Russia’s Trade & Development With BRICS: Analysis and Opportunities
With the BRICS 2023 summit now underway, we examine the Russia-BRICS trade dynamics
The BRICS 2023 summit is now underway in Johannesburg, South Africa, with the Heads of State of Brazil, China, India, and South Africa all attending in person, together with significant trade delegations, including Russia. The Russian President, Vladimir Putin, is attending by video-conference. The BRICS summit is expected to be a key moment in plans that could ultimately challenge the G7 group of nations in global economic and geopolitical influence. In this article I discuss the current position as concerns Russia BRICS trade.
The first meeting of RIC (Russia, India, and China) was held in 2005 in St. Petersburg. Brazil and South Africa joined the group in February 2011, when the current version of BRICS was completed. However, BRICS is not a formal alliance, and there are differences among members, but over the past decade, with dozens of meetings and summits, it has pursued common interests in strengthening mechanisms.
BRICS countries as a total currently includes about 26% of the total global land mass, and about 42% of the world’s population. This basic clout means that BRICS combined efforts in restructuring the global economy and strengthening economic and financial cooperation have been welcomed by many countries – and been viewed with suspicion elsewhere.
Mutual Economic Cooperation
The BRICS have also provided alternatives to existing global mechanisms deemed to be heavily influenced by the collective West and their policies. The BRICS New Development Bank (NDB), established as a partial alternative to the World Bank, has approved over 90 projects worth US$32 billion to support members’ infrastructure.
Economic cooperation was also discussed at the 14th BRICS summit in June 2022. Paying attention to providing a better interfacing in handling global crises, forming a multipolar economic strategy, developing alternative commercial and financial routes, promoting economic recovery, diversifying the economy, minimizing costs, developing electronic commerce, integrating markets, and cooperating with other nations have made BRICS attractive to smaller and other emerging countries.
Practically, BRICS is seen as a union of strong emerging powers with a common currency reserve of about US4 trillion, which has already undertaken achievements in standing against unilateralism and can be useful when positioned as alternatives to Western controlled institutions such as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and Western financial and trade policies in general.
2023 is an important turning point in the BRICS development and its future global role.
BRICS combined efforts are seen in cooperation and collaboration in developing alternative payment systems to SWIFT, the gradual development of a non-dollar financial system, the development of a common payment system (BRICS Pay), the increase of trade using respective domestic currencies, and creating a common currency. These are all progressing at different timescales, however the use of respective digital currencies in the settlement of future intra-BRICS trade will be a significant move. Russia, China, and India are all poised to launch their digital currencies for common usage by early 2025. This will allow trade to be conducted between them without the global SWIFT network and to reduce threats of the same upon other countries. Brazil and South Africa are close behind. In comparison, the United States and European Union, with rather more complex financial markets, have only recently agreed their digital currency protocols – a technical step the majority of BRICS members completed three years ago.
Strengthening the role of the New Development Bank (NDB) will help achieve BRICS national interests. The West’s approach to isolate Russia has created more incentives within the BRICS to increase trade with domestic currencies or create a common currency. The former has happened and is increasing; the latter will take time. Four to five new members of the NDB are expected; being Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which would give the NDB access to the Middle East region. Indonesia is a likely candidate from ASEAN, while Kazakhstan would give a Central Asian base. Argentina needs an alternative to non-Western financial support and would be another key asset in Latin America; and has been promised a succession vote at the current summit. Algeria and Thailand are also both potential candidates.
Incentives for official participation in BRICS have increased in 2023. Although “BRICS Plus” was created in 2017 and invited non-BRICS officials, over the last two years, China has supported the concept of expanding cooperation within the ‘BRICS Plus.’ Model. Moscow has also mentioned the potential expansion of BRICS members from 5 to 17 nations. About 40 additional countries are believed to have expressed interest in joining and include heavy hitters such as Argentina, Egypt, Indonesia, Iran, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, Turkiye, and the UAE.
