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Africa Macro 23 July 2018

The geopolitical context of the 10th BRICS Summit

Simon Freemantle

Leadership in the times of Trump

  • This week, from 25 to 27 July, the BRICS heads of state will gather for the 10th Summit of the grouping since its formation (originally as BRIC) in 2009.
  • From a geopolitical perspective, the summit presents the BRICS with the opportunity to assert their collective role in championing some of the principles that US President Donald Trump has so stridently undermined. Here, the BRICS will likely assert their strong commitment to free trade in particular, a stance which the so-called trade war between the US and some of its largest international trade partners, particularly China, will imbue with additional political lustre. Further to this, the BRICS will likely place strong emphasis on the need for continued commitment to existing global multilateral institutions as well as to the Paris Agreement on climate change.
  • The BRICS will also be able to place continued emphasis on the need for multilateral institutions to reflect the changing balance of global economic and political power. Since 2000, the share of global GDP held by the world’s developing and emerging economies has doubled from 20% to over 40%. And, the collective GDP of the BRICS has increased during this same time period from USD2.7tr to USD16.8tr. Today, total BRICS GDP is substantially larger than that of the euro zone. Bolstering this point, as well as the role of the BRICS in representing the global ‘South’, the upcoming summit will likely see a strong emphasis on alternative BRICS financial institutions such as the New Development Bank (NDB), as well as the BRICS Plus initiative through which host countries are enabled to invite additional developing countries to BRICS summits as participants. This year South Africa has invited 13 additional countries to participate, nine of which are from Africa.
  • The summit will also offer President Ramaphosa an opportunity to stamp his diplomatic mark on the BRICS grouping. In this regard, we expect a stronger focus on SA’s strategic and commercial interests as well as a bolder effort to use the BRICS framework to assert SA’s role in representing Africa in matters of global concern.   
  • Within the BRICS themselves, recent changes offer the potential for more lasting political continuity. Since the BRICS last met in September last year, there have been elections in Russia and China (providing a further six years in power for Russian President Vladimir Putin, and a further five years for Chinese President Xi Jinping), as well as a changeover in South Africa as a result of Cyril Ramaphosa’s election as president of the ANC in December. As it stands, next year’s elections in India and SA will likely see both President Ramaphosa and Indian PM Narendra Modi returned to power. Thus, of the five heads of state gathering this week, it is not implausible that four will remain in office for the next five years or more (Brazil’s president Michel Temer will vacate office after the country’s elections in October this year).
  • In all, and notwithstanding the clear challenges and inconsistencies within the BRICS grouping (not the least of which remains China’s overbearing economic scale within the grouping), the summit presents a clear opportunity for the BRICS economies broadly, and for SA specifically, to assert themselves on a global stage which has been shaken, and perhaps even weakened, by President Trump’s abrasive political tactics. 

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