Navigating the Vortex
Navigating the Vortex
Summitry continued: the EU and Central Asia, BRICS and Friends, and the European Political Community

Summitry continued: the EU and Central Asia, BRICS and Friends, and the European Political Community

On Our Radar, 5 June 2023

Last week saw another three summits in quick succession: the foreign ministers of the BRICS countries met in Cape Town, South Africa; the European Political Community met at Mimi Castle in Bulboaca, Moldova, and the Heads of State of Central Asia and the President of the European Council came together in Cholpon-Ata, Kyrgyzstan. None of the meetings produced much in terms of concrete outcomes, but even as mere talking shops they are indicative of geopolitical and geoeconomic flux and uncertainty.

What it’s about: The foreign ministers of Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa — collectively also known as the BRICS — met in Cape Town. Their Joint Statement emphasised a common commitment to challenge what is, in the BRICS’ view, a western-dominated international order, often couched in calls to both strengthen and reform existing multilateral institutions like the UN and to promote “a more agile, effective, efficient, representative and accountable international and multilateral system.”

The three stated pillars of the BRICS — political and security, economic and financial, and cultural and people-to­ people cooperation — are not very different from discussions at the second meeting of the European Political Community. Held in Moldova in a not-so-subtle endorsement of that country’s EU ambitions, the forty-five gathered leaders discussed peace and security, energy resilience, and connectivity and mobility in Europe. Intended as an informal policy coordination forum, there was no official communiqué and only a brief pre-meeting statement by the Head of the European Council, Charles Michel, as well as an even shorter statement by him following a separate discussion he chaired between the leaders of Armenia, Azerbaijan, France, and Germany.


The brevity of these two statements could be explained either with the secrecy (or vacuousness?) of the discussions in Moldova or with Michel’s busy schedule, as he headed straight to Cholpon-Ata to the second EU-Central Asia summit from there. While this meeting did produce a more fulsome joint press communiqué, it was perhaps the one most devoid of concrete results, reaffirming intentions that had already been reaffirmed in a similar communiqué after the first summit on 27 October last year.

Why it matters: As we discussed in our earlier piece, Moving on from Ukraine? China-West relations between Xi'an and Hiroshima (On Our Radar, 22 May 2023), the war in Ukraine remains an important driver of the current flux and uncertainty in the international system, but not the only one, and it certainly gives rise to, and exacerbates, any number of other factors that add to the current conflagration of multiple crises.

Last week’s three summits are no different. The BRICS statement did not mention Ukraine, but noted “concern about the use of unilateral coercive measures, which are incompatible with the principles of the Charter of the UN and produce negative effects notably in the developing world” before doubling down by recognising “the impact on the world economy from unilateral approaches in breach of international law and they also noted that the situation is complicated further by unilateral economic coercive measures, such as sanctions, boycotts, embargoes and blockades.” A charitable reading here might consider the reference to “unilateral approaches in breach of international law” as including Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but the key point that permeates these and other passages of the statement is the concern about the economic impact of the war in Ukraine and the intensifying economic conflict between China and the US. An impact that is primarily borne by the global south — of which the BRICS consider themselves the leading voices and which they also seek to shape more, including through a potential expansion of the format.

This desire to remould the BRICS from an alternative to the G7 into to an alternative to a US-led global West that combines elements of the old Cold War Soviet block and the erstwhile non-aligned movement was particularly obvious in the “Friends of BRICS” gathering on the sidelines of the summit in Cape Town. Not exactly or exclusively great company — Iran, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Cuba, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Comoros, Gabon, and Kazakhstan were physically present with Egypt, Argentina, Bangladesh, Guinea-Bissau, and Indonesia joining online — it indicates the potential attractiveness of an enlarging BRICS to a wide range of countries.

Our take: The BRICS are still quite a bit off from being able to mount an effective challenge to the current international order. But that order is clearly in trouble and will change. Yet neither the US nor China, and their respective allies, have a clear vision of what it might look like, and above all none that would be credible in the sense of accommodating whatever individual visions might exist and how they could ensure a return to some semblance of stability and predictability in international relations.