In the meantime, in addition to reviewing the collective decision of the organization and having the necessary conditions and procedures for the process of accepting new members, the structure of BRICS and the process of accepting new countries may change with the joining of more countries.
Russia In BRICS
Russia is an important source of the world’s oil and natural gas resources, as well as minerals, food products, and timber. However, the conflict in Ukraine has affected the Russian economy and its oil exports.
Russia raised its 2023 gross domestic product (GDP) forecast to average a 1.2% growth, while Russian GDP is expected to reach US$2.267 trillion by the end of 2023. The IMF also raised Russia’s economic growth outlook for 2023. However, Russia’s Q2 GDP growth hit 4.9% in 2023, suggesting growth could be higher. The economy has adapted well to sanctions placed upon it while Russian traders have been quick to re-establish and re-position its historical trade corridors east.
Since the middle of 2022, sanctions imposed on Russian export and exports to non-western countries, mainly China and India, have accelerated. In March 2023, the concept document of Russia’s new foreign policy focused on issues such as the multipolar international system, structural transformation of the world economy, new international reserve currencies, and diversification of international economic cooperation mechanisms. This document also specifically calls for developing relations with various regional trade blocs and sees opportunities for the development of global trade and investment.
The development of the Eurasian direction of Russia’s foreign policy and paying more attention to the future of the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) is important. Moscow is in a good position among the group that needs energy to sustain their fiscal growth and is a major energy producer for BRICS.
Russia – Intra-BRICS Trade
The volume of mutual trade between China and Russia has increased and reached US$190 billion in 2022. The trade volume between Russia and China in the first six months of 2023 has continued this expansion and has also grown by 20% compared to the same period last year. Russia is China’s main source of coal, crude oil, and gas imports. Since the beginning of this year, there has been an upward trend in energy exports to China, and the scope of agricultural trade and agricultural products is also expanding. Exports from Russia to China increased by 84% in the first five months of 2023.
Prognosis: A rapidly growing and evolving trade partnership, which will accelerate more given increasing use of mutual digital currencies, improving Eurasian connectivity, and a mutual, well-defined desire to break the perceived hegemony of Western managed international trade structures to a more inclusive multilateral platform.
Russia has rapidly moved from 25th to 7th position among India’s trading partners over the past two years. Between April 2022 and February 2023, bilateral trade reached a record US$45 billion. Almost a third of this volume was mineral products (including ore and fuel). In turn, India exported goods worth US$4.43 billion to the Russian Federation in 2021.These are mainly chemical products, machinery, equipment and vehicles, food products and agricultural raw materials. This trade can be expected to grow given the mutually desirable commodity items the two possess, in addition to improving trade routes shortly to become available via the INSTC.
Prognosis: Rapidly growing trade based on energy, however non-oil trade is also increasing. As Indian and Russian traders and consumers adapt, and supply chains such as the INSTC come online, the bilateral trade development between these two BRICS members is highly promising.
Trade volumes between Brazil and Russia reached a record high of close to US$10 billion by the end of 2022, as Brazilian purchases of Russian energy and fertilizers increased. Brazilian consumable products such as meat, cheese and wines are also now appearing in Russian supermarkets. Considering the 2021 Russia-Brazil trade figure was just US$723 million this represents a huge increase in bilateral activity.
The main products that Russia exported to Brazil were mixed mineral and chemical fertilizers, potassic fertilizers, and nitrogenous fertilizers. The main products that Brazil exported to Russia are soybeans, meats, and coffee. Bilateral trade volumes are fairly even.
Prognosis: Brazil has partially stepped into the EU trade gap left by Spain and Portugal with spectacular trade results. With tourism and other trade items likely to be of mutual benefit, this trade corridor can be expected to remain dynamic for the immediate future. Russia is also involved in Brazil’s nuclear power development schemes.
