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Walker's World: Building with BRICs

by Martin Walker
Washington (UPI) May 14, 2008
The concept of the BRIC countries -- Brazil, Russia, India and China -- was coined five years ago in a research paper from the Goldman Sachs investment bank.

This week, reality takes over from theory as the foreign ministers of the BRIC countries hold their first formal meeting in the Russian city of Ekaterinburg. They convene with an agenda that includes the issue of biofuels, food security, global financial trends and the impact of the slowdown of the U.S. economy.

They also want to discuss the way in which the global economy is governed, which seems to mean that they understandably want a much bigger role in the key institutions like the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and so on.

Or perhaps they would prefer, given the West's long dominance of these bodies, to forge some new institutions of their own.

If this week's meeting is to be the first such BRIC summit, they certainly could afford to build almost any institution they choose. China is sitting on foreign exchange reserves of more than $1.5 trillion, and Russia has more than $500 billion, India close to $300 billion and Brazil around $200 billion.

The commercial thrust of the meeting should come as no surprise. The BRICs were from the beginning identified as the fast-growing emerging markets that were on track to become economic superpowers, and the original 2003 analysis suggested that China and India could be the world's two largest economies by 2050.

The Goldman Sachs analysis presaged a fundamental shift in the global balance of power, with the four BRIC countries together having a greater economic weight than the traditional industrial powers of the Group of Seven by the year 2032, just two decades hence.

It saw China and India, respectively, becoming the dominant global suppliers of manufactured goods and services while Brazil and Russia would become similarly dominant as suppliers of food, energy and key raw materials. The implication was that cooperation between the BRICs would be a logical next step as Brazil and Russia became the main suppliers (and vital markets) for India and China.

And now that cooperation takes physical form with this weekend's meeting. Future historians might look back at the Ekaterinburg summit as the moment the world changed and the power began to shift away from the West for the first time in centuries.

On the other hand, the bright future of the BRICs might be derailed. Russia looks to be at most risk, with the latest U.N. population projections suggesting that its population could well fall from today's 142 million to 100 million by mid-century, with more young and old dependents than people of working age and the oil running out.

China has its own demographic problems, after 30 years of the one-child rule. India and Brazil may do better, but it is worth noting the two areas where the BRIC countries have a great deal in common.

The first is the corruption index of Transparency International, on which Brazil, China and India share a lowly 72nd place, which means very corrupt. Russia is almost off the charts in 143rd place. That means honesty is so rare as to be remarkable.

The second feature they have in common is a dismally low ranking on the World Bank's "ease of doing business" index. China comes in best at 93rd in the world, Russia at 96, Brazil at 121 and India at 134. It is not easy to see how the BRIC countries will make the transition from emergent to mature economies with such unimpressive rankings.

Moreover, the great political difference between the two democracies of India and Brazil and the more authoritarian systems of China and Russia suggests that the BRICs will have difficulty in forging a common platform, beyond a desire for a seat at the top table of global governance.

They may all share a common desire to see the United States taken down a peg or two, but so do many Europeans. And the future prosperity of all the BRIC countries depends on the continued prosperity and consumption of Americans, Europeans and Japanese, who for decades to come will continue to be the world's richest countries in terms of income per head.

It would be easy for the United States and its European and Japanese partners in the G7 to overreact to the coming of the BRICs and see this week's meeting of foreign ministers as a harbinger of geopolitical doom.

There is a great deal that divides the BRIC countries. Only last week, India ran the final pre-deployment tests of its Agni-3 missile, designed to bring most of China within range of India's nuclear weapons. The Russians have long been nervous of an overcrowded China casting hungry eyes on the almost empty treasure house of Siberia.

The Brazilians are so far removed from the three Eurasian BRICs -- which are all nuclear powers, unlike Brazil -- that it is hard to see what foreign policies they might have in common. Indeed, immediately after the BRIC meeting the foreign ministers of India, Russia and China head off for a private Eurasian summit of their own. So the most important decision to come out of this week's first BRIC summit will be whether Brazil thinks it's useful enough to agree to another one.

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US warns China of 'technological isolation'
Washington (AFP) May 8, 2008
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