BRICS enlargement: What’s in it for China? 

In an article published in The Washington Post, columnist Pankaj Mishra stated that BRIC was a “casual acronym” created by the then Goldman Sachs economist Jim O’Neill in 2001 to highlight investment opportunities in Brazil, Russia, India and China. However, the grouping rose in prominence when Russia suggested the establishment of the alliance in 2009.

The bloc then became BRICS in 2010 when South Africa joined its ranks, and was regarded by many as an emerging alternative rivaling many pro-Western organizations like the United Nations (UN), the World Bank, and the IMF, that rely on the greenback as the reserve currency.

This year, at the recently concluded BRICS summit in Johannesburg, the alliance welcomed six new members, namely, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Argentina, Iran, and Ethiopia.

Given its record of pushing for BRICS’ enlargement, Chinese authoritarian leader Xi Jinping unsurprisingly hailed the expansion move at the bloc’s recent South African summit as “historic” and “a new starting point for BRICS cooperation.” 

After all, with six new member states, BRICS could arguably surpass its key competitor, the G7, in economic terms, according to calculations premised on global data. Moreover, in view of the ongoing Russo-Ukrainian conflict and escalating Sino-U.S. superpower confrontation, little wonder that Beijing has been hoping to win over new allies, particularly countries with strategic locations and thriving economies.

Put it simply, the more the Sino-U.S. geopolitical rivalry escalates, the stronger Beijing’s motivation to push for BRICS’ enlargement. For years since the bloc’s emergence, China has been the largest financial contributor to the BRICS National Development Bank, and poured in considerable investments in the fields of health, education and economic collaboration.  

Another underlying factor motivating China to push for BRICS’ enlargement has been the apparent lack of coherence and momentum in the past couple of years among existing BRICS members, according to China’s evaluation of the bloc. To translate the Chinese assessment of the bloc literally, “golden BRICS” has turned into “stone BRICS” (金砖变成石砖). 

Echoing the Chinese take on BRICS’ economic performance in recent years has been ironically O’Neill, who has left Goldman Sachs as chief economist. In an interview with the Financial Times in August this year, O’Neill said the BRICS grouping “never achieved anything” since it began having yearly summits in 2009.

Hence, by injecting fresh blood, China has been hoping to ramp up the development of the alliance amid its own domestic economic woes. At a plenary session of the BRICS summit last month, Xi declared that BRICS member states “should support each other on the issues of interest for each of us, strengthen coordination on main international and regional issues, actively mediate in resolving pressing issues and promote political settlement.” 

Previously, Xi also urged fellow BRICS countries to object to what he saw as Western economic coercion. Also, the Chinese leader has been trying to place China as a leader in dethroning a US-dominated world order that he perceives as determined to restrict China’s ascendancy. 

As can be seen, the recent BRICS leaders’ declaration called for a “greater representation of emerging markets and developing countries” in institutions like the World Bank, the IMF and the UN. 

“The broader its (BRICS’) members, the stronger they can claim a collective voice, and the more China as the largest economy will claim leadership and representation of the developing world,” contended Yun Sun, director of the China Program at the Stimson Center think tank in Washington.

Likewise, Happymon Jacob, a professor of international studies at New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, remarked that the recent enlargement showcased changing global geopolitical fault lines.

“Being a leader of non-Western forums and the Global South, which in general is dissatisfied with the US-led institutions, will invariably help China become a counterweight to the US and the world order led by the U.S.,” Jacob said.

Jeffrey Sachs, an eminent economist and President of the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network, commented in an interview with Sputnik News: “BRICS can create viable alternatives to the dollar. In this sense, yes, the dollar will be dethroned as the overwhelmingly dominant global currency,” Sachs declared. 

“That is inevitable in the long run in any event, given the declining share of U.S. GDP and global trade.”

Also, BRICS will expedite the shift to a multi-currency system, and while the greenback will feature in it, it would play a much smaller role amidst many currencies, Sachs continued. 

“The BRICS expansion will strengthen the BRICS members and give these members more leverage in negotiations in international forums. It will also strengthen OPEC+,” Sachs said.

Furthermore, the outbreak of the Russo-Ukrainian conflict in 2022 and subsequent sanctions imposed on Russia by the U.S. and its allies have made BRICS even more relevant for countries in the Global South that seek to withstand the West’s “autocracy-vs-democracy” narrative, according to Ryan Berg, director of the Americas Program at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).

For many countries, multilateral organizations like BRICS that gather countries of the Global South can counteract the impetus to support the U.S. or China on certain issues and maintain a small degree of policy freedom, Berg elaborated. 

BRICS would offer member states a means to collaborate more on common economic and development matters, as Chinese capital has become a key factor influencing infrastructure and trade development in many of these countries, said Stefanie Kam, a research fellow at the Singapore-based S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

Lambasting the expansion of BRICS, U.S. Republican Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene told her constituents in Georgia that as BRICS enlarges, the U.S. economy becomes weaker as BRICS members can circumvent American sanctions and trade in their national currencies. 

The Republican congresswoman slammed the leftist administration of U.S. leader Joe Biden, which she claimed was “doing… nonsense”, such as channeling billions in military aid to Ukraine which is embroiled in a faltering counteroffensive against Russia while America is struggling with inflation and other economic problems. 

