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Jan 01 0001
Is There a Role for BRICS in Asian Affairs?
By Niu Haibing
BRICS is an important rising force in current global governance system. The priorities of previous cooperation within BRICS have been given to reforming major international financial institutions since 2009 and were extended to international security and development issues in recent years. At regional level, BRICS leaders held dialogue with their counterparts in Africa and South America in the two latest BRICS summits respectively. However, BRICS hasn’t paid much attention to Asian issues by giving very few attentions to Asian economic issues and security issues in East Asia. The weak and unbalanced agenda of BRICS towards Asian affairs is unusual considering the importance of Asia to BRICS members and the BRICS group has three prominent Asian members with global ambitions. The absence of a strong Asian agenda within BRICS reflects some dimensions of the grouping and the region itself. Firstly, the priority of the BRICS countries is to promote their global status, which makes global issues rather than regional issues more attractive for them. Secondly, Asian members of the BRICS group were not capable of solving Asian security challenges individually or collectively. Thirdly, Asia is not a highly integrated region similar to African and South America partially because of competitions among major powers including Asian members of the BRICS group.However, BRICS can’t avoid exploring its influence in shaping Asia’s future considering the region’s rising importance and challenges. In order to improve their influence in Asia against the background of competing regional institutions and renewed interest of the United States to Asia, BRICS countries need to coordinate their individual approaches to Asia, provide more regional public goods by multilateral means, offer either solutions or ideas to regional security issues and find a more sustainable way to engage with the region.
The BRICS group was originally known as “BRICs” before including South Africa in 2011. The BRICs was an investment concept created by Jim O’Neill in 2001 to refer Brazil, Russia, India and China as major emerging economies [Jim O’Neill, 2001]. From then on, BRICs was widely used as a word to indicate the international economic power shift from the advanced economies to developing ones. Following this logic of treating BRICs countries as emerging economies, international community used to thinking the role of BRICs in global governance from an economic perspective. For example, G8 countries explored the economic cooperation potential with five major developing countries, namely China, India, Brazil, Mexico and South Africa, on sustainable development issues by establishing the G8 5 process. The update of ministerial G20 meetings to leader’s G20 summits in 2009 was mainly to deal with the 2008 international financial crises by mobilizing the resources of all major economies specially BRICS countries.

It is important to check the cooperation effects of BRICS countries from an economic perspective, however non-economic factors have important implications on the participation of these major emerging economies in global governance. The institutionalizationof G8 5 dialogue process under the leadership of Germany and Italy was ended because of failing to be supported by G8 when Japan held the summit of G8 after the ones held by Germany and Italy respectively. Unexpectedly, the G8 5 process generally cultivated cooperative habits for major developing countries and generated the intention of building an equal partnership among themselves since they were all feeling unequally treated by G8 countries during the G8 5 dialogue process. Against the backdrop of 2008 international financial crisis, the first BRICs summit was held in 2009, which signified the beginning of BRICs countries to collectively usethe group’s economic power in participating in the global economic governance system.South Africa was invited by China to join the summit in 2011, which made the group more representative globally in terms of its geographic coverage.

Even though BRICS was involved in global economic governance at the group’s initial stage, most of the BRICS members were well known as regional players rather than global ones before the creation of the BRICS group. China’s international role mainly started to bevisible in its responsible performance in helping regional countries to deal with the 1997-1998 Asian financial crises. South Africa’s membership of BRICS is mainly achieved based on the country’s regional influence rather than its global status as an emerging economy. It is easily to understand why the recent BRICS summits in South Africa and Brazil invited African and South American leaders respectively to have dialogues with BRICS leaders. Suchkind initiatives of holding dialogues between BRICS leaders and regional countries’ counterparts reflected the intention of BRICS summit hosting country to build a stronger regional leadership image by showing its BRICS membership. However, it was noteworthy that all three Asian members of the group didn’t do so when they chaired the summits. Reasons for the lack of a strong regional agenda by BRICS to engage with Asia are worthy to be explored considering the importance of the Asia in today’s international system. It is also meaningful to analyze the potential role for BRICS in dealing with Asian affairs.

