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Can China Achieve Its BRICS Ambitions?

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Can China Achieve Its BRICS Ambitions?

Beijing has so far failed to turn the grouping into an anti-U.S. coalition, but Washington shouldn’t sleep on the bloc’s dissatisfaction with the status quo.

Can China Achieve Its BRICS Ambitions?

Leaders virtually attend the 14th BRICS summit, June 23, 2022.

Credit: Press Information Bureau, India

Beijing and Moscow have so far failed to repurpose the BRICS group into an anti-U.S. coalition, but they are not done trying and might yet succeed. The BRICS countries share a common dissatisfaction with the status quo, and the group is becoming increasingly important to Beijing’s global agenda.

The five leaders of Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa met virtually on June 23 for the 14th annual BRICS summit. In his opening remarks, Chinese President Xi Jinping, this year’s host, was the only leader to directly reference what he called the “Ukraine crisis.”

Russian leader Vladimir Putin made a swipe at Western sanctions, decrying the “selfish actions of certain states,” but Xi was even more explicit and detailed in his criticism of the West, claiming that attempts by “some countries [to] expand military alliances” and “pursue unilateral dominance” were “dangerous trends” that could not be allowed to continue.

In this context, Xi pushed his Global Security Initiative (GSI), a new Chinese security concept that forwards Beijing’s global leadership claims in the realm of international security.

Despite constant criticism of the West’s “Cold War mentality,” the initiative ironically touts the Cold War-era principle of “indivisible security.” Taken in a generous spirit, the term suggests that states’ security concerns are inextricably linked. In Moscow’s usage it simply means that Russian insecurities about NATO and EU expansion justify the invasion of Ukraine.

It is “might is right” realpolitik dressed up in the language of peaceful internationalism, and it is typical of the double-think necessary to appreciate some aspects of Chinese foreign policy. When Xi talks about crafting a “community of common destiny” that is governed by “win-win” rather than “zero-sum” thinking, he is describing harmony through conformity with Chinese interests.

Unfortunately for Beijing, neither the Global Security Initiative, nor its counterpart, the Global Development Initiative, made it into the rather bland BRICS summit readout.

Neither did the Chinese-led proposal to expand the grouping gain much traction. Beijing claimed in May that the BRICS foreign ministers had reached consensus on expansion, but the upshot of the recent summit is that the BRICS have simply agreed to carry on talking about it. Russian media has since reported that Iran and Argentina have filed applications to join, but it is unclear when or even how they would accede to the group.

Against the backdrop of deepening tensions with the West, expansion makes sense for Russia and China, who are keen to see the emergence of a counter to the G-7. Potential candidate countries are also interested, but for Brazil, India, and South Africa, the argument is less clear cut. New Delhi in particular is reluctant to dilute its own voice and hand greater clout to China.

Still, reluctance to join a Chinese-led anti-Western alliance does not signal a complete lack of common ground between the BRICS members. The five share a reformist agenda that Beijing will continue to leverage.

Commentators in the West have long been skeptical of the BRICS’ potential as a politically relevant grouping. Despite the group’s steady march toward institutionalization over the years, the creation of the New Development Bank, and consistent engagement by its members, it is largely written off as a talk shop.

Skepticism has turned on the assumption that the BRICS members’ differences outweigh their interests. On the face of it, there isn’t much that all five members share in common. China’s economy is larger than the other four combined, and collectively they escape definition – they are neither all democracies, nor all in the Global South, nor all non-Western.

The main thing that has kept the leaders of these very different countries engaged, year after year, is their shared ambition for greater representation on the global stage. They are the underdogs – those that feel excluded from the club of developed, former colonial powers led by the United States. Of course, Russia has its own history of imperialism, but it’s an underdog if you view the international order as a product of U.S. hegemony.

Despite talk of Russia’s international isolation, none of the BRICS countries voted in favor of Russia’s expulsion from the U.N. Human Rights Council in April of this year. This shouldn’t come as a surprise – in fact, it is consistent with their positions following Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014.

China and Russia are the most vocal in their criticism of economic sanctions, but Brazil has also criticized what it calls “indiscriminate sanctions” against Russia. Brazil, India, and South Africa will not stand with Russia and China against the West, but even in the face of Russian atrocities, they remain hostile to U.S. hegemony and share China’s mission of “democratizing” international relations.

The West has for a long time underestimated the importance of the Global South to China’s struggle for supremacy against the United States. As China-U.S. relations further deteriorate, developing countries will become increasingly important to Beijing as trade partners, as sources of legitimacy on the global stage, and as battlegrounds to set international standards for emerging technologies.

As the most prominent and established political grouping of non-G-7 countries, the BRICS will continue to be an important vehicle for China’s mission to increase its clout. Beijing may have failed this time to make much headway in pushing its agenda, but it will not give up easily.