BRICS: Why Bangladesh's hopes dashed at Johannesburg

The three-day BRICS summit recently took place (22-24 August) at Johannesburg in South Africa. The Indian prime minister, the presidents of China, Brazil and South Africa, and Russia's foreign minister represented their respective countries at the summit. Accused of war crimes, an arrest warrant hangs over Russian president Vladimir Putin's head and so to avoid any mishap, he sent his foreign minister instead of attending the summit himself. He did, however, deliver his speech virtually.

The South African president had invited all heads of state or heads of government of African countries to attend the summit. Outside of Africa, he also invited the heads of state or heads of government of a number of countries to attend the summit as guests. This included Bangladesh's prime minister too. Prime minister Sheikh Hasina attended the event.

On the concluding day of the summit, 24 August, six countries were invited to join BRICS as member states. These countries were Argentina, Saudi Arabia, Iran, United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Ethiopia. The inclusion of the countries will come into effect from January 2024.

Back in 2001, the Goldman Sachs economist Jim O'Neill had spoken about the possibility of a grouping by four emerging very large economies outside of the G-7 bloc, that over time would become regulators of the global economy. He coined the acronym BRIC, with the first letters of the four countries - Brazil, Russia, India and China.

BRIC was officially inaugurated on 16 June 2009, with its first summit in Russia. South Africa joined the next year, adding an 'S' to the acronym, making it BRICS. No new country was made member of the grouping over the next 12 years. In fact, the addition of South Africa was rather unexpected. The country was not comparable to the other four either in demography or economy.

After our prime minister met with the South African president in Geneva last June, foreign minister Abdul Momen said that eight more countries, including Bangladesh, would be added to BRICS as members at the grouping's summit in August. This generated much interest and enthusiasm in Dhaka over the next two months. In fact, certain overly zealous quarters went as far as it thinks that given the tensions between Bangladesh and the US, Bangladesh would have a firmer footing as a BRICS member.

However, as the summit drew closer, there was a feeling that probably no new members would be accepted into BRICS due to objections from India and Brazil. But if new members would actually be taken, it was expected that Bangladesh would surely be on the list. When the summit took off, first it was agreed on principle that the group would be expanded. One the last day of the summit, six countries were taken on as new members. Bangladesh was not on the list.

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A look at the six countries joining BRICS raises certain points. Argentina is the second largest country of South America. Its economy is quite developed. The remaining five are closely located to each other, in the Middle East and northeast Africa. Egypt is the largest Arab country. And everyone wants to keep Saudi Arabia happy due to its wealth and oil reserves. The Emirates is a small country, but its clout is always much bigger than its size. China and Russia have excellent relations with Iran, and so does India. It could also be about striking a balance, after the inclusion of Saudi Arabia.

But why Ethiopia? The size of its economy is one third of Bangladesh's and its per capital income is less than half of Bangladesh's per capital income. And it is also in the midst of a civil war. It has a large population, though Nigeria is ahead there. Strong support from South Africa probably led to the inclusion of Ethiopia. China has big investment there too.

There had been considerable bargaining over which country to include and which to not. While there may not have been any direct opposition to Bangladesh, no one really stood firmly in its favour. Bangladesh's 'tested friends' has let it down once again.

After all that hullabaloo, not securing a place in the expanded BRICS is certainly an embarrassment for Bangladesh. And despite so many limitations, the importance of BRICS will gradually increase over time since the economies of the member countries are rapidly growing
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Does not becoming a member of BRICS really make any concrete difference to Bangladesh? Over the dozen years of its existence, BRICS' list of successes does not stretch too far. The initial objective of BRICS was to curb the monopolised control of the G-7 countries on the global economy by stepping up trade and investment among the BRICS countries. This grouping has failed to have any impact on the western-controlled global economic system.

Over the years, this grouping has apparently taken on geopolitical considerations. However, due to differing views and sometimes even conflicting interests, it is almost impossible for BRICS to emerge as a geopolitical bloc. While G-7 countries are more or less of the same politico-economic ilk, this is not true in the case of BRICS countries.

One of the important issues that comes to the fore is to trade in their own currency instead of the dollar. Some even want to start a common BRICS currency. The second aspiration may still be a long way off, but the first has already started to a certain extent. The results have been mixed. Recently the Russian foreign ministry said that they are sitting on a pile of India rupees and have no idea what to do with these rupees.

Hypothetically speaking if Bangladesh had become a BRICS member and could trade in local currency, how much do we export to those countries that we could meet import expenses with their currency? The economies of the west are import-oriented and dependent on domestic consumption. But it is not the same with the countries of this grouping. So the opportunity for Bangladesh to considerably expand its exports there is limited. In fact, even our export goods in many instances are dependent on raw materials or intermediate goods imported from those countries. So we would have to meet the expense of importing from those countries with surplus dollars and euros earned from exporting to the west. Then there is also the matter of funding for development projects. That would be done by the New Development Bank established at the initiative of BRICS. Bangladesh has been a member of this bank since 2021.

After all that hullabaloo, not securing a place in the expanded BRICS is certainly an embarrassment for Bangladesh. And despite so many limitations, the importance of BRICS will gradually increase over time since the economies of the member countries are rapidly growing. We can take solace in the fact that we are not alone. Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia and Nigeria were also not included in the expansion this time.

The South African president Cyril Ramaphosa said that this is just the beginning and BRICS will expand further. However he did not indicate when and under what conditions. Whenever it happens, Bangladesh can certainly aspire to join the grouping. In such groupings, all the countries -- big and small -- have a certain veto power. For example, Turkey alone blocked Sweden's entry into NATO. This time BRICS had five decision-making countries. We could not bring all of them to our side. But next time 11 countries will decide. Will Bangladesh be able to convince them all?

* Md Touhid Hossain is a former foreign secretary

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

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