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More than two BRICS


Argentina's prospective membership would continue to build up a mechanism that has become a key platform for the Global South

Argentina has formally expressed its interest in joining the BRICS. President Alberto Fernandez has written a letter to President Xi Jinping on the subject, and Argentine Foreign Minister Santiago Cafiero, met with his Chinese counterpart, State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi, in New York to discuss the matter on the sidelines of the recent United Nations General Assembly.

Why is Argentina interested in joining the BRICS and why is it a good idea that it does so?

"There are only two BRICS in the wall" has been a standard phrase of Western commentators eager to minimize the role of this informal group, formed by Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. By this it is meant that only China and India have the GDP, population and territorial size to be taken seriously. Given the size and significance of the other three members, this is, of course, nonsense, but par for the course for the way the grouping has been downplayed in the mainstream international media.

The group, whose annual summit was held virtually in China this year, has come a long way, and in many ways epitomizes the rise of emerging powers in our time -- so much so that the first decade of the new century is often referred to as that of the BRICS, as its formation was the best news in a turbulent period marked by the terrorist attacks on Sept 11 in 2001, and by the financial crisis in 2008-2009.

There is nothing "natural" in this group that brings together countries from four different continents, with very different political and economic systems, and very diverse histories and trajectories. That it has taken off the way it has, and become a key reference point in world affairs, is testimony to the power of words and acronyms. The term BRIC itself was famously coined by a British banker, Jim O'Neill, at Goldman Sachs in 2001. But it quickly caught on, and came to embody the rising powers that were coming into their own, as the West dealt with its own demons. With its wordplay on the construction material, BRICS denotes strength and firmness, embodying what building blocks are all about, and it caught the world's imagination.

But much of its success is also related to the diplomatic coalition-building prowess of its members. This has been one of the signature features of Brazilian foreign policy, which reached new heights under President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva's presidency from 2003 to 2010, and made the Global South a key priority. The presence of Russia in the group has been a particular irritant to Western columnists, who are keen to describe it as a "declining power" that would have no place in a club of "rising powers". This, of course, ignores the role of agency in the conduct of foreign policy and the fact that Russian diplomacy played an important role in bringing the group together. It is not by coincidence that the first summit of the group took place in Ekaterinburg in 2009. South Africa, not a part of the original group (when the term was BRIC), soon realized the significance of this entity, and applied to join, which it did in 2010.

Since then, the BRICS has gone from strength to strength. Its communique after the New Delhi summit in 2012 marked a turning point, providing an extensive and very different perspective on world affairs from the Western view, including on such notorious debacles as the NATO intervention in Libya, whose disastrous consequences we live with to this day, and the civil war in Syria. And far from limiting itself to the yearly summit meetings, BRICS has developed a whole panoply of activities, from a Think Tank Council to a Business Forum. The degree of institutionalization can be gauged from the fact that while in 2008, the year of the first BRICS leaders sideline meeting, five ministerial meetings were held, in 2016, under India's chairmanship, a total of 125 meetings at various levels took place.

And efforts to dismiss the BRICS as a mere talk shop fell by the wayside with the founding of the New Development Bank (the so-called BRICS Bank) in 2015, which is headquartered in Shanghai and endowed with $50 billion in capital. The BRICS also established a Contingency Reserve Arrangement with $100 billion. Over the past seven years, the bank has lent $15 billion to various projects in the member countries, and is now opening up its membership beyond the initial five members, with the United Arab Emirates, Bangladesh and Uruguay having joined recently.

Argentina is going through a bad patch, as many countries in the developing world are, and is facing serious challenges on its foreign debt front, which is made worse by rising US interest rates, and from domestic inflation. Yet, it is an extraordinarily rich country that at some point at the turn of the 20th century represented about half of Latin America's GDP, and that always manages to come back from the brink. As one of the two "South American giants" (the other is Brazil), it has traditionally played a key role in regional politics.

There is thus little doubt that Argentina would bring much to the table if it joins the BRICS, while benefitting from the additional diplomatic heft and leverage it would gain by joining this by now well-established club of rising powers -- in many ways the fresh face of the Global South in the new century.

The author is a research professor at the Frederick S. Pardee School of Global Studies, a Wilson Center global fellow and a former Chilean ambassador to China. The author contributed this article to China Watch, a think tank powered by China Daily. The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

Contact the editor at editor@chinawatch.cn.