BRIC Becomes BRICS: Changes on the Geopolitical Chessboard

The Chinese government, while standing up for its rights when challenged by the U.S., is especially cautious because America’s military power at this point is overwhelmingly superior to its own in all respects. It’s trying to catch up in terms of defense, but it will take many years.

The Chinese Communist Party and government are primarily focused, as they have been for decades, on the creation of a modern, advanced, educated, and 70% urban society of some 1.4 billion people. The national plan is to achieve this goal by 2030, based on economic growth (China is now the world’s second largest economy, heading toward first within 15-35 years), political stability at home (which will soon require substantial social reforms to facilitate), and a foreign policy of nonintervention and friendship between nations.

The Beijing leadership is evidently uncertain whether the U.S. decline is temporary or long term and does not officially comment on such matters in line with its foreign policy perspective.

Just before the start of 3-day talks in Beijing regarding U.S.-China military relations, Defense Secretary Robert Gates told the New York Times Jan. 8 that the Obama Administration was so concerned about Beijing’s “military buildup in the Pacific” that the Pentagon was now increasing spending on such weapons as an advanced “long range nuclear-capable bomber aircraft,” among other measures.

Responding to Gates’ comment two days later at a joint press conference, Chinese Defense Minister Gen. Liang Guanglie said the U.S. “was overreacting” to an effort to modernize. “We can by no means call ourselves an advanced military force,” Liang said. “The gap between us and that of advanced countries is at least two to three decades.” This cannot be honestly disputed.

The newspaper also paraphrased Gates as saying  during his visit that “if Chinese leaders considered the United States a declining power… they were wrong.” He was then directly quoted: “My general line for those both at home and around the world who think the U.S. is in decline is that history’s dustbins are filled with countries that underestimated the resilience of the United States.” Last August, it should be noted, two-thirds of the America people queried told an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll they think the U.S. is in a state of decline.

While Gates dwells upon Beijing’s “buildup,” the U.S. virtually encircles China with military bases, submarines, fleets at sea, spy satellites, long-range nuclear and conventional missiles, offensive weapons many years in advance of Chinese defenses, overwhelming airpower, plus alliances with Japan and South Korea in Beijing’s vulnerable northeast, Taiwan, Australia, the Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia and India. The U.S. spends over 10 times more on the military than China. It operates up to 1,000 large and small military bases around the world, while China has no foreign bases.

The Obama Administration is presently fishing in the troubled waters of the South China Sea, intervening in territorial disputes between China and neighboring countries, including Vietnam, much to Beijing’s chagrin.

It is precisely this kind of “leadership” that BRICS and a number of emerging nations want to change.

The addition of South Africa was a deft political move that further enhances BRICS’ power and status.  The new member possesses Africa’s largest economy, but as number 31 in global GDP economies it is far behind its new partners, nearly by 20-1 in China’s case. It’s also behind such other emerging countries as Turkey, Mexico, and South Korea, for example — but African credentials are important geopolitically, giving BRICS a four-continent breadth, influence and trade opportunities. China is South Africa’s largest trading partner, and India wants to increase commercial ties to Africa.

Johannesburg sought BRIC membership over the last year, and as early as August the process of admission was underway, but now as a member it must take serious steps to substantially hasten its economic development to keep pace with other BRICS members. This will not be easy, but it is assumed the partners will help out.

A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson declared: “We believe that South Africa’s accession will promote the development of BRICS and enhance cooperation between emerging economies.” Russia’s Foreign Ministry statement said South Africa “will not only increase the total economic weight of our association but also will help build up opportunities for mutually beneficial practical cooperation within BRICS.”

Brazil’s Foreign Ministry, in addition to the conventional welcoming, interjected a sharp political note into this economic club by suggesting that “on the international level” BRICS would work “to reform the financial system and increase democratization of global governance.”  The reference was to Washington’s dominant authority over global finance and its unipolar leadership. This is bound to further irritate Washington.

India, like South Africa a former British colony and now a swiftly developing country, cannot conceivably oppose Johannesburg’s admission for obvious reasons, but has so far remained publicly silent since the Dec. 24 announcement. India’s unexpected quietude is of interest because last August Indian High Commissioner Virendra Gupta commented that “India of course remains extremely supportive of South Africa joining BRIC.” The Indian foreign office is too sophisticated to have forgotten the expected routine welcoming.

Maintaining good ties with Washington, which is disturbed by South Africa’s membership, is one of New Delhi’s main considerations. The United States has been courting India for some time, offering various rewards — from help with its nuclear program (despite its refusal to join the nuclear-nonproliferation treaty) to supporting India’s quest for a future Security Council seat (which China opposes and Russia supports). The purpose is to attract India more deeply into Washington’s orbit, undercutting Beijing’s increasing global influence, and perhaps setting the two against each other.

Global Trends 2025 even envisioned possible “great power rivalries and increasing energy insecurity” between India and China that may lead to a serious confrontation “though great power war is averted.” In the process, “United States power is greatly enhanced.”

Regardless of BRICS and other emerging economies, President Obama’s principal foreign policy objective since assuming office has been to reassert American global leadership after the Bush Administration’s neoconservative imperialist wars and unilateralism weakened Washington’s alliances and compromised its hegemony. This is what Obama was elected to do — not, by rank-and-file Democrats cocooned  in “change we can believe in,” but by the representatives of great wealth, great corporations and great financial power.

