BRICS+2.0: Integration Reloaded

The coming of China’s chairmanship in the BRICS grouping in 2022 is likely to provide a fresh impulse to the BRICS+ initiative that was launched during the Xiamen summit in 2017. A lot has changed in the course of this 5-year period and, if anything, these developments have reinforced the need for BRICS countries to reach out to the Global South economies and to advance their vision of a more balanced global governance. The various modalities of the BRICS+ framework discussed in the preceding years increasingly point to the relevance of a regional approach that prioritizes greater cooperation between regional integration arrangements where BRICS economies are members as well as their respective regional development institutions.

What happened in the span of the 5 years between China’s chairmanship in BRICS in 2017 and 2022? It appears that a lot of the developments in the BRICS universe were associated with the advancement of regional initiatives:

  • The launching of the RCEP project led by China and the ASEAN economies
  • The launching of the African Continental Free Trade Area (ACFTA)
  • BRICS+ summit in South Africa, with invitees being representatives of regional blocs from the Global South
  • The signing of a memorandum on understanding between the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) and MERCOSUR (in 2018) as well as between the EAEU and ASEAN (2018)
  • The creation of regional centers of the BRICS New Development Bank (NDB) in South Africa, Brazil and Russia.
  • Approval of the expansion in the membership of the BRICS New Development Bank (NDB) to include Bangladesh and Uruguay — the regional partners of India and Brazil respectively

There is also the Covid pandemic that has rendered the global economy more fragmented and regionalized. Another important development of the past several years is the emergence of regional/trans-regional blocs such as the QUAD and AUKUS. The QUAD in particular aims to expand its purview from military cooperation to economic policy matters within the format of an enlarged QUAD+. In the structural sphere a key trend of the past several years is the emergence of the “platform economy”, with corporate platforms becoming the leading engines of growth and innovation. Similar trends are also observed at the regional level, with mega-regional integration arrangements serving as platforms for the aggregation of the multitudes of bilateral and regional FTAs.

All these developments point to the expediency of further advancing the BRICS+ platform on the basis of cooperation among regional integration arrangements and their development institutions where BRICS countries are members. Such a platform could have the BEAMS concept as its core — namely cooperation among the key regional integration initiatives of BRICS economies such as BIMSTEC, EAEU, ASEAN-China FTA, Mercosur and SADC/SACU. This circle of cooperation could be complemented by platforms between regional development banks/regional financing arrangements and NDB/BRICS CRA respectively.

One of the ways to upgrade/modernize this BRICS+ concept into a “BRICS+ 2.0” would be to take on board some of the recent proposals from the World Economic Forum (WEF) concerning the modalities of economic alliances in the modern world. The proposed governance structure (as reflected in the World Economic Forum report entitled “Globalization 4.0 Shaping a New Global Architecture in the Age of the Fourth Industrial Revolution”) was characterized by greater flexibility at various levels of governance to pursue plurilateral agreements in specific sectors without the need to ensure complete support for new liberalization initiatives from all countries. In the context of the BRICS+ circle such a framework may leave open the possibility for bilateral and plurilateral agreements to complement the core network of regional alliances formed by BRICS countries and their respective regional neighbours.

Ultimately, the value of the BRICS+ paradigm is not in extending the BRICS countries’ reach or ambition — it is about a qualitative change in the pattern of economic development in the Global South. Rather than competing one by one to edge closer to the model of advanced Western economies, the BRICS+ paradigm focusses BRICS countries efforts towards cooperating in building ties with their regional partners and building a common platform for the integration of developing nations into the global economy.

Compared to the original BRICS format, BRICS+ has the advantage of stronger “gravitational ties” at the level of regions that are more massive (and hence exert a stronger gravitational pull in line with the indications of the economic “gravity model” à la Tinbergen) than the respective five BRICS economies. Another important advantage of the BRICS+ framework is greater scope for connectivity projects, which is something that is currently pursued via the creation of BRICS NDB regional centres and the expansion of BRICS NDB membership to include BRICS regional neighbours such as Bangladesh and Uruguay. There is far less scope for such connectivity to be pursued in the more narrow and geographically more separated BRICS space.

The BRICS+ also increases the optionality and the scope of alliances that may be pursued by BRICS countries across the Global South economic space. Moreover, BRICS+ may be the only viable and harmonized format for BRICS to advance common initiatives in the sphere of economic integration, since the majority of BRICS economies now conduct their trade policy only in the framework of their respective regional integration arrangements. This is the case in particular with Brazil (MERCOSUR), Russia (EAEU), South Africa (SADC/SACU). To put this more bluntly, the regional BRICS+ format is the only feasible platform for economic integration alliances to be finally launched among the BRICS countries after an extended period of limited economic advances in the sphere of common economic integration. It may be time then for BRICS to effect a transition to a consistent regional format that could open the possibilities for a new phase of alliances across the wide economic terrain of the Global South.