Not economic, but political strategy behind joining BRICS

Debapriya BhattacharyaProthom Alo

Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa make up the BRICS alliance in 2006, aiming at increasing trade and investment among the member nations. These developing economies account for approximately 42 per cent of the world population. 

Recently, Bangladesh has formally applied to join the alliance. Debapriya Bhattacharya, distinguished fellow at the Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD), shared his insights on the economic potential and political ambitions of BRICS in an interview with Prothom Alo.

Q :

The news of Bangladesh's application to join BRICS has surfaced at a time when the country is a hot topic in the international arena. Some other nations, like Saudi Arabia, also expressed their interest in joining BRICS. How significant would BRICS membership be for Bangladesh?

We have some issues to understand why Bangladesh expressed its interest to join BRICS. To begin with, the global system is in need of reform at the moment and it is acknowledged by all. Many multilateral mechanisms have been rendered ineffective due to the dominance of the United States. It is also crucial for upholding socio-economic and climate change related rights of the least developed and relatively less developed countries. 

Additionally, Bangladesh's interest in joining BRICS may stem from the broader effort to gear up the role of developing nations through a southern alliance.

We have to keep it in mind that the current BRICS members have greater aspirations. Their desire to rope in Bangladesh might be driven by a pull factor. Also, the desire may stem from a push factor on the point of view that Bangladesh may seek to gain solidarity from some other big nations due to its current conflicting position with the Western powers. 

We have noticed different types of reprimands and punitive measures from some major world powers over elections as well as human rights conditions in Bangladesh. We have also seen diverse responses from the government. 

There is room to explain the decision to join BRICS in the light of these reactions. 

Q :

Bangladesh is already a part of some alliances, like SAARC, BIMSTEC, and D-8. They also aim to enhance trade relations among member countries. However, we have not seen substantial benefits from these alliances. Bangladesh imports a significant amount of raw materials from the two key members of BRICS. What advantages can we expect from BRICS?

It raises the crucial issue that we need to understand why exactly Bangladesh is joining BRICS. Is it for political or economic reasons? Or are we joining BRICS being driven by development thinking?

Q :

Isn't it clear?

See, it is a complex issue. Currently, BRICS success does not lie in trade, investment, or technology transfer. Instead, it now revolves over development finance. 

The New Development Bank (NDB) has been established, and Bangladesh has become its member. India and China are our prime import sources, while the US and the European Union are our markets. These are not competitive markets, rather privileged ones for Bangladesh. These nations also play a significant role in terms of investment and remittances. Thus, political, institutional, and developmental considerations are at play here.

The G20, if we keep aside the G7, is working effectively in the world, while other alliances confined themselves in grand gatherings. Therefore, I seek to know the true purpose behind Bangladesh's interest in joining BRICS. The main purpose is economic, but that does not seem instantly. In fact, Bangladesh is seeking a form of political integration.

Q :

You mentioned the achievements of BRICS. The alliance has been in place for quite some time. What progress has been made or results achieved so far?

BRICS holds enormous economic potential, but its achievements have been limited till the date. The alliance aims to reform the existing global system where the southern block will have a stronger voice. At the same time, they also seek an alternative. 

However, the alliance lacks the capacity, power, and determination to create a viable alternative. It becomes evident when we see India, China, and Russia. 

Besides, transition in government leadership in Brazil and South Africa often lead to changes in the alliance's approach. So far, BRICS has been a collective voice from the south. Among its member nations, some have a desire to be a member (with veto power) of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). 

Are some southern countries aspiring to be part of the North? If so, a question arises whether minors are being exploited in this process.

Q :

BRICS is mainly an economic alliance. Its members are India and China. There is also leftist leader like Brazilian President Lula da Silva. So, many people say many things about the political nature of BRICS.

