China is gathering a group of emerging nations into a club with itself at the center, creating an economic block that may soon rival the Western-led G7.
BRICS stands for Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa, which together represent 40% of the world’s population and a quarter of its economy, per The New York Times.
The group began in the early 2000s with a formal summit of the first four countries in the acronym, and South Africa was admitted in 2010. Since then, other countries have expressed interest in joining, including Iran and Belarus, according to the NYT.
BRICS recently gathered in South Africa for the group’s annual summit. However, this year the gathering drew extra attention because tensions and conflicts — both economic as well as military — between the leading Western nations and the ostensibly Eastern block of BRICS are more severe than they have been in years.
As a result, BRICS members made no secret of their intention to discuss spheres of influence and the desire amongst some members to decouple their economic block from the global dominance of the dollar, as reported by the NYT.
But even among the core members, there appears to be disagreement about transforming the block from an economic cooperative to a political rival to the Western powers.
China, the block’s biggest economic power, seems prepared to take the most aggressive route and claim leadership of the “Global South.” To succeed, China must convince nations that have deep connections with Western powers to switch allegiances, per the NYT.
“The Global South is not happy about the G7 trying to represent them, so they’re voting with their feet to join BRICS,” said Henry Huiyao Wang, president of the Center for China and Globalization in Beijing, the NYT reported.
China’s ambition to present an alternative union of emerging countries at the summit is reflected in its increasing influence in the host continent. Africa has become a prize in the struggle for global influence between the two major blocks, as reported by the NYT. South Africa is China’s largest trading partner in Africa and serves as China’s portal to the rest of the continent, per the NYT.
Relying on these deep ties with South Africa and its leadership, Chinese leader Xi Jinping warned his hosts that there is an urgent need for African countries to become closer to China to confront what he called “changes and chaos” in the world, a reference to the rivalry with Washington, according to the NYT.
South Africa, for its part, has tried to negotiate a middle path between the West and China’s ambitions. However, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa has articulated historical grievances for why his country may be open to China’s vision.
“We are grateful for the support and friendship that China has provided as we have worked to rebuild and transform our country after the devastation of apartheid,” Ramaphosa told Xi on Tuesday, per the NYT.
Internal resistance to China’s ambitions is also coming from India, which desires a more careful expansion lest too much power be vested in its modern-day partner China, which also happens to be a historical adversary, per the NYT. India and China have had a border dispute that has occasionally ignited into open fighting.
But that impediment to BRICS expansion is perhaps in the process of being lifted, as the AP reported that the two nations agreed at the summit to work on resolving the issue and removing the thousands of soldiers involved in the standoff at the border.
The need to attract more countries to join BRICS is also a matter of economic urgency for China, which is facing a slowing economy that may threaten its ability to influence other countries.
“China as a whole is running out of money, particularly foreign exchange,” said Willy Lam, an analyst at the Jamestown Foundation who specializes in Chinese politics, to the NYT. “This has been a big impediment to Beijing’s plans to extend its influence in the developing world.”