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From Jim O’Neill to Xi Jinping: Whatever happened to BRICS?

It is one of the great ironies of modern times that an idea first floated by Jim O’Neill, a British economist then working for Goldman Sachs (and now sitting in the House of Lords), has morphed into an organisation that according to some accounts is about to knock the G7 and the advanced liberal-democratic economies off their economic perch. 

This particular narrative is certainly a dramatic and, in some circles at least, a persuasive one too. Indeed, who after the recent 15th BRICS summit hosted in Johannesburg can any longer doubt that the BRICS are set to run the world by displacing the United States (US) dollar with a shared currency, rendering the G7 irrelevant, and realising a dream harboured by many of building a more equitable world with more countries sitting around the high table of international affairs? Moreover, with over 40 countries now queuing up to join – six will do so by the beginning of 2024 – there can be little question the international system is undergoing a profound change. The future order, it seems, is going to look a lot different to that of the past few decades. 

Enter O’Neill

Yet, there is at least one rather important individual who seems less than convinced: the individual who came up with the idea of the BRICs in the first place. Indeed, in a recent piece published with the revealing title, ‘Does an expanded BRICS mean anything?’, O’Neill pours a fair amount of cold water on the notion that BRICS as an organisation represents anything more than a ‘symbolic gesture’.

O’Neill is clear. It is quite misleading, he argues, to suggest that the five current BRICS nations are about to overtake the G7 economically. In fact, when measured in current nominal US dollars, the group ‘remains significantly smaller than its advanced-economy counterpart’. Nor are all the original BRIC countries doing as well as the People’s Republic of China (PRC) or even India. Brazil and Russia, for example, have in relative terms stood still over the past ten years. It is true South Africa was added to the original group in 2010. But as O’Neill points out, it is by no means the largest economy in Africa today. That privilege now falls to Nigeria. 

Furthermore, why choose the countries the organisation has hit upon to join the BRICS in a few months time? As O’Neill notes, the decision to admit the six is rather odd. Hence why ask indebted Argentina with its US$610 billion (£475 billion) economy, and not Mexico, whose economy is over two times as large? Why, moreover, invite poor Ethiopia and not oil-rich Nigeria? And what about Indonesia, an economy which over the past few years has done extremely well? From an economic point of view the proposed expansion of the group makes little sense. 

No doubt if somebody else had been raising all these points, then they would be accused of sour grapes. But O’Neill has never been a stout defender of the old economic order. It was he after all who made the case for the new big emerging economies in the first place. It was O’Neill too who then added the important rider that the leading economies should at some point have to make the necessary adjustments and give the original BRIC countries more voice and space at the top table. 

Nor is he any great fan of the G7 either. As he has remarked, ‘what the world really needs is not the G7 but a resurrected G20’, the best forum in his view ‘for addressing truly global issues such as economic growth, international trade, climate change and pandemic prevention’.  After all, the G20 he feels did a fine job in pulling the world economy out of the 2008 crisis and is much better suited than any other organisation – including either the BRICS or the G7 – in managing the international economic order. 

Beyond economics 

So what, then, has happened to make O’Neill talk of the new BRICS today as if it has lost its way? At least two things might be suggested, neither of which have very much to do with economics. 

The first is what has been happening to the PRC since he first wrote about the country with such enthusiasm. When O’Neill invented the BRIC idea, the PRC still looked as if it was attempting to rise within the existing international order. But those days are long gone. The PRC has moved on under the leadership of Xi Jinping, General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, a strong-minded leader by any account who rarely misses an opportunity these days to berate liberalism and the various ills visited upon the world by the US. 

Nor did Xi deviate from this particular narrative at the South African summit. Xi may not have delivered his own speech on the first day. That task was left to Wang Wentao, the Chinese Commerce Minister. But the words were Xi’s. As Wang (or Xi)  put it, there was ‘some’ (unnamed) ‘country obsessed with maintaining its hegemony’ by going out ‘of its way to cripple the emerging markets and developing countries.’ And just to make sure the message got home, Wang continued to attack the said ‘country’ by insisting that in pursuit of its own power it was doing everything it could to thwart the legitimate ambitions of those seeking a place in the sun. ‘Whoever is catching up’ soon ‘becomes a target of obstruction’ he went on. 