Bilateral trade between Russia and South Africa has increased by 16.4% in 2022 compared to the previous year and has reached US$1.3 billion. Trade with Russia on the other hand is “very low,” to use the words of South Africa’s envoy to Moscow, with exports worth only US$132 million from January to June 2023. However, direct shipping routes have now be established for the first time in over 30 years, while Russia’s hosting of the Russia-Africa Summit in St. Petersburg earlier this year can be expected to yield results.
Prognosis: It’s still early days for this trade corridor however if both sides can engage in improved mutual result, trade can be developed. South Africa’s consumables industry has work to do to develop the Russian market as does its vinicultural sector – South African wines remain rare on Russian supermarket shelves. Trade is small volumes; but increasing. More effort and opportunity searching on both sides is required to inject better dynamics.
Russia is the lead member in the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) a free trade group that also includes Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan. EAEU total GDP is about US$5 trillion, while intra-EAEU trade increased about 17% in 2022. The bloc also has FTA with Iran, Serbia, and Vietnam while several other countries, including BRICS member India are also involved with FTA negotiations with the EAEU.
Foreign investors incorporated in the EAEU can access these related markets under the pertinent rules of origin conditions.
Russia is also a member of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) which is not a free trade bloc, but members do have individual bilateral trade agreements with each other. The CIS includes all the EAEU countries together with Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan.
The BRICS Vision Ahead
BRICS is facing many challenges, such as internal differences, global economic growth slowdown, geopolitical tensions, coordination problems, disagreements and different priorities of members, along with external pressures.
Economic cooperation within BRICS is still limited, and its cohesion is not especially strong, meaning we can expect an increase in institutionalising the various BRICS initiatives during this summit. There are also likely to discussions concerning BRICS trade liberalization and reducing each other’s import tariffs.
Although BRICS is not an official alliance, broad common interests such as moving towards a multipolar global governance system have brought greater opportunities with huge potential. In this way, it represents a huge consumer market, having a large middle class, natural resources, good communication and networks, a sound legal system, and modern infrastructure.
The existing BRICS 2025 strategy, which was implemented in 2020 and will soon be due for renewal, has been useful in developing trade and mutual investment between BRICS countries, strengthening customs cooperation, inclusive growth, and diversifying cooperation into different sectors.
Related Bloc Relationships
Should institutional connections between BRICS and regional unions such as the EAEU, Mercosur, and the SACU be established, the multilateral trading system will be strengthened. Technologies, especially in digital currencies and trade facilitation are also more likely to be shared, giving the BRICS – and its allies – a far greater trade platform to base themselves on. This is crucially outside the Western based system of management – SWIFT, sanctions, and overly influential policy banking.
This may also involve the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) with discussions already taking place about merging; or increasing trade development ties between the two. The SCO is essentially a security bloc but does have a trade remit. It would also bring into the BRICS orbit the SCO members, who include BRICS members China, India, and Russia, in addition to full members Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. There are also four Observer States interested in acceding to full membership in Afghanistan, Belarus, Iran, and Mongolia, and six Dialogue Partners being Armenia, Azerbaijan, Cambodia, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Turkiye. In 2021, the decision was made to start the accession process of Iran to the SCO as a full member, while Egypt, Qatar as well as Saudi Arabia became dialogue partners.
With each of the BRICS members regional heavyweights in their own backyards, the development of BRICS into the major global economic and trade powerhouse has every potential of manifesting itself, and fits in with Russia’s own stated Foreign Policy Concept, adopted earlier this year.
It should also be said that the opportunities of joining BRICS are more than the challenges. The joining of new members to BRICS can have various consequences, even competing with the G20.
In practical terms, the total percentage of the GDP of the current BRICS member countries is 31.5% of global GDP. That is more than the G7 bloc with 30.7% of global GDP, with the BRICS share almost certain to continue outstripping its Western equivalent as there are many potentials for using BRICS+ formats, with the participation of SCO, MERCOSUR, ASEAN, AfCFTA, SAARC, and so on in creating additional economic cooperation.
Chris Devonshire-Ellis is the Chairman of Dezan Shira & Associates. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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