INTERNATIONAL VIEW – China aims to use BRICS as an instrument of power

Story by Ulrich Speck •1h

Special BRICS guest: Pretoria, Aug. 22, ;South Africa's President Cyril Ramaphosa awards Chinese President Xi Jinping the Order of South Africa, the country's highest possible honor. Themba Hadebe / AP

Special BRICS guest: Pretoria, Aug. 22, ;South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa awards Chinese President Xi Jinping the Order of South Africa, the country’s highest possible honor. Themba Hadebe / AP© Provided by NZZ in English

The BRICS countries have always been one thing above all: a projection, an unfulfilled expectation. Contrary to what many had hoped, the group has never become a coherent bloc or a real power factor on the international stage.

On closer inspection, this isn’t surprising. Lumping China, Russia, India and Brazil together had a certain logic in the early 2000’s, especially from the perspective of investors betting on fast-growing emerging markets. Not coincidentally, it was an investment banker from Goldman Sachs, Jim O’Neill, who invented the acronym BRIC in 2001 (a combination of the first letters of each member country, but still without the S, because South Africa was not yet part of it). He was concerned with strategies for investors – not with a new geopolitical order.

It was not conceived as a geopolitical group. However, in 2006, four BRIC’s foreign ministers met for the first time, followed in 2009 by a summit of heads of government in Yekaterinburg, Russia. They talked about the economic situation, reform of financial institutions and improved cooperation. In 2010, South Africa was invited to join, and the S was added.

Although the heads of government met annually from then on, BRICS countries never became a real power factor. BRICS meetings are «all about symbolism,» O’Neill said recently: «It’s not apparent to me that BRICS summits have accomplished anything.»

Apart from the fact that all five wanted to play a greater global role, they were never really like-minded. While Russia and China have increasingly positioned themselves as polar opposites to the U.S., in recent years, India has moved closer and closer to the U.S. to counter a threatening China. South Africa and Brazil only occasionally play with the anti-American option, while at the same time they are closely intertwined economically and politically with the United States. It is no coincidence that the three countries are democracies, while Russia and China are autocracies.

New character of BRICS

Beijing now seems to have lost patience with this group. Xi is apparently no longer satisfied with the state of affairs, which consists mainly of high-level, non-binding meetings. China, by far the economically strongest and most influential BRICS country, has exerted pressure on its partners to agree to expansion. Largely at Beijing’s instigation, invitations were extended to six new members at the BRICS summit in South Africa in late August: Iran, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Ethiopia and Argentina.

This expansion is likely to fundamentally change the character of what has been an exclusive club of regionally leading economies.

In its place is a curious mix of large and small countries pursuing very different geopolitical interests. The hard anti-American line, which is increasingly evident in China and that Putin has pursued with his war against Ukraine, is not shared by the newcomers – with the exception of Iran, which is the only new member that can be described as like-minded in this respect. Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, the strongest newcomer in terms of power politics, is currently negotiating a comprehensive security guarantee with the United States. The United Arab Emirates and Egypt also have a close security relationship with the United States.

At the same time, the new BRICS countries are divided by an increasing number of internal conflicts. Tensions between China and India are on the rise. If Xi were serious about easing tensions over the border dispute, he certainly wouldn’t have canceled his participation in the G-20 summit hosted by India. Increasingly, China and India are becoming adversaries in the struggle for dominance in the region, with India joining Japan and others allying with the United States.

An instrument of power politics for Beijing

A second conflict has been brought into the group by the addition of Iran and Saudi Arabia, as well as the United Arab Emirates. Although there are tendencies toward détente between the two camps (and China has helped,) this conflict in the Middle East is far from calmed and the potential for escalation abounds.

Given these inconsistencies, the question arises: why has Beijing pushed so hard for expansion?

Clearly, Xi is not interested in forming a club of like-minded people and peers, but in forging a power-political instrument: a group of special partners of China in the global power struggle with the United States and its allies.

What the incoming BRICS members have in common is an interest in deepening the relationship with China. Partly for economic reasons, but also for tactical reasons, because they believe that this will improve their negotiating position vis-à-vis the U.S., on security issues, for example.

And with the exception of democratic Argentina, where BRICS participation is controversial domestically, all new members have an interest in strengthening autocracy as a form of government – to relieve the pressure for democratization at home. When connecting with the U.S. and with Europe, human rights and democracy are always at stake, and with them the potential weakening of autocratic rulers.

Saudi ruler Mohammed bin Salman in particular has experienced this in recent years, when he became persona non grata in many Western countries in the wake of the presumably ordered murder of a journalist. The rulers of countries like Saudi Arabia or Egypt have an interest in a Chinese-led anti-democratic alliance that permanently legitimizes and stabilizes autocracy against democratization pressure emanating from the West. In terms of regime security, China and Russia are very interesting partners for autocratically ruled countries. This is most evident in the case of Iran, a new member of BRICS, which is moving ever closer to Russia.

Precaution against sanctions

From China’s perspective, the addition of energy producers in the Middle East is of particular interest. Beijing is preparing a war against Taiwan, as one of its options. The war scenarios that China’s leadership is playing out are likely to involve not only the actual battlefield in the Indo-Pacific, but also sanctions: What economic pressure from the U.S. and its partners would China have to reckon with? How could it alleviate this pressure? In such a scenario, it could be of great importance if Iran, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are close partners of China.

The fact that BRICS countries are on their way to becoming a China-and-Co. club – a collection of countries that rely on close ties with China – may also be the reason why Indonesia has now lost interest in the BRICS group. When it is no longer a matter of more or less equal membership in a club of rising powers but of building a Chinese zone of influence, Indonesia does not want to be part of it.

It remains to be seen how far China will get and the risk of failure is high. Moving forward, tensions between BRICS members could make it impossible to maintain any semblance of harmony at summits. Tensions between China and India are growing, and there may be a showdown between Iran and the Gulf states. Argentina could decide against membership after all. South Africa and Brazil may turn away disappointed because they have associated the BRICS group with their own increase in power, not as a servant role for an expansion of China’s power.

Moreover, ambitious leaders like Saudi ruler bin Salman certainly have no intention of entering a Chinese sphere of influence. The balance between the interests of the aspirants and China is likely to remain delicate. It is virtually impossible that Beijing will succeed in forging an internationally relevant bloc capable of action out of such a diverse collection of countries.

However, from China’s point of view, this is bearable. The old BRICS was an empty shell whose overtures didn’t advance the interests of those in power in Beijing. Why not try a fresh start that could at least irritate the U.S. and its partners, and possibly intensify some bilateral relations, especially in the Middle East, where Beijing wants to gain more influence? For Beijing, it’s worth a try.

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