BRIC A Convenient Illusion, Not A Lasting Alliance

By Oliver Stuenkel

Judging from the anti-China rhetoric that has dominated the mid-term election campaign in the United States, the potential for stronger ties between a surging and dynamic China, and a defensive and declining US seems very limited.

If Americans are so hostile toward China now, one can imagine the hysteria in around 15 years when China may overtake the US as the world's largest economy.

Chinese analysts may therefore conclude that the nation should focus on other emerging powers such as India and Brazil, which are equally forward-looking, bold and self-confident as they rise. The BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China) alliance seems like an ideal vehicle.

And indeed, China has significantly strengthened ties to the other BRIC members over the past decade.

Yet despite the continued hype about the emerging powers, China must be careful not to take the BRIC alliance too seriously. While the label conveniently boosted China's image across the world, betting on the strategic importance of the alliance is bound to lead to disappointment. The BRIC label may not be able to stand the test of time, and China should continue to maintain strong ties to established powers.

Jim O'Neill, an economist from Goldman Sachs, has been hailed for the invention of the BRIC label. Yet the transformation of the BRIC acronym from an investment term into a political reality is not a sign of O'Neill's prescience.

The triumph of the BRIC label and its enthusiastic acceptance even by its "members" is a testament to rising powers' unfilled yearning to understand an ever complex world and their place in it.

Across history, scholars and policy-makers have attempted to distinguish between countries according to categories, groups and blocs organized along different variables.

In 1946 Winston Churchill successfully established such a concept when he introduced the idea of an "Iron Curtain," using ideology as the organizing principle.  Six years later, French demographer Alfred Sauvy coined the term "Third World" helping human beings across the world understand the international system.

Today these models are no longer meaningful, so there have been many proposals since the turn of the century about how to reconceptualize geopolitical reality.

The BRICs were different. Since O'Neill only looked at economics and never intended to devise a political alliance when he created the term, the countries he chose were very heterogeneous. Brazil and India are two democracies that are not yet fully established in today's order, while China and Russia have been established powers since 1945.

The four disagree on virtually everything, including trade, climate change, human rights, and the reform of global governance.

Despite all this, the BRICs turned into a household term among international policy- makers. Their leaders begun to refer to themselves as "BRIC members" and agreed that they needed to strengthen "intra-BRIC" ties.

In 2009 President Lula, President Medvedev, Prime Minister Singh and President Hu Jintao met for a BRIC summit in St. Petersburg. A second BRIC summit followed in April 2010 in Brasília.

Yet after initial optimism during negotiations and grand announcements about a "new world order," the BRIC members realized that their positions were too far apart to agree on any specific measures.

The BRICs' discontent with the system and claim for a greater say, their revisionist rhetoric, the vagueness about what should be changed and their eventually reluctant acknowledgement that the system is fundamentally sound showed that reality is more complicated than fiction, and that O'Neill's category is too broad to be meaningful.

What the success of the BRIC label really showed was that scholars and investors are not the only ones who search for a category that can capture reality. Heads of state long for a meaningful way to understand the world as well. The four leaders essentially met in St. Petersburg to try on the category O'Neill had devised for them.

Rather than pointing to their similarities, their behavior reflected their strong desire to comprehend which category they themselves belong to.

In a rapidly changing world were the traditional parameters of East vs. West, North vs. South and rich vs. poor no longer provide any guidance for rising powers, trying on the "BRIC hat" was merely another episode, yet certainly not the last, in their complex search for their identity and place in a world they will soon rule.
Editors Note: The author is a visiting professor of International Relations at the University of São Paulo. He writes about emerging powers at www.postwesternworld.com.
Global Times