South Africa joins Brics club to punch above its weight

SOUTH AFRICAN President Jacob Zuma on Thursday joins a club of the world's most important developing nations at a summit in China, in the latest effort to assert his nation on the world stage.

South Africa has lobbied for years to win a place alongside Brazil, Russia, India and China in a group known as Bric, which aims to form common positions in global economic forums.

Pretoria sees admission as another feather in its cap, along with its role in the Group of 20 major world economies and its return to the UN Security Council in January.

Brics is also a way to project South Africa’s increasingly confident voice abroad, officials say.

"We are amongst the countries that has become impatient with the misrepresentation in the global politics that has been dominated by the Western world," International Relations and Cooperation Minister Maite Nkoane-Mashabane told a meeting of business leaders.

"We are coming into saying it is about time that the countries of the south should be listened to," she said. "We are also quite a force to be reckoned with as far as emerging economies are concerned."

Africa agenda

How that plays out remains to be seen.

With 49-million people and an economy worth $527-billion, South Africa is dwarfed by even Brazil’s $2-trillion economy, never mind China’s.

South Africa has already shown a willingness to break with its new club on key issues. It was the only Brics country on the UN Security Council to vote for the no-fly zone over Libya.

That marked a sharp break from former president Thabo Mbeki’s nine years in power, when South Africa was roundly criticised for its "quiet" diplomacy over Zimbabwe and for seeking to deflect United Nations action on Myanmar’s military junta.

Zuma, on the other hand, speaks stridently on the troubles in neighbouring Zimbabwe. While voting for the Libyan no-fly zone, he criticised the scale of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation bombing campaign and joined an African Union mission to seek a ceasefire.

But South Africa also waffled for months on recognising Côte d’Ivoire President Alassane Ouattara, as violence engulfed that nation.

And Zuma shrugged off United States President Barack Obama’s pleas to keep Haiti’s exiled former leader Jean-Bertrand Aristide from returning home before elections in the Caribbean nation.

"There has been some level of strategic incoherence in South Africa’s record of foreign policy," said Aubrey Matshiqi, an analyst at the Centre for Policy Studies, a think-tank.

Determining foreign policy

After emerging from white-minority apartheid rule, South Africa faced expectations to always take a principled stand on human rights in global matters, but instead is evolving its own way of determining its national interest, he said.

"There are many factors that determine a country’s foreign policy. For instance, they have to take into account the country’s key strategic interests," he said.

Scott Maxwell, a researcher at the Institute for Security Studies, said South Africa’s heightened profile came from its position as a gateway to the rest of the continent.

Foreign investors are increasingly looking to Africa as the next new market, with sub-Saharan Africa expected to be one of the world’s fastest-growing regions this year.

South Africa is positioning itself as both the gateway to the continent, and the voice of its one billion people, which gives its opinions an outsized influence — much of the reason the Bric countries want to hang in together.

"South Africa is seen by both the East and West as a strategic partner and South Africa is becoming aware that they are being courted," Maxwell said.

"They see that they have leverage, but how they use this recognition and wield that power remain to be seen."

Trade Ministers

Trade ministers of the five BRIC nations gave no sign on Wednesday of being ready to make concessions to break a deadlock in decade-old talks to free up global commerce.

The Doha Round of negotiations, being conducted under the umbrella of the World Trade Organisation, has made little progress since coming tantalisingly close to a breakthrough in 2008.

Among the main reasons for failure then were the refusal of the United States and other rich countries to reduce farm subsidies further, and the rejection by developing countries, led by India, to increase Western access to their markets for goods and services.

Meeting on the eve of a BRICS summit on the southern Chinese island of Hainan, trade ministers from Brazil, Russia, India, China and new member South Africa sounded pessimistic about the prospects for the talks.

"The delicate balance of trade-offs achieved over 10 years of negotiations and contained in the draft July 2008 texts risks being upset," the ministers said in a media statement.

Leaders of the Group of 20 advanced and developing economies declared in November that there was a narrow window of opportunity in 2011 to finish the round. A number of key WTO members, including the United States and France, have elections in 2012.

The United States said last month that major emerging economies had to muster the political courage to open their markets. But, by endorsing the outline agreement drawn up in 2008, the BRICS suggested the onus was on the West to climb down.

"Ministers remain willing to conclude the round on the basis of those draft modalities," they said in the draft statement.

COOPERATION

China’s Ministry of Commerce said the meeting also called for improved global coordination of economic policy to shore up the world recovery and achieve robust, balanced growth.

The economic clout of the BRICS group is growing as the developed world struggles to pare debt and the five are starting to operate as a common bloc in the G20, providing a counterpoint to the United States and other traditional powers.

The five BRICS countries accounted for just under 18 percent of the world’s $62 billion economy in 2010, though China’s GDP was bigger than the other four members put together.

As part of a drive to boost trade and investment among themselves, leaders on Thursday are expected sign an agreement to extend mutual credit lines denominated not in dollars but in the BRICS’ local currencies, according to India media reports.

"For future growth and development, BRICS countries needs to boost trade among each other," said Lin Yueqin, a researcher with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing.

Lin noted that trade between China and Russia, for example, was below $60 billion a year, a fraction of the $200 billion in

trade between China and South Korea.

He said the caucus, which is holding just its third annual summit, had a long way to go before it could match the Group of Seven advanced economies.

"The BRICS is more of a symbol for cooperation than a group for joint action. But, as with everything, without a humble start you can’t have a great future," Lin said.