Asian Factors in BRICS
One prominent feature of the BRICS group is that three members including China, India and Russia are from Asia, which reflects Asia’s dynamic in current international system. Both Russia and China are permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), and India is one of the most competitive candidates for the permanent seat of UNSC. The international role of China and India as rising powers was widely discussed by international relations scholars in recent decades. Therefore BRICS was a useful tool for observers to examine the intentions and policy choices of these rising powers in dealing with regional and global issues. One interesting character is that BRICS mainly focused on international economic governance and the reform of decision-making structure of established international financial institutions including IMF and World Bankby contributing to the solutions to the post-2008 international financial crises. Asian economic affairs were not included in the agenda of BRICS summit because the financial crises in 2008 were mainly happened in developed countries.

Even though Asian economic affairs were not included in BRICS agenda, the six declarations of previous BRIC(S) summits until 2014did show some concerns of the group towards Asian security affairs. It is necessary to clarify that Asia here is a general concept including East Asia, West Asia, Central Asia and South Asia since scholars used to focus on East Asia when talking about Asia. One interesting finding is that most of the Asian issues given attention by BRICS are security-related issues in Great Middle East namely West Asia and Central Asia.BRICS countries have expressed their concerns on security issues of Iran’s nuclear project, post-war construction of Iraq and Afghanistan and situation in Syria since the 3rd BRICS summit was held by Indiain 2012. Terrorism also caught consistent attention by BRICS summits since the first one hosted by Russia in 2009. Terror attacks in Russia and India were criticizedby the BRICS leaders’summit in 2010. BRICS leaders, when they gathered in China, also showed their support to disaster relief such as the 2011 earthquake in Japan, which showed that BRICS summits giving concerns to both traditional and non-traditional security issues.

Considering India, Brazil and South Africa were trying to play a larger role in the UN Security Council, their views on global security challenges including those in Asia are important for the rest of the world to make their choices on whether to support those countries’ permanent seats in UNSC. Brazil’s influence was extended to Africa and Middle East under former president Lula’s administration shown by the increasing numbers of Brazilian diplomatic institutions and Brazil’s efforts together with Turkey to solve the Iran nuclear crisis in 2010. When BRICS leaders talk about global issues, not necessarily Asian affairs, a perspective of Asian powers including China, India and Russia will partially emerge on world stage. Generally speaking, BRICS is a group with gravity of Asian powers but weak agenda on Asian affairs so far.

Why is Asian Agenda for BRICS Weak?
Firstly, it is clear that all BRICS countries have a priority to raise their global status while lacking a prominent global forum to support it, which makes BRICS countries more interested in dealing with global issues rather than regional ones. As a forum for a group of rising powers in current international system, BRICS has the potential to support its members’ intention to obtain global status. The forum was questioned quite often regarding its logic and future because of the differences among BRICS countries on culture, economic size and structure, political system, and specially values. However, the institutional buildings such as the New Development Bank (NDB) of BRICS as a forum have been achieved in the past six years. The overlooked reason behind the institutional buildingsof BRICS is a structure factor, namely BRICS members as rising powers share similar system interest to raise their international status by enhancing cooperation among these different countries.

Both Russia and China are permanent members of the Security Council of UN, but they are not full-fledged powers especially in world economic governance system. Other members of BRICS haven’t prominent international platforms to demonstrate their international ambition.Though India, Brazil and South Africa are frequently elected members of the UN Security Council, BRICS is increasingly an important multilateral platform for these rising powers to practice their international role. Against this backdrop, all BRICS members value the high global profile of BRICS to demonstrate their approach to global issues and safeguard their broadened overseas interests. One theme of all previous BRICS summits was to promote the reform of current international economic governance system, which made it clear that BRICS countries aimed at building their influence at global level rather than at regional level.A global agenda could help BRICS members both to raise their international profile and to overcome the differences among them. Even BRICS started engagement process with African and South American leaders, the engagement process was mainly to raise their voices in shaping the post-2015 international development agenda.