The Obama Administration’s first National Security Strategy report, released in May 2010, makes it clear that “Our national security strategy is … focused on renewing American leadership so that we can more effectively advance our interests in the 21st century.” In discussing world economies, which correlate to global leadership in Washington’s view, President Obama declared in his State of the Union Speech last year that “I do not accept second place for the United States of America.”

As part of this policy the U.S. seeks to forestall the development of a genuine multipolar system by making limited concessions to the emerging nations that will that leave Washington in charge for many years.

Washington’s latest scheme, introduced a year and a half ago by Secretary of State Clinton, is the  so-called, “multi-partner,” not “multipolar,” world — suggesting the Obama Administration’s intention is to serve as “senior” partner of a global leadership “coalition of the willing,” as it were, that will in effect strengthen Washington’s singular role.

“We will lead,” Clinton told the Council on Foreign Relations, “by inducing greater cooperation among a greater number of actors and reducing competition, tilting the balance away from a multipolar world and toward a multi-partner world. Now, we know this approach is not a panacea. We will remain clear-eyed about our purpose. Not everybody in the world wishes us well or shares our values and interests. And some will actively seek to undermine our efforts. In those cases, our partnerships can become power coalitions to constrain or deter those negative actions.”

The U.S. also gives verbal support to an eventual expansion of the Security Council, and has cooperated in extending the powers of emerging countries within the Group of 20 leading industrialized economies, in the World Bank and IMF. In addition the State Department seeks one-to-one arrangements advantageous to certain countries to keep them well within the U.S. sphere of influence.

Washington intends to function as the principal world power for as long as it can. After all it is still an enormously wealthy, militarized state with powerful and obedient industrialized allies including the European Union countries (and NATO), the UK-Australia-Canada-New Zealand nexus, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and others.

However, the ongoing global diversification of economic and political resources toward the emerging countries appears to be leading inevitably to multipolarity. To quote “Global Trends 2025” once again:

The unprecedented transfer of wealth roughly from West to East now under way will continue for the foreseeable future…. Growth projections for Brazil, Russia, India, and China indicate they will collectively match the original G-7’s share of global GDP by 2040-2050.  China is poised to have more impact on the world over the next 20 years than any other country. If current trends persist, by 2025 China will have the world’s second largest economy and will be a leading military power.

Actually China became the second largest global economy last August, 15 years before 2025.

Under such conditions, how many newly empowered emerging countries will remain content simply to play follow-the-leader behind a faltering and militarist Uncle Sam?

The time of decision about the architecture of future world leadership draws nearer. At some point in 10 or 20 years a reluctant Washington may have to settle for a prominent position in a multipolar world construct.

But of course there remains another possibility.

Given the volatile global situation — peak oil, climate change, continued U.S. imperial wars, grave poverty that will increase as world population grows from 6.8 billion today to over 9 billion in 2050, and many emerging countries seeking a rightful share of world leadership — the Unites States may resort in time to global military aggression to sustain its dominant status, possibly even World War III.

Considering the U.S. political system’s decades-long move toward the right, the enormity of the Pentagon’s arsenal, the militarism in our society, and the ability of Washington and the corporate mass media to collaborate in “selling” wars to a misinformed public, this cannot be ruled out.

It is impossible to predict how all this will turn out. What is known is that the American people still have the power to make their own history. This not so much a question of voting — for whom, in this case? — but of taking action to galvanize the masses of people to oppose the political structure’s penchant for wars and global domination, for inexcusable foot-dragging on climate change and indifference to gross economic inequality.

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Jack Smith

Jack A. Smith is editor of the Hudson Valley Activist Newsletter and is former editor of the (U.S.) Guardian Newsweekly. He may be reached at 

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  • LT

    Good article, not convincing though. I personally dont believe that South Africa deserves a place in BRIC. It is a 3rd world country, nearly 6 million people have AIDS or 12% of its population. It lacks fast economic growth which is typical in BRIC members, and to my belief its membership will not have a great impact on the world order. With a GDP of $500 million, what impact could it have? We also rarely hear of South Africa in foreign diplomacy and economic circles. Mexico or Turkey should be in BRIC instead, both have economic power and increasing influence.

  • Rudi

    @LT: As a South African, I agree. Our admission to BRIC is mostly window dressing to tack on a layer of legitimacy by appearing to represent Africa. SA is still the leading power in Africa, but we’re not exploiting that; other countries such as Nigeria will surpass us soon mainly because our government is utterly incompetent at making any decisions whatsoever, and refuses to take leadership w.r.t. pressing issues such as Zimbabwe.

    I would like to correct you, however, South Africa does not have a typical 3rd world economy, but neither is it 1st world by any means. In South African economic theory, we see ourselves as being somewhere in between. Also, I believe the author here was arguing for the significance of BRIC(S) as an organization, not that SA’s admission will have inherent global impact, as you seem to imply.

    On another note, I won’t pretend to like America’s current modus operandi, but I must say that the author’s ideas about other countries seem a bit naïve. Make no mistake, I did enjoy reading all the US-bashing. But I don’t consider a “multi-polar” world to be inherently and necessarily good, since the last time there was such a thing, we had the Cold War, and SA got pretty screwed over that time (if you think our problems were only about race then I have news for you).

    The gap in the author’s argument here is that he proves conclusively that America, having unchecked power, is making life difficult for many people; but then he leaps to the conclusion that a multi-polar world organized by BRICS must therefore be a better deal, by virtue of being an element of set “not-America”. That doesn’t follow, however, especially if you look at Russia and China’s foreign policy positions in recent times. I don’t think we can characterize shifting world power as an inherently good thing. It is merely different from what we know, but it is not necessarily better (or, for that matter, worse).

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