More BRICS in the Great Wall of China

The world, as we know it, may be on the brink of a radical transformation. As major players in the Global South are rapidly stepping up their contributions to each other’s development, it is clear that a shift away from the West’s position of leadership is inevitable. But what is this going to look like? Will it just be a change from one leading nation to another, or is it a more complex, multipolar world in our future? Recent key developments in South-South global governance may provide some answers.

In the late summer of 2023, BRICS - an intergovernmental organisation previously made up of just Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa - announced that it would be opening its doors to other developing nations across the world. While dozens of countries applied to be members of the bloc, in the end, five confirmed their invitation - Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Altogether, the expanded group will contribute to 25% of global exports, and their combined wealth will amount to around 28% of the global economy

The bloc’s main motivations for expansion and general goals are not yet clear. China, who spearheaded the growth campaign, is touted as the group’s ‘heavyweight’, and its ambitions are great: not only to foster better trade relations and secure energy reserves outside of the USA’s sphere of influence, but to create a whole ‘alternative world order’. In particular, a desire for a more multipolar state of affairs has been directly expressed by Xi Jinping. But is this really his government’s true intention, or are they looking to be the new global leader? 

It must first be mentioned that China is not alone in its aim to evolve the status quo. Russia and Iran are both currently sanctioned by the USA, due to their statuses as aggressors in current conflicts. For them, building stronger alliances with nations of greater economic, political and military strength is integral in ensuring sustained growth while maintaining their military capability.

While the USA itself is not usually directly mentioned by politicians in BRICS, distancing themselves from its hegemony is a clear goal. The New Development Bank (NDB), a BRICS-founded project that presents itself as an alternative to the USA-backed IMF/World Bank, is growing its user base and funding projects in more developing nations. Furthermore, there is a push for progressive ‘de-dollarisation’ of both the NDB and wider trading - switching to either local currencies or the Chinese Yuan. Meanwhile, China is working to create cohesiveness and unity between members of the expanded organisation as it takes on a mediator role in the Iran-Saudi Arabia and Iran-Pakistan feuds. These plans reveal China’s aspirations to shift away from US dominance to a world governed by alternative power structures and alliances. 

Not every player in the Global South is content with these movements. Given Indonesia’s abstinence from BRICS’s expansion on the grounds of non-alignment policies between the USA and China, it is undeniable that many leaders see the bloc as a source of political conflict. Commentators believed India did not want to expand BRICS at all, as it sought to maintain equal allyship both with the original members of the bloc and the USA. However, all its official press releases supported the move. This suggests that India has compromised in order to maintain close relations with other BRICS members. Likewise, Brazil has been overtly hesitant towards the expansion, and Argentina declined an offer to join, saying that they ‘will not ally with communists’ and intend to focus instead on USA and Israeli partnerships. These diplomatic failures demonstrate just how inherently political - and especially China-focused - other leaders consider BRICS to be. 

While Xi Jinping assures that ‘hegemonism is not in China’s DNA’, it is clear that the BRICS expansion will have a great effect on the state of global power relations - whether that be more closely aligned to India’s vision of South-South financial assistance programs or a much greater political divide which will force nations to more explicitly express their loyalties as pro or anti-USA. From my point of view, the outcome of the BRICS expansion hinges almost entirely on a balancing of interests for each individual nation. If the currently non-aligned nations, both in and out of BRICS, grow to believe that the West is a big enough threat that other issues (such as territorial and economic losses) are able to be ignored, a far more fundamental shift in BRICS’ favour is certainly plausible, although only time will tell. Is a peaceful, multipolar world really possible? And if so, will China be satisfied as just another brick in the wall?

All articles and opinions posted give the views of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Leeds Think Tank, the Leeds University Union, or the University of Leeds.