Why China Has Bet On A Bigger (And Nastier) BRICS To Challenge The West
The BRICS economies' inclusion of new members like Iran may not make business sense, but it fits with the Sino-Russian strategy of drawing states of the Global South into their orbit in open confrontation with the U.S. and the rest of the West.
BUENOS AIRES — Last month's summit in Johannesburg of BRICS nations (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa), leading to a decision to expand the club, felt like geopolitical déjà vu. It recalled the 1960s Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) of Third World states that refused, apparently, to take sides in the Cold War, either with the capitalist West or Soviet-led communism.
NAM neutrality was limited, often deceptive, and became obsolete with the fall of the Communist bloc in the late 1980s. The dilemma of what was then called the Third World — now, the Global South — was in the stance it should take toward Russia, the successor state to the Soviet Union that shared few of its traits and goals. Ideologically, the end of communism confused NAM: It didn't know what to do with itself.
That is until now, with an apparent resuscitation of its spirit in BRICS (formed in 2009). Yet the idea of equidistance ends there, as BRICS is led by Russia and communist China and increasingly a part of their open challenge to Western hegemony.
Its founders include Brazil, which has its own agenda, and India. Both states have adopted their own versions of neutrality in the Ukrainian crisis, first in 2014 when Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine,then after its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in Feb. 2022.
So far, says Oliver Stuenkel, a professor at Brazil's Getulio Vargas Foundation, the two states have resisted Russia's systematic bid to use an explicitly anti-Western vocabulary in BRICS documents. This, he says, would explain the vague tone of the group's resolutions.
South Africa, the last member to join the group (in 2010), is a lesser power in terms of economy and political clout. But it symbolizes the worldwide spirit the group would come to embody.
In its first decade, the big four BRIC economies appeared as an emerging, southern engine of global economic growth. That isn't the impression today, and the group's original and largely developmental vocation may change further with the entry of new members, due in January 2024.
If China and Russia have their way, the BRICS will represent a political challenge to the West and the global North, mounted from the East and the South. The new members include states grappling with some hefty economic and debt issues, like Argentina and Egypt, which limit their autonomy. Three others, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Indonesia, are strong enough to sustain independent foreign policies and a sixth new member, Ethiopia, maintains fluid, strategic and business ties with both the United States and China.
The expansion thus had seemed balanced enough... until a last-minute decision to include the Islamic Republic of Iran. Just that alone will rule out any idea of the group taking the middle-ground in diplomatic spats.
Iran's entry strengthens the "harsh face" China wants BRICS to show the West.
The regime in Tehran has helped arm Russia against Ukraine and kept selling oil and gas to China in a successful, if cut-price, bid to dodge Western sanctions imposed on it for activities including a suspect nuclear program. It will become the most vociferously anti-Western member of BRICS. The country's president, Ibrahim Raisi, an eager friend of Russia, says the inclusion confounded the West's bid to isolate Iran.
Its entry will also strengthen that "harsh face" China wants BRICS to show the West. And China effectively calls the shots in BRICS, in part for running its development bank, or cash till.
That development bank has $30 billion worth of funds, mostly Chinese money, and is based in Shanghai. As a goodwill gesture to Brazil and its left-wing government, the bank's president former Brazilian president, Dilma Rousseff. It is an enticing element to the 23 states that want in and especially to Latin America's three cash-strapped but 'revolutionary' states, Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela. They will have to wait, but probably not for long. The next BRICS summit to be held in Moscow, may be decisive in that respect.
Brazil and India have backed this irksome mutation in return for Chinese support for their bid to become permanent members of the UN Security Council. They share China's desire to promote national currencies instead of the dollar in trade.
15th BRICS Summit in Johannesburg
The group's expansion and Iran's entry may give the impression of strength and momentum. For China, the lending bank is a useful tool to exploit the shifting needs and dubious neutrality of dozens of weaker states wary of openly taking sides. BRICS and its apparent dynamism may give to many of them the impression of a new balance of power, and China's irrepressible ascent.
Yet the picture isn't so clear. The United States is also courting the 'inbetweeners' and urging big firms to "wisely" move out of China. The big "de-linking" is costing China big money, with a marked decline in direct Western investments. It is of course exporting more to other states, like Mexico, and many of its exports will end up in the U.S. market.
Perhaps the change is in the labels and shape of trade flows - or the deceptive surface of things. But if it is still business as usual with China, expect a harsher tone and sharper practices at every turn.
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