The BRICS group – composed by Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa – is one of the most eloquent symbols of a changing global order. Since its creation in 2006, the BRICS became a political platform for emerging powers to push for a more multipolar world. This became even more evident in the wake of the 2008 global financial crisis, as the BRICS began to demand specific reforms of institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.
In Brazil, the BRICS was seen as one of the pillars of president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s ambitious foreign policy project. It served three major purposes. First, the BRICS reinforced Brazil’s identity as a rising power, not only in terms of economic growth, but also of political influence beyond South America. Second, the BRICS was a catalyst to stronger trade relations with emerging economies, notably with Russia and India. Third, the bloc gave Brazil a “safe space” where it could relate with China as diplomatic equals. That was particularly important as China quickly established itself as Brazil’s – and Latin America’s – main trade partner.
In the years that immediately followed the global financial crisis, the BRICS did not live up to its initial promise. As attempts at reforming the IMF were blocked by Western powers, the BRICS countries fell short of devising a common agenda for global governance reform. One of the few significant landmarks was South Africa’s admission in the group at the Sanya Summit in 2011.
Xi Jinping’s rise to power in China, in 2013, transformed the intra-BRICS relationship in important ways. With all other BRICS countries facing political, economic, and geopolitical setbacks, China took the lead and used the bloc to advance its own long-term goals, which included the creation of a development bank (which became known as the New Development Bank, NDB) and the establishment of a foreign exchange reserve swap mechanism, the Contingent Reserve Arrangement. Both initiatives were launched at the Fortaleza Summit in 2014, a year that marked the political rebirth of the BRICS.
Two years on, president Dilma Rousseff’s ousting came as a significant blow to the group. Her vice-president, Michel Temer, took over to change the course of most policies identified with the PT, including some basic foreign policy guidelines. While Temer never expressed reservations with the bloc, his foreign minister, José Serra, a longtime opponent of Lula and Rousseff, showed no interest in nurturing relations with the BRICS partners. China was the obvious exception, thanks to Brazil’s growing dependency on Chinese commodity imports.
As Brazil’s emerging power narrative was thrown to the sidelines, the Temer administration reinforced the country’s bid to join the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). For analysts and policymakers, the choice between BRICS and OECD membership was a mutually exclusive one. More than just a strategic decision, it was ultimately about Brazil’s international identity: while the BRICS reinforced Brazilian ties with the Global South as a rising global power, the OECD would restore Brazil’s belonging into the West, as a middle power who competed with other regional players, such as Argentina and Colombia, for Washington’s loyalty and support.
As elections approach, the choice is still up for grabs. The two favorite candidates to qualify for the runoff, Jair Bolsonaro and Fernando Haddad, have opposed views on the BRICS. Bolsonaro’s foreign policy platform is anti-globalist at heart: while not outspokenly protectionist, he suggests that Brazil must engage in the global cultural battle to restore the Judeo-Christian tradition by aligning with specific countries as the United States, Israel, and Italy – whose current leaders are, unsurprisingly, staunch conservatives.
Also, Bolsonaro has openly criticized China as part of his anti-communist rhetoric. Last year, he took a campaign trip to Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan, spurring an immediate response by Chinese authorities. Given that the candidate is strongly supported by the agrobusiness sector, he will have to reconsider the confrontation stance on China, or run the risk of losing Brazil’s key trade partner.
Haddad, on his part, draws his foreign policy platform on the alleged success of Lula’s diplomatic and trade strategies. Renewed relations with the BRICS countries appear as the key to Brazil’s “more proactive attitude” on the global stage. The PT’s platform also underlines the importance that Brazil hosts the Contingent Reserve Arrangement and fosters the New Development Bank. However, there is no specific mention of the role of China (or, for that matter, of any other BRICS country) toward Brazil’s development.
One might wonder that Haddad desires to keep Lula’s exact same pattern of relationship with the emerging powers of the Global South. It nonetheless seems very unlikely that today’s Brazil, torn apart by political polarization, social unrest, and economic recession will be able to creatively find ways to strengthen trade or political ties with these countries. Not only has Brazil changed, but also the world around it: while Russia, India, and South Africa are progressively more concerned with their own surroundings, China does not seem to be willing to invest as much in the BRICS initiative as in the past.
Ciro Gomes and Geraldo Alckmin, who are respectively ranked third and fourth in the polls, also speak about the importance of the BRICS, but in quite different ways. The former is a leftist candidate who waves the flags of sovereignty and autonomy. He sees the grouping as “one of the best instruments Brazil has to revise the current global order”. On the other hand, Gomes desires to reset relations with China, making sure that the Chinese government will only increase its presence in our territory if it helps Brazil advance its industrial production and technological development.
Often considered a moderate and a liberal, Geraldo Alckmin offers a foreign policy platform centered on trade liberalization and integration in the global value chains. The BRICS appears as just one of the many groups Brazil should engage in, together with the financial G-20, the IBSA Forum, and the Community of Portuguese-Speaking Countries. Contrary to Chinese interests, he suggests that Brazil should join the Trans-Pacific Partnership, intensify trade with Japan, and keep the bid to join the OECD.
Judging by the most recent polls, which place Bolsonaro and Haddad in the second round, there is a fifty-fifty chance of a “Braxit” from the BRICS. If the former gets elected, he will probably abandon the group – either symbolically or officially – on the grounds of a renewed relationship with the West and of a Sino-phobic rhetoric. If the PT candidate wins, the BRICS will return as the centerpiece of Brazil’s global strategy. Whoever gets chosen, though, will probably preside over a divided and unruly country, to whom foreign policy is far from being a priority.