It would have been fascinating to see the expression on Jim O'Neill’s face had he attended a briefing in Johannesburg ahead of the recent BRICS summit, which took place in China last week – O'Neill being the Goldman Sachs staffer responsible for coining the ‘BRIC’ acronym for the Brazil, Russia, India and China grouping in a paper he wrote ten years ago.
His eyebrows surely would have been raised when South Africa's International Relations and Cooperation Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane described the recently expanded BRICS formation, which now includes this country, as “one of the offspring of the nonaligned movement”.
Now, the statement could be taken as either worryingly uninformed, or as a mischievous attempt at casting South Africa’s inclusion as something that it simply isn’t.
However, I tend to think the statement represents an emerging reality at the nascent formation, which is often described as a “work in progress”.
In other words, it appears that BRICS is becoming “political” – a point hammered home time and time again ahead of the summit, which took place in Sanya city on China’s island province of Hainan.
Chinese, Brazilian, Russian and Indian diplomats and government leaders indicated that they intended to transform what had hitherto been a loose economic concept, into a diplomatic platform.
Even the decision to open up the grouping to South Africa has been acknowledged as a “political choice”, designed primarily to ensure that Africa’s voice was represented in what could eventually evolve into a powerful new developing-economy alliance.
This political dimension was emphasised by a senior Chinese official based in Pretoria, who said that BRICS is now “even more representative”, while a Russian diplomat described the enlargement as a signal of the grouping’s “growing potential” and “increased relevance internationally”, particularly on matters being raised at the G20.
The fact that the summit preceded the G20 meeting scheduled in for Cannes, France, in November gave the BRICS leaders a chance to build minimum consensus on a range of matters, from commodity price fluctuations to currency wars.
A Brazilian diplomat put it even more plainly, describing BRICS as a “diplomatic initiative” which could emerge as the nucleus for understanding of the emerging world’s needs and interests, as well as promoting those interests.
There is little doubt that economic questions will still dominate the BRICS agenda, which is only natural given the genesis of the term and the fast-expanding economic clout of the original four members.
But it is also increasingly hard to ignore the reality that an international relations dimension is also gaining traction. Where that political aspect leads, though, remains an interesting, yet open, question.