Secondly, even all members of the BRICS have interest in Asia it is hard to build a strong common approach to deal with Asian affairs partially because of their weak capacity and strong sovereignty thinking. Brazil’s economic tie with Asia was growing rapidly in the past decade. China has been the largest trading partner of Brazil since 2009. The whole region of Latin America is increasingly treating Asia as an important economic partner represented by the establishment of Pacific Alliance. Russia is trying to engage with more Asian countries besides China against the backdrop of Ukraine crises. India’s Prime Minister NarendraModiis turning the “Look East Policy” into “Act East Policy”[The Hindu, 2014]. China was also adjusting its periphery policy against the background of the rebalance strategy of the U.S. Obama administration. It is fair to say that a stable and prosperous Asia is in the interest of all BRICS countiesto build a strong tie with Asia.

All BRICS members value Asia’s stability and prosperity, which doesn’t mean they have the capacity or priority to achieve that goal. Until very latest academic analysis on China’s approach to BRICS haven’t shown that China was using BRICS to shape Asia’s order. [Cheng, 2015]The post-Second World War order in Asia was firmly dominated by the so-called “hub and spoke”system, namely the U.S. bilateral allies system. The international order of East Asia was described as the following, namely regional security ties to the United States while economy ties to China.[Ikenberry 2004]That means both China and India haven’t enough influence on Asia’s security affairs. The rise of China and India not only might be attractive in economic terms but alsobring some new security arrangements to the region. President Xi Jinping argued at Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia (CICA) in 2014 that Asian affairs should be solved by Asian people finally and suggested that CICA should be a platform for building a platform for whole Asia’s security dialogue, and a new framework on regional security cooperation should be built on CICA. Such a CICA based regional security framework is different from an American dominated “hub and spoke” security framework.

However, powerful BRICS members either China or India couldn't build up a strong regional security framework shortly given their difficult relationship as well as the different attitudes of China, Korea and Japan over historical issues. Brazil under the presidency of Lula made efforts in 2010 to solve the Iran nuclear crisis but failed to get support from all 5 permanent members of the UN Security Council. The presidency of Rousseff has put most of her energy to economic cooperation and domestic issues rather than Brazil’s foreign policy agenda.Furthermore, both Brazil and South Africa hardly have strong influence outside their own regions.The controversial territory issues also made it difficult to build a highstrategic trust between China and India. Both countries also need time to build trust over their coexistence in the Indian Ocean in the next decade.Besides weak capacity, BRICS countries attach a strict sovereignty concept in dealing with regional issues, which makes the BRICS either adopt strictly national positions, or develop purely defensive positions. [Laidi, 2012] Lack of either priority or capacity of BRICS members made a liberal and strong US-led security order a still influentialoption for the region’s order.

Thirdly, an obvious fact is that Asia lacks the regional integration achievements similar to regional institutions of South America and Africa, which prevented a strong regional agenda on Asia from being established by BRICS. Regional leadership role for Brazil and South Africa in their regions respectively is stronger than the role of India and China played in Asia. It was ASEAN rather than China or India playing the leading role in Asian regional integration. There is no similar trend of a peaceful regional system on economic integration and an ambitious agenda for political union as the EU. Both Brazil and South Africa have their competitors in claiming the regional leadership but all regional countries share a common regional integration agenda in South America and Africa, which is different from situation in Asia. It was reported that BRICS summit in 2015 might bring leaders from Central Asia to have dialogue, and the same thing might happen when the next summit held by India in 2017. However, it is difficult to bring most Asian leaders or a broad Asian agenda similar to African agenda to the summit of BRICS.

Considering the dominance of US in maintaining regional security order and the diversified economic dynamics of the region, BRICS members from Asia prefer their own multilateral initiatives in shaping Asia’s order. China has initiated some ideas such as one belt one road and a new Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). And India is trying to deepen its involvement in broad Asia-Pacific regional cooperation besides South Asia. There is a possible trend of trilateral cooperation among China, Russia and India in dealing with Asian affairs. Both China and Indiasigned as founding members of the AIIB in 2014. India was recently supported by both Russia and China as a member of Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) that has been an increasingly influential organization in promoting sub-regional economic and security cooperation. In the ministerial meeting in February 2015, ministers agreed to establish a trilateral Russia-India-China consultation mechanism on Asia-Pacific affairs. [FMPRC, 2015] This newly developed consensuson coordinating Asian affairs among three Asian members of BRICS might help BRICS to develop a stronger Asian agenda.

