BRICS Summit 2018: From trade wars to increasing India's footprint, Narendra Modi has his plate full in Johannesburg

The 10th edition of the BRICS Summit will take place in Johannesburg on Thursday with Prime Minister Narendra Modi attending it to culminate his three-leg Africa tour. Modi will be looking to use this opportunity to further his 'make in India' mission and bring together the member nations on a common ground against terrorism and trade wars.

BRICS is a grouping of five major emerging economies: Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. Originally the first four were grouped as "BRIC", before the induction of South Africa in 2010. The members, this year, are expected to deliberate on issues like international peace and security, global governance and trade wars among others.

BRICS leaders at the 2018 summit. Reuters

BRICS leaders at the 2018 summit. Reuters

The theme of the summit this year is 'BRICS in Africa: collaboration for inclusive growth and shared prosperity in the 4th Industrial Revolution'. India's relations with South Africa date back several centuries as India was at the forefront of the international community in its support to the anti-apartheid movement in Africa. The year 2018 also marks 25 years since the resumption of India's diplomatic relations with South Africa in 1993. The South African Indian-origin community is around 1.5 million strong and constitutes about 3 percent of South Africa's total population.

Modi's stance

Modi, however, will be doing a balancing act of cooperation and parity with all the other members. On one hand, he will be seeking new deals for India, while on other he will ensure that the member nations reach a consensus on key issues like trade tariffs and terrorism.

The issues broadly include: multilateralism, global governance, health and vaccines, socio-economic empowerment of women, peacekeeping, network of science, parks and technology, inclusive growth, sustainable development and infrastructure. But for the first time, a BRICS leaders' retreat is being organised wherein leaders will deliberate and take stock of BRICS cooperation during the decade and on its future prospects, the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) said in its press release.

The idea of a BRICS rating agency will also be taken up during this year's summit, said Secretary Economic Relations in MEA, TS Tirumurti. India had pressed the BRICS nations to set up an independent rating agency of the five-member group during the first meeting of the BRICS finance ministers and Central bank governors which was held on the sidelines of the IMF/World Bank spring meetings in April 2018.

Whereas, speaking at the informal meeting of the BRICS leaders on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in 2017, Modi had also said that expeditious action should be taken to establish the BRICS credit rating agency while asserting that the BRICS group has to be a voice of stability, reform, progress and governance at the world stage.

Key issues and member agenda

The summit might also see the five nations hit out against US president Donald Trump's protectionist trade policies as norms on greater financial integration and investment facilitation are discussed, a Business Standard report said.

According to the report, the nations are also set to take forward discussions on the 'BRICS Investment Facilitation', a mechanism to facilitate investments among member nations. However, India and China are on opposite ends of the investment facilitation debate with Beijing actively pushing for a trade facilitation agreement on investments at the WTO and India insisting that such a decision should only be taken with a consensus. At the BRICS finance ministers meeting earlier in 2018, the BRICS nations had agreed to "fight against trade protectionism together".

Even in BRICS 2017, four documents, including one on economic and trade cooperation, were signed by all the five BRICS countries with an aim to deepen commercial ties among the group members. But, the agenda for 2018 could largely predicate on some key factors like trade wars.

Firstly, this summit is being held in the backdrop of the US trade war which is likely to hit all five nations of the group. The focus will thus be on consolidating intra-BRICS trade through reduced tariffs. Secondly, Russia and China may not be having the best of relations currently with the US and the rest of Europe but both President Xi Jinping and President Vladimir Putin will look to consolidate their leadership for closer cooperation within the BRICS community.

President Xi on Wednesday called on the BRICS members to uphold multilateralism and improve global governance. "We should urge all parties to fully observe collectively adopted international rules, and we should treat all countries as equals regardless of their size," Xi said. He asked the BRICS countries to promote common, comprehensive, cooperative and sustainable security and to get actively involved in mediation efforts for resolving geopolitical issues. "It is important for us to firmly support the multilateral trading regime, advance global economic governance reform and increase the representation and voice of emerging markets and developing countries," Xi said, as per reports by Xinhua.

Thus, the threat of a worsening global trade war will top the agenda of this year's summit. Russian economy minister Maxim Oreshkin said ahead of the meeting that "this summit is about the context – we are at a time when the US and China announce new measures almost every week". He said much of the discussions with China would focus on what is happening with the United States. "This is a trade war, so leaders' discussions are particularly important in coordinating our positions," Oreshkin said.

Meanwhile, China has pledged to boost cooperation with fellow countries in response to trade frictions with the US. It will do so in response to the "challenges posed by the changing policies of certain developed countries," said China's assistant foreign minister Zhang Jun.

Therefore, Johannesburg will see much emphasis on consolidating members’ trade relations through the likes of reduced tariffs. This will also boost trade between the member countries, which has been stagnant or declining in recent years.

For India, the agenda will be two-fold. Firstly, it needs to use its influence to cultivate the Russia-China axis as a counterweight to the US, which is becoming increasingly inward-looking. Secondly, India will have to present its market as wide open for a higher level of investments from these countries.

Apart from this, Africa and sustainable development will also receive much attention in this year's summit. Despite the heavyweight delegates list, South African leader Cyril Ramaphosa will stand apart as a host and a debutante president. Since Africa's economy has been shrinking marred with corruption issues, Ramaphosa will be hoping to secure extra investment and trade agreements from his counterparts.

The leaders of other African countries and institutions are also attending the summit as a part of BRICS’ ongoing outreach programme, following tours of the region by both the Indian prime minister and Chinese president.

Meanwhile, the Brazilian delegation will be looking for new forms of co-operation that can benefit their sluggish economy, which is threatened by the large-looming American trade and currency war.

As for Russia, its substantial political influence will be its main card to play at a time when Russia is on the verge of being an outcast for some countries. President Putin would look to demonstrate warm relations with the fellow members. Also, following Putin’s recent bilateral talks with US President Donald Trump, the summit is a chance for Russia to enhance its global position and undermine Western containment, particularly the economic sanctions imposed after the Crimean crisis in 2014. In fact, close ties between Russia and China will also be a theme, after China’s foreign minister recently described them as being at “their best level in history”, the Eyewitness News reported.

Turkey's Role

Moreover, a significant additional feature to this year's summit is the participation of Turkey. "The summit presents an important opportunity for its member countries and Turkey to develop closer cooperation", as the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan put it.

Before heading to South Africa, Erdogan made the remarks during a press conference at the Ankara airport, adding that the BRICS member countries have contributed in the last decade to 50 percent of the global economic growth. And, even though Turkey is not a member of the BRICS, Erdogan will attend a special session of the event in his capacity as the current chair of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, Xinhua reported.

Russia and Turkey's cooperation has significantly increased in recent years and the two countries look to work together on Syrian issues to find a peaceful solution to the crisis at the Turkish border.

However, will the BRICS members emerge as a credible bloc that can stand up to the US, EU, the G7, and the OPEC is what will remain to be seen after the Johannesburg summit gets over.


Updated Date: Jul 26, 2018 08:53 AM

Also See