Taking the BRICS Seriously

BEIJING – Sailing down the Moscow River on a cool evening earlier this month, I found myself in intense conversation with the chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Chinese National People’s Congress (NPC). Meanwhile, South African and Brazilian parliamentarians were swaying to Russian music and a guide pointed out the sights. The first parliamentary forum of the BRICS countries – Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa – had come to a convivial conclusion.

Before the meeting opened, many wondered whether the five parliaments could possibly find common ground. What on earth could India’s fractious and rumbustious Lok Sabha, with its impassioned debates and disruptions, have in common with China’s decorous NPC, a rigorously controlled echo chamber for Communist Party decisions? Membership in the new BRICS grouping, many believed, did not provide a strong enough basis for cooperation.

Such skepticism has been leveled at the BRICS grouping itself from its inception, with some dismissing it as the only international organization invented by an investment bank. Specifically, the term BRIC was coined more than a decade ago by then-Goldman Sachs analyst Jim O’Neill, who did not initially count South Africa among the ranks of the major emerging economies.

But Russian President Vladimir Putin liked the idea from the start, and suggested in 2006 that the four countries should meet regularly. The grouping was soon formalized, with annual summits planned. South Africa joined in 2011, solidifying the BRICS’ presence across the global South, with only Russia in the North.