to the Middle East, it tries to bring a country from there; wants to strengthen itself in South America, so it looks for someone else to not just depend on Brazil: it brings Argentina. From the beginning, the BRICS already have a political bias”, added the professor.

A deepening of this profile would bring challenges. In addition to the contradiction that enemies Iran and Saudi Arabia are interested in joining the BRICS, there are border disputes between India and China, and Brazil does not seem willing to endorse a more politicized view of the bloc: after abstaining from voting at the United Nations on the war in Ukraine, this month Brasilia voted in favor of condemning Russia for the annexation of four Ukrainian regions. He was the only member of the BRICS to do so.

Another fundamental obstacle is that China and India’s support for Russia collides with pragmatism: the two countries avoid a clear endorsement of the invasion to Ukraine because they know that this would close markets in the West to them.

Ana Flávia Pigozzo believes that the deepening of the political bias of the BRICS comes up against internal contradictions, which have already put a brake on the partnership in the economic field.

“It is a block that, if we think about its creation time, could have evolved much more. These interests are often so antagonistic that the bloc ends up being compromised by the problems between one and the other and ends up not strengthening itself in what would be interesting. The interest in a Brazil-China relationship, for example, can go against an interest of India. What really adds to each other? I believe that even because of this the block did not grow, it did not gain enough strength”, she pointed out.

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