A Possible Asian Agenda for BRICS
BRICS countries have accumulated sizable material wealth, but they still lack enough legitimacy or soft power to achieve their great power status. Unilateral behaviors usually decreaseactor’s legitimacy while multilateral means will increase actor’s legitimacy in international relations. As an emerging important forum to provide international public goods and promote reform of international system, BRICS faces peer competition of established multilateral institutions. There are many sub-regional or trans-regional, and great powers-led institutions including Shanghai Cooperation Organization, ASEAN Regional Forum, East Asia Summit, APEC, CICA and Six-party talks on North Korean Nuclear Issues, etc. The weakness of BRICS is that it lacks legitimacy and concrete areas to involve in dealing with Asian affairs. New Development Bank will be active in financing regional infrastructure construction of Asian countries while this function is overlapping with the function of the newly established AIIB. Contingency Reserve Arrangement, similar to Chiang Mai Initiative, will mainly serve for BRICS members in near future. The first challenge for BRICS in building a strong Asian agenda is to find ansuitalbe area for cooperation.

On the front of Asian security issues, though most of BRICS members don’t have strong and direct influence, it is possible for BRICS to affect the approaches and solutions to Asian security issues and institutions building by giving their views. For example, BRICS countries support a peaceful, safe, open and cooperative information space, an inclusive and peaceful Afghanistan dominated and owned by Afghanistan people, a comprehensive and long-term solution of Iran nuclear issue, a UN-dominated solution of Israel and Palestine relationship, a political solution to Syria domestic conflict, and a stable and inclusive Iraq, etc. These views are attractive since they were born in the real situation of these countries and based on a comprehensive security outlook, which is helpful to maintain the long-term stability and security of Asia. As influential emerging powers in the post-Second World War order, BRICS countries have common interest in maintaining the authority of UN Charter, and building an international security order with fairness and justice. To some extent, support from BRICS on building a new regional security framework for Asia will add additional legitimacy to the new framework.

There has been some kind of competitions on future regional order in Asia. President Obama mentioned in his 2015 State of the Union thatChina wants to write the rules for the world's fastest-growing region while the U.S. should write those rules. [Obama, 2015] In fact, it is neither the United States nor China that can write the rules for Asia, and the rules shall be written by all stakeholders from the region. Compared with the exclusive and nontransparent TPP process, BRICS might be more interested in supporting a more open and future-oriented Asia-Pacific FTA economic cooperation strategy. India is still not a member of APEC but Russia and China have expressed their support for India to play a larger role in APEC. TPP’s door to all BRICS members is still closed at current stage. All BRICS countries share the concern of being isolated in next-generation economic rules by the updated economic cooperation agreements such as TPP and TTIP. Against this backdrop, BRICS countries especially hope to maintain the Asia-Pacific market open and to involve in the process of reshaping the regional economic rules. It is not an easy job for BRICS to do so since there is still no FTA within BRICS and their internal economic cooperation level is still very low. BRICS needs to improve the group’s depth of internal economic cooperation before leading Asian economic cooperation.

Furthermore, economic cooperation between BRICS countries and Asia also faces the challenge of finding a sustainable way. The 2008 financial crisis not only affected the economic growth model of developed countries, but also challenged the economic cooperation model among BRICS countries. Even though there are high-tech contents such as aircraft and satellites in their trade relationship, the main model is raw material exchange for manufactured goods. The greatest challenge here is how China can use its high-tech and capital advantage to help the rest of the BRICS group to make the economic cooperation more sustainable. All members of BRICS are not involved in the production chain of Asia except China, which prevents BRICS and Asia to develop a high-level economic cooperation. The good news is that BRICS is aiming at building a closer economic relationship, and its substance is to build a more sustainable economic partnership. To deepen the economic tie between BRICS and Asia, BRICS members needs to open their domestic market door to Asian capital and goods on one hand, and they need to invest more to Asian countries as well as accelerate the construction of mutual connected infrastructureon the other hand. New Development Bank might be a useful tool to enhance the economic tie between BRICS and Asia by providing more intellectual and capital support. Besides financing infrastructure, it is better for NDB to prioritize sustainable project in Asia to avoid unnecessary competition with AIIB.

