For an acronym to be memorable it should spell something recognisable. So, by that logic the BRICS nations – Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa – were always missing a K.
Well this weekend they got one, when North Korea overshadowed the BRICS Summit in Xiamen by testing what Pyongyang says was its first hydrogen bomb.
The timing of the explosion three hours before the conference opened could not have been worse for Chinese President Xi Jinping.
In recent weeks, he has been trying to burnish his credentials as a global statesman ahead of the 19th Party Congress next month.
Instead Kim Jong-un’s nuclear blast stole Xi’s limelight and highlighted China’s inability to bring its wayward neighbour to heel – despite providing most of its oil and accounting for 90% of its foreign trade.
It also highlighted rifts within the Sino-US relationship. “North Korea is a rogue nation which has become a great threat and embarrassment to China, which is trying to help but with little success,” tweeted US President Donald Trump.
The gathering in Xiamen was the 9th annual BRICS conference and the last big diplomatic event of Xi’s first five years in power.
Xi’s Belt and Road Forum in May was also overshadowed by North Korea – that time by the testing of an intermediate range ballistic missile which fell into the Sea of Japan.
And in March just before Xi was to meet United States Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in the Chinese capital Pyongyang announced the successful test of a new type of rocket engine.
Coincidence? It seems not.
Yet Chinese state media has tried to curb discussion of the latest test’s timing, saying it has nothing to do with the BRICS Summit.
Censors issued a directive not to “hype” coverage of the blast, which caused tremors on the Chinese side of the North Korean border, and internet searches for ‘hydrogen bomb’ were blocked.
However, Wang Naiyan, the former chairman of the China Nuclear Society, said it was possible that the mountain under which North Korea is believed to have tested its weapons could collapse and spread radiation across the region.
“We call it ‘taking the roof off’. If the mountain collapses and the hole is exposed, it will let out many bad things,” he told the South China Morning Post.
Most of the local press tried to keep the focus on the BRICS agenda – with the summit taking up most of the nightly news bulletins for three days. The attendees reaffirmed their commitment to a globalised economy and to upholding the Paris climate change agreement – which the US has withdrawn from.
“We strongly deplore the nuclear test conducted by the DPRK,” they said in their final statement, while emphasising that the tensions could “only be settled through peaceful means and direct dialogue of all the parties concerned”.
President Xi also warned that developing countries could no longer look to the US for help under Donald Trump and his “America First” policy. “Some countries have become more inward-looking, and their desire to participate in global development cooperation has decreased,” he said, suggesting that China would take up the reins.
Beijing, meanwhile, is trying to broaden the BRICS’ membership.
The four original nations – Brazil, Russia, India and China – were first classed as an investment concept by economist Jim O’Neill in 2001. They formalised their grouping as a multilateral organisation in 2009 and two years later South Africa joined.
Today they account for 40% of the world’s population and 23% of its gross domestic product.
But there are sharp divisions and economic rivalries – China and India have been on the brink of conflict for the last two months (see WiC378). Ideologically they differ too – China is not a democracy while the others all are to varying degrees.
Since March China has mooted the idea of expanding the grouping to create a BRICS Plus. To that end it invited leaders from Mexico, Egypt, Tajikistan, Guinea and Thailand to the Xiamen summit.
It also pledged $80 million to fund a new BRICS economic and technology cooperation plan, and towards the organisation’s new development bank – which broke ground in Shanghai this month. However, as Reuters points out: “China’s new contributions to BRICS pale in comparison to its $124 billion pledge earlier in May for Xi’s own Belt and Road Initiative.”
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