BRICS (Brazil, Russia, China, India and South Africa) is under pressure to lead international responses to emerging global challenges. Global summits can no longer claim legitimacy and inclusiveness without inviting BRICS countries, nor can major global agendas such as the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and its Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) be achieved without BRICS stewardship (Renwick and Gu 2020). The stagnation of the Russian and South African economies and Brazil’s economic and political crisis, aggravated by the COVID-19 pandemic, however, have stalled BRICS countries’ attempts to play a significant role on the global stage. The current India–China border standoff and broader competition in the Indo-Pacific further challenge the balance within the grouping (Bajpai et al., 2016) at a time when the very changes in global affairs raise questions about the effectiveness of BRICS as a facilitator of alternative voices in global governance.
The rise of BRICS coincided with the emergence of the concept of ‘multilateralism à la carte’, first employed in 2001 to explain George W. Bush’s abandonment of high-profile international treaties not as a unilateralist or isolationist measure but rather a ‘pick and choose’ approach based on national interests (Stewart, 2015). Since then, the concept has been used more broadly to denote a general preference, including by emerging economies, for more flexible, fluid, and informal models of global governance that prioritize narrower coalitions over negotiations within ‘standing, formal, treaty-based bodies with universal membership’ (Stewart, 2015, 2017). The ‘à la carte’ approach has also been discussed in the World Trade Organizations (WTO) context as a means of maintaining the vitality of trade multilateralism in the 21st century (Hoekman and Mavroidis, 2015; Huang, 2011).
In the case of BRICS, the ‘multilateralism à la carte’ is described by Brutsch and Papa (2013) as a function of a ‘coalition-community continuum’. The five countries adjust their strategic objectives and policy priorities according to one end of the continuum. At the ‘coalition’ end, BRICS countries would emphasize their membership to strengthen individual negotiation positions and define coalition profiles to allow them to collectively challenge powerful states. Their joint statements ‘minimize the risk that diverging interests and defections could compromise coalition cohesion’ and ensure that BRICS framework ‘does not interfere with members’ own objectives’ (Brutsch and Papa, 2013, p. 308). At the ‘community’ end, ‘the prospect of shared opportunities or threats and the emergence of shared norms and narratives would encourage BRICS countries, individually, to focus on collective aspirations and to make sacrifices to rise together’ (Brutsch and Papa, 2013, p. 309). BRICS countries could change the perceptions of their partners, of themselves, and of the nature of their endeavour by improving individual payoffs through coordinated bargaining. Through repetitive interactions, shared meanings and collective identities would be forged turning coalitions into imagined communities (Brutsch and Papa, 2013).
In its first decade of existence, BRICS gravitated between the two ends of the ‘coalition-community continuum’. Concerns about the US global economic leadership and the need for a more resilient international reserve system drove joint agenda creation and institution building. The lack of normative and ideational identity amongst the five countries, however, led critics to believe that the idea of a BRICS community would be difficult to attain and that the grouping would be more about state-centric alliance building rather than offering development alternatives for the Global South (Thompson and de Wet, 2017).
As the grouping advances into its second decade, it transitions from a multilateral alignment to bilateral arrangements among the five members in their variable geometries and issue areas (Vazquez, 2020). In this new phase, the cost of pooling power and resources in multi-country bargaining coalitions can be so high that the five countries would prefer to negotiate bilaterally one with another. This ‘bilateralization’ of BRICS expands the ‘menu’ of the BRICS ‘multilateralism à la carte’ by allowing countries to individually pursue transnational and interstate interests whenever they coincide one with another while still benefiting from being part of the grouping when collective action – or simply restraining each other’s positions – is more desirable. However, in the absence of a common narrative to respond to new global challenges, the bi-lateralization of BRICS may as well hinder concrete action at the multilateral level (Vazquez, 2020).
This paper argues that, from the standpoint of countries like Brazil, the India–China border standoff and broadercompetition in the Indo-Pacific demonstrate the ‘bilateralization’ of intra-BRICS relations as they thwart the development of a common narrative on issues like global health, security and trade. Contrarily, the bi-lateralization of BRICS gives its members more flexibility as they manage various domestic and international challenges, which is crucial for the grouping’s survival. The experience of the BRICS led NDB illustrates how the five countries can still cooperate as a coalition in pursuit of common objectives such as sustainable development and infrastructure. The lack of robust mechanisms to realize these objectives, however, raises questions about NDB’s capacity to help BRICS to cooperate more like a community.