With the exception of Russia it is their first time for emerging powers to act as real global players. China’s previous dominant influence was mainly established in the East Asian area during an era that preceded the modern system based on state sovereignty. China’s Asia strategy needs to be updated to today’s region with a strong external power the United States and an equally capable Japan. India is trying to be accepted as a true Asia scale power. Different from the preference of Brazil and South Africa using regional institutions to solve regional security issues, China and India used to bilateral means rather than multilateral ones. The influence of Brazil and South Africa was also limited in their regions in the near history. The domestic debates about their global role especially in Asia are newly emerging without a mature IR theory to support it.Brazil’s concern of Latin America’s turning to Asia and TPP was mainly about their effects on weakening South American integration. [Abdenur, 2015] Against this historical background and in current situation, it is necessary to build more societal connection at the level of intellectuals, students and think tanks to build up a solid and suitable Asian policy of BRICS. The BRICS think tank council shall develop a theme on studying the group’s Asian agenda.

Such an Asian agenda won’t be an anti-US strategy. BRICS countries still value the role of the United States in maintaining the region’s stability and prosperity. However, as rising powers and new economic growth engines for the region, BRICS countries might encourage kind of more independent regionalism or offer more options for solving regional issues in Asia. As rising powers, all Asian members of BRICS hope to play a larger role in dealing with Asian affairs. Chinese president Xi Jinping did special visits to South Korea and Mongolia separately. Indian premierModiput its neighboring countries and Japan as diplomatic priority. Russia’s recent engagement with North Korea showed its geopolitical ambition in Asia. The latest trilateral foreign minister meeting of China, India and Russia in Beijing 2015 endorsed their support of an open, inclusive, indivisible and transparent security and cooperation architecture in Asia [FMPRC, 2015].

The other important aspect of Asia is the region’s relevance to the enlargement of the BRICS membership. Asia has more emerging economies than other regions. It is highly possible for BRICS to recruit new members from Asia in near future. Since the BRICS members treat their cooperation as South-South cooperation, which might limit the door of the group open to the region’s developing countries only. Besides Indonesia, it is important for BRICS to open its door wider to include both South Korea and Mexico considering their role in promoting international development cooperation. A more diversified membership with successful development experiences will increase the attractiveness of BRICS in Asia and beyond.In the long run, a stronger NDB also needs financial support from dynamic Asian economies.

Adriana ErthalAbdenur (2015) Brazil as a Rising Power: Coexistence through Universalism. In Cedric de Coning, Thomas Mandrup and LiselotteOdgaard (eds.) The BRICS and Coexistence, London: Routledge, pp. 49-74.
G. JohnIkenberry (2004)American hegemony and East Asian order.Australian Journal of International Affairs58 (3), pp. 353–367.
FMPRC (February 2, 2015) Joint Communiqué of the 13th Meeting of the Foreign Ministers of the Russian Federation, the Republic of India and the People's Republic of China. Available at: [accessed February 10, 2015]
Jim O’Neill (2001)Building Better Global Economic BRICs. Available at: (accessed 16 January, 2015).
Joseph Y.S. Cheng (2015) China’s Approach to BRICS. Journal of Contemporary China 24, pp. 357-375.
Obama (January 20, 2015) Obama’s State of the Union Address. USA Today, available at: [accessed February 11, 2015]
The Hindu (2014) “Look East”policy now turned into “Act East”policy: Modi. Available at: [accessed January 19, 2015]
ZakiLaidi (2012) BRICS: Sovereignty Power and Weakness. International Politics 49, pp. 614-632.

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