The ‘BRIC’ concept, an acronym for Brazil, Russia, India and China, was introduced more than two decades ago by former Goldman Sachs economist Jim O’Neill to recognise the role of emerging markets in the global economy.
China had just joined the World Trade Organisation and foreign investors were excited by the new frontier of opportunity. In 2010 South Africa joined the grouping, which was renamed as BRICS.
The club has preferred to focus on trade and economics, largely steering clear of political criticism of one another. That included choosing not to condemn the Kremlin when Crimea seceded from Ukraine in a referendum organised by the Russians in 2014. China and India have also stayed studiously neutral this year as a fuller conflict flared between the Ukrainians and the Russians, much to the frustration of the United States and its allies.
So far there has been no direct criticism of Russian President Vladimir Putin and all the BRICS nations other than Russia abstained from voting in a UN General Assembly resolution in March supported by 141 countries that called on Moscow to withdraw from Ukraine.
This week’s annual BRICS summit, now in its 14th edition, could also be seen as something of a diplomatic ‘win’ for Russia.
In an opening speech, Xi Jinping made only a passing remark about the crisis in the Ukraine, for instance, while taking much closer aim at another target.
“The Ukraine crisis has again sounded the alarm for humanity. Countries will surely end up in security hardships if they place blind faith in their positions of strength, expand military alliances, and seek their own safety at the expense of others,” he said, in a thinly-veiled rebuke of NATO.
In comments before the conference Xi had also criticised Western sanctions, describing them as a “boomerang and a double-edged sword” that would “bring harm to the people of the world.”
Coverage of the conference from China’s state news agency Xinhua has avoided showing the BRICS leaders together on the same screen (the meeting has been held by video link). Yet the Russian president’s participation at the gathering still sends an important message, commentators reckon. “The fact that Putin is welcome, he’s not a pariah, he’s not being pushed out – and this is a normal engagement, which has taken place every year and it’s still taking place – that is a big plus for Putin,” Sushant Singh, a political analyst in New Delhi, told CNN.
The Russian media have also seized the chance to talk about the importance of the BRICS nations in blunting the impact of sanctions from other nations, with Putin announcing this week that Russia’s trade with China, India, Brazil and South Africa jumped 38% in the first three months of the year.
“Russian oil supplies to China and India are growing noticeably,” he added.
During the meeting Putin also pushed for BRICS leaders to create an “alternative international transfer mechanism” and an “international reserve currency” to reduce dependence on the dollar and the euro.
With Western countries cutting back on trade with Russia – and trying to reduce their imports of Russian energy in particular – demand from BRICS nations is providing a financial lifeline for the Kremlin. Data from the General Administration of Customs suggests that Chinese crude oil imports from Russia were up 55% from a year earlier to record levels in May, for instance, displacing the Saudis as their top supplier. India has also been buying Urals crude at unprecedented levels, tempted by heavily discounted prices. Research firm Kpler claimed this month that Chinese and Indian buyers have been taking an extra 500,000 barrels of Russian oil a day, very similar to the amounts refused by European buyers.
In an apparent quid pro quo from Putin at the conference this week he said that he was discussing how more Chinese cars could be sold in the Russian market. Negotiations were also underway to open more Indian supermarket chains in the country, he added.
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