‘Best and bosom friends’ 

The second big change has been Xi’s determination to maintain and even extend the PRC’s very close partnership with another BRICS member, Russia. Once dismissed by some writers as being little more than an ‘axis of convenience’, over the last dozen years or so the two countries, not to mention the two leaders, have got ever closer, a process which reached a diplomatic climax just before the full-scale invasion of Ukraine when they announced a partnership with ‘no limits’. Indeed, long before the meeting in South Africa, Xi and Vladimir Putin, the Russian President, had not only become ‘best and bosom friends’ but had for some time been talking quite openly of challenging the existing international order by making a direct appeal to the developing countries or what they prefer to call the ‘Global South’.  

Some may have hoped that the war against Ukraine would weaken the Russia-PRC relationship. But if anything it has become more entrenched. In fact, since the beginning of the conflict Xi and Putin have continued to speak from the same script about the deeper ‘cause’ of the conflict (NATO expansion) while at the same time attacking the European Union (EU) and the US for imposing sanctions on Russia and ‘pouring oil on the flames’ by arming Ukraine. Nor has the relationship between the two countries cooled since. Indeed, only a short while before the South African summit, officials from both sides met yet again to work out how to, as said by Sergey Lavrov, the Russian Foreign Minister, ‘continue expanding and intensifying [their] partnership.’

As is known, Putin himself was unable to attend the summit in Johannesburg. But nobody who was there (Xi least of all one suspects) was prepared to criticise him or his war. In fact, one of the more significant aspects of the meeting was Putin’s speech close to the beginning of proceedings where he defended his ‘special military operation’ against Ukraine by claiming that Russia had been forced to take action because of the aggressive policies of the US. And as if to cock a further snook at what he liked to call ‘the collective West’, it was then decided that the next summit would be held in Russia – where Putin would be able to attend in person. 


Which brings us back to the BRICS and how to judge its position in international affairs. Those doubtful about its claim to represent the future might take comfort from the fact that at least two of its key members – India and the PRC – are potential rivals, and that many of the BRICS countries (including many of those about to join the organisation) can hardly be described as paragons of political virtue. Indeed, at least three of the new members – the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Iran – come well down the list of countries upholding the rule of law and press freedom, while Ethiopia is still mired in a bloody war that has claimed up to 600,000 civilian lives.

Some will also be reassured by another set of facts; namely that the US remains the biggest economy in the world by a serious margin, that 7 of the top 10 economies in the international system are non-BRIC, and that the majority of the biggest corporations are still to be found in the United Kingdom, US, EU and Japan.

Yet the ‘West’ should not be complacent. Again, as O’Neill reminded us, the BRICS group has ‘been able to tap into the broader Global South’s suspicion that the post-Second World War global arrangements are too Western.’ Moreover, as others have pointed out, resentment in developing countries where memories of colonial rule still remain raw and life’s chances for millions look decidedly limited is on the rise. Viewed from this perspective, the growing appeal of the BRICS has to be recognised for what it is: less a serious threat perhaps and more a protest against the current economic order and the distribution of power within it. Reform therefore might not just be a choice but a necessity if the ‘Global South’ is not to drift apart from the ‘West’. As one of the main characters from the great Italian novel, The Leopard, put it: ‘if we want things to stay as they are, then things will have to change.’ Those shaping the future of an increasingly unsettled world might want to take note.

Prof. Michael Cox is a Founding Director of LSE IDEAS and was Director of LSE IDEAS between 2008 and 2019.

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1 thought on “From Jim O’Neill to Xi Jinping: Whatever happened to BRICS?”

  1. Excellent Prof Cox! Good to see you weighing in on this fashionable topic. BRICS agenda has leapt from the rails of EM economic discussion forum to something else entirely, which is shocking for a number of reasons, but most importantly, the fact that it did nothing as an economic forum! Quite the track record . . . Best, MJF

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