This continuing uncertainty is neither cost- nor consequence-free. The costs are borne by many of the poorest countries around the world, and the Global South is right to point to this out. But we should equally not forget that a much higher and much more direct cost of Russia’s aggression is borne by Ukraine and Ukrainians.

The widespread sentiment in the Global South that the war should end as soon as possible and regardless of the impact on Ukraine may be understandable from the perspective of a country like Indonesia — whose foreign minister proposed a new peace plan at the IISS Shangri-La Dialogue 2023 on 3 June — but it is insensitive to Ukraine’s rights and potentially endorses, and encourages, the flagrant violation of fundamental principles of international law.

What is more, it is short-sighted. Never mind disputes in and near the South China Sea, including Indonesia’s own Natuna Islands, and not only because such a stance effectively accepts Russia’s territorial dismemberment of a sovereign neighbour. But also because it will likely have unintended and unwanted economic consequences.

The G7 remain the world’s most prosperous and powerful economies by some margin. As we covered in last week’s podcast “The Debt Ceiling, Summitry, and Corporate Governance in Japan…or just follow the money”, they now put significant emphasis on economic resilience, including the security of supply chains and the associated re-shoring, near-shoring, and friend-shoring. The implication here is clearly that you don’t recommend yourself as a ‘shore’ going so obviously against the Western understanding of the principles that should guide a just and sustainable settlement of the war in Ukraine.

Yet, continuing uncertainty also has consequences for the west and its allies. The EU, despite its focus on Ukraine, is also keen to consolidate its neighbourhood, now referred to as ‘wider Europe’. One of the few notable outcomes of the European Political Community summit in Moldova was a mini-lateral summit on the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno Karabakh which kept the momentum in the EU’s mediation efforts alive. Were the Union to succeed in brokering a normalisation between the conflict parties and even a peace treaty, this would have a significant and positive impact on supply chains along the Middle Corridor, including energy supplies from Kazakhstan.

Speaking of Kazakhstan, here is an obvious example of the many countries that are still hedging their bets in the current turmoil. Courted by China, the country was present at the BRICS summit as a ‘friend’, while its President attended the EU-Central Asia summit, signing up to the joint commitments made there, including “to formalise and advance the implementation of the Joint Road Map for Deepening Ties between the EU and Central Asia.” This may be more limited than the plethora of agreements signed at the China-Central Asia summit in Xi’an two weeks earlier, but it does nonetheless indicate that nothing is quite set in stone yet when it comes to an emerging new geopolitical and geoeconomic order.

Within this uncertainty, others are also hedging. China-US relations may not have bottomed out quite yet — although the trip by CIA director Bill Burns to Beijing in May for talks with his Chinese opposite number indicates that there are still high-level channels of communication, the refusal of the Chinese defence minister to meet his US counterpart at the Shangri-La Dialogue was a new low in the recent downward spiral. Meanwhile, Beijing appears to be keen to court US business elites as evident in the meetings that Elon Musk and Jamie Dimon, respectively the CEOs of Tesla and Twitter and JPMorgan Chase, were able to secure with senior Chinese government officials last week.


Perhaps then, the direction of travel in the current upheaval is less clear beyond the seemingly confident statements uttered by leaders at the various summits that we covered over the past weeks. This creates opportunities for governments and private sector organisations alike. Even NGOs, like IISS with its Shangri-La Dialogue, have a role to play in this kind of summitry. Ultimately, however, summits are only as useful as their outcomes and any follow-through. And what these are depends on the visions, skills, and determination of the political, business, and civil society leaders that attend them.

Navigating the Vortex
Navigating the Vortex
We live in a complex and ever-changing world. To navigate the vortex we must adapt to change quickly, think critically, and make sound decisions. Lucy Marcus & Stefan Wolff talk about business, politics, society, culture, and what it all means.