Common ground in short supply as China hosts BRICS

Xiamen (China) (AFP) –


The five BRICS nations hold their annual summit in China on Monday under the shadow of a Sino-Indian border spat and growing questions about the grouping's relevance.

BRICS -- Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa -- was formed to allow the biggest emerging economies representing more than 40 percent of humanity to form a united front in a world whose trade and finance rules were written by the West.

But the bloc seems no closer to that goal as President Xi Jinping convenes its ninth summit in the southeastern Chinese city of Xiamen.

Lumping together far-flung and vastly different political and economic systems, BRICS has long been viewed by many as contrived, its members' priorities diverging while its list of significant achievements remains modest.

"It's really tough to see how BRICS is any type of coherent anything. What do they have in common?" said Christopher Balding, a Peking University economics professor.

"Economically, trade-wise, financially, they all do things very differently. It's difficult to see any room for overlap."

BRICS includes Communist-ruled China, authoritarian Russia and the democracies of India, Brazil and South Africa; China's economic powerhouse, a rising India, and Russian, Brazilian and South African economies hit hard by weak prices of export commodities.

Brazilian President Michel Temer and South Africa's Jacob Zuma, meanwhile, arrive distracted by political turmoil at home.

- Himalayan face-off -

A major threat to BRICS comity lies in tension between nuclear-armed China and India, who recently locked horns over a disputed Himalayan border region.

A full-blown crisis was averted as they backed off last week -- perhaps to avoid sullying the summit -- but it left a bitter aftertaste.

Foreign Minister Wang Yi pointedly said Wednesday that China hopes India will "learn lessons from this incident and prevent similar things from happening again".

There is also mistrust over China's ally Pakistan, which Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi -- who also will attend -- has labelled a font of terrorism.

Modi snubbed a separate summit called by Xi in May to promote the Chinese leader's vision of reinvigorated ancient east-west trading routes, which is seen by many analysts as a Chinese geopolitical power play.

Expect a muted BRICS summit as participants tread on eggshells to prevent exposing divisions, said Shi Yinhong, an international relations professor with Beijing's Renmin University.

"BRICS envisioned quite a hopeful direction for the future but so far has had very limited influence on world politics and economics," Shi said.

"Under these circumstance, they will try not to do what they can't, and try not to say what they shouldn't."

Analysts say BRICS achievements to date are largely limited to low-hanging fruit on institutional cooperation.

Perhaps its biggest success was the 2016 establishment of the Shanghai-based New Development Bank, envisioned as the developing world's World Bank, but many economists doubt it will be influential.

Meanwhile, trade within the bloc is heavily tilted in China's favour, fuelling some of the same complaints about Chinese trade practices that are voiced by the United States and others. India alone has lodged several trade cases against China this year.

Bilateral meetings including Xi-Putin talks expected late Sunday could touch on other international issues, such as concerns over North Korea.

But Chinese foreign minister Wang denied suggestions the summit would be overshadowed by such bigger issues.

"Maybe some countries are not interested (in the summit), but that doesn't matter," Wang told reporters in Beijing last week, "BRICS cooperation will continue to move forward."