from Asia Unbound

National Brotherhood Week Comes to China

April 15, 2011

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A man walks past a signage decoration for the BRICS summit outside Sheraton Hotel, the venue for the third BRICS summit in Sanya, Hainan province on April 14, 2011.
A man walks past a signage decoration for the BRICS summit outside Sheraton Hotel, the venue for the third BRICS summit in Sanya, Hainan province on April 14, 2011. (Jason Lee/Courtesy Reuters)

Growing up, I could never get enough of the mathematician/humorist/lyricist Tom Lehrer. Even today, his songs sometimes pop into my head. And so it was that while watching the pageantry attending the BRICS summit this past week, Lehrer’s "National Brotherhood Week" came to mind.  It’s basically a riff on how all the peoples of the world, who actually don’t like each other much, come together for one week and make nice.

I think Lehrer could have been singing about Hainan.  Despite all the media proclaiming the arrival of a new united geopolitical force and the threat to established powers such as the United States, what I saw was a number of countries that are not particularly in political or economic sync, trying hard to get along. Yes, they agreed that Russia should join the WTO. Yes, they agreed that the international monetary system needed to reform and move away from a strict reliance on the dollar. And yes, they agreed that they should start trading using their own currencies.

However, what they didn’t agree on was certainly as big a deal. India and Brazil don’t agree with China’s refusal to allow the renmenbi to float.  The fact that China wouldn’t allow the topic on the agenda of the summit can’t sit well with two of the world’s largest democracies, but at least the Brazilians got their two cents in at the G-20, where the Finance Minister criticized China on this very point.  The Indian Prime Minister almost didn’t show because of China’s policy on Kashmir, and, let’s face it, China isn’t going to support membership in the United Nations Security Council for India. And nobody likes the fact that China overwhelmingly imports commodities and not finished goods. That China then turns around and dumps those finished goods at subsidized prices back into the other BRICS just adds insults to injury.

In the end, the BRICS summit may turn out to be another example of what Tom Lehrer would see as passing for international politics: “Step up and shake the hand of someone you can’t stand, you can tolerate it if you try.”

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