Is joining BRICS an economic or a political decision?

The issue of Bangladesh joining BRICS, the five-nation economic bloc, has proceeded with considerable alacrity. Earlier, in 2021, Bangladesh had joined the New Development Bank (NDB), formed by the BRICS member states.

Prime minister Sheikh Hasina on 14 June met with the South African president Cyril Ramaphosa in Geneva. South Africa is the present head of BRICS. It was after that meeting that Bangladesh’s foreign minister AK Abdul Momen had been officially expressing Bangladesh’s interest in joining BRICS. And within a week, Bangladesh even applied for membership.

China is lending its support to Bangladesh for everything now. As the most powerful member of this grouping, it has already declared that Bangladesh will be welcomed to BRICS.

In the meantime, several reactions from economic and foreign affairs analysts regarding Bangladesh joining BRICS have appeared in the media. In general, Bangladesh’s affiliation with BRICS is being eyed positively. There may not be any immediate economic gains from this, but joining BRICS will create scope for Bangladesh to establish trade ties with the member states.

Also, being a member of BRICS may promote Bangladesh’s worth and status in the eyes of investors. There is a lot of discussion on the potential and future of BRICS. Many plans have been heard of too. What Bangladesh may gain by joining BRICS depends a lot on the expansion of this grouping.

From a diplomatic angle, this can be considered a multilateral involvement of the foreign policy. This alliance has been formed with five rapidly growing economies of the world. It comprises China, Russia, India, Brazil and South Africa. Joining this grouping, means Bangladesh’s name will be associated with these countries.

South African foreign minister Naledi Pandor, in an interview this March, said that there is extensive interest in the BRICS group worldwide. Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirate, Bahrain, Iran, Indonesia, Argentina and Mexico are among the countries expressing interest in BRICS. If BRICS accepts Bangladesh’s application, undoubtedly this will be a boost to Bangladesh’s importance in the international arena.

If we look at the existing five members of BRICS, we will see a political and geographical diversity. Many western analysts were rather skeptical about the affiliation and outcome of this apparently disparate group of countries. But now BRICS has emerged as a reality and many feel that the manner in which it is proceeding, may emerge as a challenge to the western-controlled economic system and the US dollar too.

Foreign policy analyst and deputy editor of Newsweek, Tom O’Connor, in his piece ‘China and Russia’s Growing BRICS Bloc Speeds Decline of US Influence’, writes: “As the United States struggles to maintain influence across vast parts of the Global South, the expanding BRICS bloc led by Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa is receiving more applications than ever before, signaling a growing shift in the international economic order.”

From the very outset it was clear that BRICS was endeavouring to represent the Global South as a counter to the Global North. It always wants to pose as an alternative model to G-7, the organisation of the most wealthy and advanced countries of the world. If the global GDP is taken into consideration, the BRICS countries together has surpassed G-7. In 2021, BRICS’ global GDP was 31.5 per cent. It can be assumed that by 2030 BRICS will have 50 per cent of the global GDP in its control.

Economist Philip Pilkington feels that (The New BRICS Alliance of Moral Threat to the West) that the new global reserve currency that BRICS is speculating to initiate, will be a mortal threat to the US dollar. If BRICS’ reach spreads in the days ahead and new countries join it, this apprehension will multiply.

BRICS is an economic grouping, but it has a clear position and side in global politics. The stance of the BRICS member states after the Russian attack on Ukraine may be taken into consideration. The member states maintained a distance with the ‘West’ in this regard. None of these five countries joined in the sanctions against Russia. Quite to the contrary, Russia’s trade with India increased.

“Diplomatically, the war in Ukraine appears to have drawn a stark dividing line between an eastern-backed Russia and the West," political scientist Matthew Bishop from the University of Sheffield has observed. He wrote in the Economic Observer last year that "Consequently, some European and US policymakers worry that the BRICS may become less an economic club of rising powers seeking to influence global growth and development, and more a political one defined by their authoritarian nationalism."

The problem is, the interests of the country and the interests of the ruling party (to remain in power), may not always converge on the same point

Deputy director of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP), Günther Maihold, feels that the BRICS countries are in a position to become geopolitically important. He feels that in this bipolar world, countries like South Africa, India and Brazil are trying to consolidate their standing. Meanwhile, China is using this platform for its global ambitions.

It is only natural for the West to have misgivings concerning the ‘authoritarian nationalism’ of the BRICS countries and China’s ‘global ambitions’. The western world eyes BRICS with suspicion and mistrust, particularly because of the presence of China and Russia in the grouping.

It is not feasible at the moment to calculate the economic gains Bangladesh may make by joining BRICS, but it is possible to make certain assumptions and calculations from the political aspect.

We are aware that the changed geopolitical circumstances of the region have given Bangladesh added importance. It has become ground for the US-China competition. Whether we like it or not, this is how things stand. The question in such a sensitive and complex situation is, how can Bangladesh ensure its interests? The problem is, the interests of the country and the interests of the ruling party (to remain in power), may not always converge on the same point.

 The stand that the US has adopted concerning Bangladesh’s forthcoming election, is naturally not very pleasing to those at the helm. The ruling party people are castigating the US for this stand. In the meantime China has openly declared its support for the government. Now if the government mixes up its own interests with the interests of the country, that will be dangerous.

China has welcomed Bangladesh’s decision to join BRICS. It hardly needs a geopolitical expert to understand that the US and the other western counties will not be pleased by this decision. The question then will naturally arise as to whether Bangladesh has taken this decision on ‘political’ considerations. Can one turn a blind eye to the fact that this political consideration has economic risks? Our foreign trade and commerce, and its economic returns, to the greater extend are connected to the US and the western world. It is imperative to calculate what the country stands to gain by the decision to join BRICS and what it may lose.

* AKM Zakaria is deputy editor of Prothom Alo and can be contacted at [email protected]

* This column appeared in the print and online edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten for the English edition by Ayesha Kabir