What to Expect From the Rio Meeting of BRICS Foreign Ministers

On July 25-26, a meeting between the foreign ministers of the BRICS group of states is taking place in Rio de Janeiro. Its goal is to prepare for the summit of the BRICS leaders, which is scheduled for November 13-14 and will be held in Brasilia, Brazil’s capital city. The agenda of today’s meeting covers the problems of global and regional security and the settlement of international conflicts, including the situation in Venezuela. The position of Brazil as BRICS chairman on this issue does not coincide with the approaches of the other members of the group, especially Russia and China. The meeting of the Lima group on July 23, where Brazil’s Foreign Minister Ernesto Araújo participated, named Juan Guaidó president of Venezuela and demanded that countries “supporting the dictatorial regime” of President Maduro withdraw their military advisers and security/intelligence agents from Venezuela. The hard tone of the declaration, fully supported by the head of the Brazilian Foreign Ministry, leaves little hope that common ground will be found on the Venezuela issue between him and his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov.

Nevertheless, the contradictions among the BRICS over the causes and methods for resolving the Venezuelan crisis are not very significant. The leaders of this informal association have repeatedly stressed their commitment to a peaceful settlement and expressed support for the Oslo format enabling dialogue between the opposition and Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro. It is noteworthy that Jair Bolsonaro spoke at a recent press conference about his desire to obtain help from Russia in solving the Venezuelan problem.

At the same time, it would be incautious to expect a lot from the ministerial meeting, both in terms of a Venezuelan settlement, and with respect to other acute issues of global and regional security (the Iran-US confrontation; India-Pakistan). The intermediary potential of BRICS is still very weak, due to the different weight of the BRICS members in global security institutions, primarily the UN Security Council. Despite Russia’s support for the candidacies of India and Brazil as new permanent members of the UN Security Council, its reform is virtually frozen and remains the subject of fierce disputes.

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The momentum and the focus in BRICS policy agenda may be changing, but the grouping is set to carry on cooperation in areas that are crucial not just for its individual members, but for the global economy as well.

Hence, here is the immutable law of the BRICS format: it successfully develops only in those areas where its members’ interests coincide, and international institutional and legal conditions are not insurmountable obstacles to moving forward. Of course, one should not discount political leadership as a factor; it does a lot to determine the outcome of BRICS summits.

Therefore, the main intrigue of the ministerial meeting in Rio is determined by the Brazilian president’s general attitude towards the BRICS. Many observers predicted a slowdown and stagnation of cooperation within BRICS after the Trump-style politician came to power in Brazil, but such predictions turned out to be very far from reality. This is evidenced by the recent meeting of the BRICS leaders on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Osaka, and by the meeting of Ernesto Araújo with Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi, which was held on the eve of the BRICS foreign ministers’ meeting.

The focus of the two ministers was the programme of the upcoming visit of Jair Bolsonaro to China in October. The Brazilian president has already spoken of his intentionto present China with a “portfolio” of infrastructure projects, where Brazil seeks to attract Chinese investors. Such projects include the construction of new highways and railways, ports, airports and energy infrastructure. Thus, Bolsonaro is diligently moving away from the anti-Chinese rhetoric he has used, guided by pragmatism in real politics toward Brazil’s largest trading partner. He’s also distancing himself from the ongoing trade war between the United States and China.

BRICS is a flexible summit format that allows leaders to discuss exactly those problems that the participants consider the most urgent. With respect to the global economy, this is increasing protectionism, unilateral sanctions, inefficiency and the urgent need for reforming the global economic governance institutions (WTO, IMF, World Bank). The working programme of the BRICS New Development Bank, established in 2014, will doubtlessly be discussed. In Osaka, the successful cooperation which takes place within the framework of the BRICS was noted by all the leaders without exception, and by the end of 2019, there are plans to open regional offices of the BRICS Bank in all member states.

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For the foreign ministers, the meeting in Rio de Janeiro was the first in the BRICS format. They include Indian Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar and his South African counterpart Naledi Pandor, who in 2018 signed the BRICS declaration on strengthening cooperation in education as the minister of education of South Africa.

Education remains the centre of attention for BRICS. Science, technology and innovation are the priorities of the Brazilian presidency in the association. Therefore, the most expected outcome of the ministerial meeting in Rio is the preparation of intergovernmental agreements on cooperation in these areas. These documents are likely to be signed at the November summit of the BRICS leaders. Before the summit, the ministers will meet again – in September in New York, on the sidelines of the 74th session of the UN General Assembly.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.