Along with the Covid-19 pandemic, global crisis, price surge, supply chain collapse, and availability of vaccines – taking all these into consideration, there has been a new realisation. There has been a spot on the unbeaten image of the developed countries. Emerging nations are looking to strengthening their political institutions. We have seen they are looking for alternative currency and tilting towards an alternative trade system. Though they marched towards the economic expectation, their police and geostrategic position are in opposite direction. As a result, it is becoming difficult for them to achieve their economic prosperity.

This is a complex situation for Bangladesh. From where Bangladesh is getting inspiration to join BRICS – I say it again, it is more of a political strategic matter than the outlook of economic development. The incumbent government faces a kind of pressure from the developed world politically and on the questions of democracy, human rights and election. As a country, we are not alone to face these questions, so we are becoming together to show it. How the BRICS will expand – that policy or method is yet to be fixed. Had this policy been fixed, would the existing differences between us and the developed world have been expanded further? Would the crisis deepen further? These questions are coming to the fore now.

Q :

Brazilian president Lula Da Silva raised questions on whether trade cannot be done in a currency other than the US dollar. Talks on de-dollarisation gain momentum. Is there an anti-US block rising in world trade centring BRICS?

The issue of de-dollarisation does not exactly go with the reality. However, there is an effort. Like we say many times that a buzz is being created.

Q :

But talks are going round and there is a kind of political issue. Since the BRICS doesn’t include the major export destinations of Bangladesh, can the country fall into any risk?

We say BRICS. This B is not for Bangladesh, there is an R that is not for Rwanda. We must keep in mind there is a south in the south and also a north within the south, meaning that India and China are here. Their trade with the US depends on each other while our country’s trade mostly depends on the West.

The big can debate, but it is important on which side of the event I have taken a seat. It’s a risky place. It has been open that there is pressure on us to join the Indo-Pacific regional block. Though we spoke of a desire to join the BRICS, we must see that we don’t fall in the crossfire by participating in the game of the elders. This concern grows when we stay in the middle of the contradictory behaviour of Western countries.

Q :

Many think more than half of global Gross Domestic Product (GDP) may come from countries of BRICS by 2030. This is also true that opportunities of exporting commodities may be created if Bangladesh joins BRICS.

There are markets. But the main thing is what you make. What Bangladesh makes, India and China do. However, our cheap clothes are being exported to those countries due to high wages there.  Our main market is the developed world. It does not seem this will change in the next one-two decades. Despite graduating from the least developed countries, we will get facilities in these markets. Will we get these facilities from countries in the south? There is no guarantee that China and India will continue duty free facilities.

Q :

Bangladesh is a member of the New Development Bank of BRICS. More countries may join BRICS. How is the possibility of investment from this alliance?

We have opened special economic zones for the main countries of BRICS. We have given three economic zones to India. They have merely built boundary walls. But no investment has come. Investment from China has increased a bit. I am not talking about assistance or suppliers' credit. I am talking about direct investment.

Another thing needs to be taken into consideration. Out of the World Trade Organisation, it is not seen that we have production capacity for mega regional systems or multilateral systems such as Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RSEP).

The Universal system is undoubtedly better for Bangladesh than the mega regional or multilateral system. Systems like the WTO give more protection to comparatively weak countries.

Q :

Bangladesh's application to join BRICS may be considered at the BRICS conference in South Africa in August. China has already declared they are ready to welcome Bangladesh. What should be the strategy for Bangladesh?

Those who want to join BRICS will also assess what would be the impact for joining BRICS. It should be kept in mind that Russia, a member of BRICS, is engaged in war with many countries directly or indirectly. Some countries will be eager to strengthen bilateral relations with Russia. There will be multifarious characteristics here.

If Bangladesh joins BRICS, it has to advance with capacity and sagacity. We say you will participate strategically, simultaneously maintain strategic distance. What would be the practical reflection--as we say friendship to all, malice to none? We will join all, but maintain strategic distance.

However, the country is entering into an uncertain election environment, moving towards a political transformation, at this time strategic steps become more challenging. For that time and merits have to be spent, a goal has to be fixed. It depends on what strategy has to be taken in future. That is why, saying the time is not very easy.

Q :

Thank you

Thank you too