Greene continued: “There are other countries in the world, powerful countries, organizing together because they are tired of the United States.” 

Responding to U.S.-led sanctions against Russia and the U.S. weaponization of the greenback as the world’s reserve currency, the BRICS countries have been saying that “we don’t care about U.S. sanctions and we’ll sell to one another, buy and sell in our own currency, not the U.S. dollar,” argued Greene.

That being said, most countries seeking to join BRICS are not necessarily adversaries of U.S.-led groups like the Group of Seven (G7). Rather than going all out to object to the U.S.-led liberal international order, these countries are hoping to spread their risks in an increasingly volatile geopolitical and geoeconomic environment.

Sebastian Maslow, a lecturer at Sendai Shirayuri Women’s College, pointed out countries’ increased interactions with several multilateral platforms show that power and national interest are quickly transforming in the contemporary era. 

Maslow added that an expanded BRICS would be expected to offer other emerging economies a voice to lobby for their interests and coordinate action, stating that G7 members have acknowledged the rivalry with BRICS over the Global South, as evidenced in the involvement of states like India and Brazil at G7 summits, like in Hiroshima this year. 

Notably, with the existing BRICS countries already varying immensely in political systems, economic performances and diplomatic goals, not to mention those of the new BRICS members, observers have called into question the ultimate effectiveness of the bloc in pursuing its goals. After all, for a consensus-based grouping like BRICS, decisions are only made if all members agree unanimously. 

Another roadblock to a smooth path for BRICS’ rise to global prominence would be existing hiccups in Sino-Indian ties, especially with ongoing territorial disputes along the Sino-Indian border. 

China’s recent publication of a new map on August 28 has incensed its Indian counterparts, with fellow BRICS member India publicly protesting China’s territorial claims around the difficult mountainous terrain that straddles the “Line of Actual Control” (LAC), the border between China and India as India recognizes it.

“We have agreements with China going back to the 1990s which prohibits bringing mass troops to the border area. They have disregarded that,” Jaishankar, India’s external affairs minister, stated in August last year. “You know what happened in the Galwan Valley. That problem has not been resolved and that has been clearly casting a shadow.”

“They are our neighbors. Everybody wants to get along with their neighbor. In personal life and country-wise as well. But everybody wants to get along on reasonable terms. I must respect you. You must respect me,” Jaishanker stated, while singling China out in February as the only key world power India could not get perfectly along with. 

With regard to Russia, another BRICS member, China’s newly published map classified the Bolshoy Ussuriysky Island on the Amur River as Chinese territory, a move rejected by Russia’s Foreign Ministry. 

Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova rejected any notion of reopening the territorial disagreement, stating that it had been settled by bilateral agreements over 15 years ago.

“Its settlement was marked by the ratification in 2005 of the Supplementary Agreement on the Russian-Chinese state border on its eastern part, according to which Bolshoi Ussuriysky Island was divided between the parties. The delimitation and demarcation of our common border has been completed along its entire length (almost 4,300 km [2,670 miles]), including in 2008 on Bolshoi Ussuriysky Island,” Zakharova declared in a statement published by the Russian Foreign Ministry. 

As per the Sino-Russian bilateral agreements alluded to by Zakharova, Bolshoi Ussuriysky Island has been divided between Russian and Chinese control. Nevertheless, China’s new map hinted that Beijing has control of the entire 135-square-mile piece of land.

China’s increasing pugilism and territorial ambitions has understandably raised eyebrows in India and Russia. It is reasonable to assert that in light of this ongoing dispute with China, certain countries like India would not want to entirely jeopardize relations with the U.S. and its allies by hedging all its bets on the newly expanded BRICS alliance. 

To a significant extent, the existing U.S.-led global order does help India to check on China’s rising clout in the Indo-Pacific and in the world. India’s ties with the U.S. are arguably a strategy by the government of Narendra Modi to tackle India’s security concerns with China, as well as with neighboring Pakistan. 

Another factor worth considering is that merely comparing BRICS to NATO would not work as unlike NATO, BRICS has no common defense forces. Joint military exercises only happen between individual BRICS members and are not as regular as NATO military drills. 

“I am skeptical in terms of the effectiveness of the organization after the expansion, and whether in the end the expansion is more symbolic than substantive,” said Yun Sun, director of the China program at the Stimson Center in Washington.

“The more members there are, the more interests the organization needs to reconcile and accommodate.”

Evidently, an enlarged BRICS would boost Russia and China’s international standing, with Moscow already considerably deprived from Western finance and Beijing estranged from the West due to its refusal to openly denounce Moscow’s actions in Ukraine. 

That being said, the effectiveness of BRICS would be curtailed by the fragile situations in other member countries, especially those from the Global South, with less consolidated state power than Russia and China and that are more vulnerable to coups and government changes. 

Therefore, at least in the near future, the notion that China is poised for global dominance via BRICS may seem a bit far-fetched. Beijing has to still come to terms with the sobering reality that notwithstanding all the fanfare around the latest BRICS summit and enlargement, every member state, existing or future, would have to deal with its own geopolitical and foreign policy realities. 

Regardless of all the hype about multilateral cooperation, commercial realpolitik would arguably triumph, with or without BRICS.

Photo credit: iStock/ Elif Bayraktar

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