South Africa will formally join the BRIC grouping of Brazil, Russia, India and China at their April 14 summit in Hainan, China. Echoing previous meetings, the major focus of the summit will be to consolidate the impression that the BRICs are the rising force in the global arena. The June 2009 Yekaterinburg summit was hailed as an "historic event" by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and was punctuated by a call for "the emerging and developing economies [to] have a greater voice and representation in international financial institutions" (.pdf). Then-Brazilian President Lula da Silva, host of the April 2010 summit, upped the ante by declaring that "a new global economic geography has been born." How does the addition of South Africa fit with this grand vision?

It is hard to make a convincing argument for South Africa's inclusion in the BRICs purely based on economic weight. Goldman Sachs invented the concept of BRICs in 2003 largely on the basis of the four countries' structural importance to the global economy: All four are objectively big -- in terms of population, markets, proportion of global GDP and trade, and investment opportunities. They also all enjoy rapid rates of economic growth. By any of these criteria South Africa is not in the same league. Underscoring this point, Goldman Sachs did not even include South Africa in its alternative category of rising countries, the "Next 11" (.pdf).

The argument for South Africa's entry is largely based on diplomatic logic. South Africa has worked well with other BRIC members in a number of coalitions. This process started with the so-called Heiligendamm Process in terms of "outreach" with the G-7 and G-8 from the time of the 2005 Gleneagles summit. This comfort level is evident as well in the formation of the BASIC group -- Brazil, India and China along with South Africa -- in relation to climate change negotiations.

South Africa's geographic location is another major attraction for the original BRIC members, given their concerted push for engagement with Africa. The attraction for South Africa has a similar instrumental component. After all, South African President Jacob Zuma announced his interest in BRIC membership while conducting a massive trade tour of China accompanied by 13 cabinet members and a delegation of 370 businesspeople. Yet the material dimension should not overblown. As with other African countries, the relationship between South Africa and China is complex, carrying enormous benefits as well as a downside due to a loss of manufacturing jobs from Chinese competition and the negative spillover costs from the currency wars. Consistent with the diplomatic logic, the Zuma government has embraced the BRICs largely because it endorses South Africa's dual credentials as a big league player and a representative of Africa in a forum that can be critical of the West.

The move to include South Africa also increases the power and the legitimacy of the collective voice opportunities for the BRICs when dealing with issues of fairness in the global system. The agenda of the G-7 and OECD powers will be increasingly challenged by a core group, as opposed to the diffuse G-77 and Non-Aligned Movement. There is even the possibility that the BRICs could become a caucus grouping of non-G-7 countries within the G-20, putting pressure on others such as Indonesia and even Mexico and South Korea to choose sides.

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