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BRICS falls under China’s sway

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Adding concrete content to a catchy acronym has become a pressing challenge for BRICS, which brings Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa together. BRICS presents itself meretriciously as a powerful grouping. After all, its member-states together represent more than a quarter of the Earth’s landmass, 42 percent of the global population, almost 25 percent of the world’s gross domestic product, and nearly half of the global foreign exchange and gold reserves.

However, as the October BRICS summit in Goa highlighted, there is little in common among its member-states. Although these five emerging economies pride themselves on forming the first important non-Western global initiative, the grouping is still searching to define a common identity and build institutionalized cooperation.

Six years after it expanded from a four-member BRIC to the five-nation BRICS by adding South Africa, it has yet to unveil a common action plan to help bring about fundamental changes in the architecture of global finance and governance or to accelerate the decline of the era of Atlantic dominance.

BRICS lacks the shared political and economic values that bind together the Group of Seven members, who are also tied by security arrangements with the United States. In BRICS, differences outweigh commonalities. As the Goa summit highlighted, China, which is milking BRICS for tangible benefits, represents the biggest challenge to the grouping’s future. Just as China dominates the other new institutions of which it is a founding member — from the Shanghai Cooperation Organization to the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) — it is using BRICS to assertively push its own interests.

China also dominates the first tangible challenge to the Bretton Woods system, as symbolized by the BRICS-created New Development Bank (NDB) and China’s own initiative, the AIIB.

BRICS has fashioned two instruments — the New Development Bank, which has been given $50 billion in initial capital, and the $100-billion Contingent Reserve Arrangement, or CRA, meant to provide additional liquidity protection to member countries during balance-of-payments problems. Both these instruments have come under China’s sway.

For example, China outmaneuvered India to host the NDB at Shanghai, offering New Delhi a consolation prize — an Indian as the bank’s first president. The CRA — unlike the pool of initial capital to the BRICS bank, with each of the five signatories contributing $10 billion — is being funded 41 percent by China, 18 percent from Brazil, India, and Russia, and 5 percent from South Africa.

Today, China is in the happy situation of overseeing the NDB and the AIIB, not to mention the CRA. Leading two new multilateral banks fits well with Beijing’s strategy to create an “economic hub-and-spoke system” via energy pipelines, strategic highways and ports, and railroad networks. In this scheme, China, as the hub, seeks to draw in raw materials and other natural resources from the spokes, while exporting industrial and consumer goods to them.

China’s “economic hub-and-spoke system” is to parallel America’s military hub-and-spoke system. But it is an “economic hub-and-spoke system” with a strategic mission. China’s infrastructure development in other states is driven, as during the European colonial era, by a specific interest — to advance its own interests while saddling local communities and governments with heavy debt and human and environmental costs.

Against this background, it is not a surprise that China is a revisionist power with respect to the global financial architecture, but a status quo power in regard to the United Nations system. In other words, China supports international institutional reforms that give it a greater say but blocks measures that will dilute its existing status.

So it is an obstacle to restructuring and democratizing the Security Council. It wants to remain Asia’s sole permanent member of the Security Council. And as underscored by its 2016 presidency of the Group of 20, China values the G-20 as a vehicle to enlarge its role in global economic governance while seeking to retain those elements of the present trade and financial architecture that have facilitated its dramatic economic rise.

Meanwhile, it is using BRICS to expand the international role of its currency as part of its quest to build the yuan as a global currency that could one day rival the dollar or euro. So it is lending and trading in yuan with the other BRICS members.

China’s hidden export subsidies, for their part, are steadily undermining manufacturing in the other BRICS states, even as its adept use of tariff and non-tariff barriers shuts out, from its own market, goods and services in which they have a comparative advantage. For example, China’s trade surplus with India has doubled since 2014 alone to nearly $60 billion, threatening India’s domestic manufacturing base. An article last month in China’s state-run Global Times mockingly said: “Let the Indian authorities bark about the growing trade deficit with China. The fact of the matter is they cannot do anything about it.”

At the Goa summit, Chinese President Xi Jinping flexed his muscles to keep the South China Sea issue out of the Goa Declaration and to shield Pakistan from its sponsorship of terrorism, with the declaration citing U.N.-designated terrorist groups in the Middle East but not the ones based in Pakistan.

China’s “core leader” in Goa called for “political solutions” to “regional hotspots” even as his government adds fuel to regional fires through a relentless territorial creep in the South China Sea and by embarking on a $46 billion corridor to the Indian Ocean through Pakistan-held Jammu and Kashmir, a U.N.-recognized disputed region. How can BRICS create rules-based cooperation among its members if international norms of conduct are flouted in such a manner?

The Goa summit indeed was a reminder of China’s lengthening shadow over BRICS. As China uses the grouping to push its own agenda, BRICS has been left carrying the can. The risk is real that the grouping could collapse under the weight of the BRICS wall of China that is being erected.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author and a long-standing contributor to The Japan Times.