Expanding BRICS in the Shadow of China: Hegemony with Chinese Characteristics!

Date
24-02-2024

Highlights

  • BRICS expansion, featuring Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, signifies a notable shift in the global landscape, characterized by increasing multipolarity and assertive middle powers challenging the established Western-led order.
  • China‚Äôs modus operandi abroad reflects much of its domestic principle and experience, including its centralised single party-led political and economic model of organisation
  • China not only sees the US as an existential threat, but tends to judge other countries‚Äô actions, or look at other countries policies, from the prism of Sino-U.S. rivalry.¬†The expansion of BRICS is seen as an effort to legitimise Chinese world-view in this rivalry.
  • Since there is no uniformity in political values, BRICS cannot offer any universal set of values that can dictate the terms of any possible policy to make multilateral institutions more representative and accountable.
  • If the world is now safe for China, one must wonder whether China is safe for the world.¬†

It is crucial to analyse the concerns related to the ability of authoritarian regimes to achieve the goals of BRICS, such as a fairer international order and a reformed multilateral system, before accepting the idea of BRICS expansion, with the avowed aim of promoting multipolarity. This will also enable us to better assess the relevance of any new institutional arrangement that claims to represent the subaltern global South's voice in restructuring multilateralism.

Institutions are hard to create and set in motion, but once created, they may take on a life of their own; they may begin to act with a measure of autonomy, becoming less dependent on the wills of their sponsors and members.1 The emergence of regional and multilateral institutions offers lessons for reflecting on and respecting the evolving multipolarity in the world order.

As is the case, the BRICS expansion would include democracies (Argentina, Ethiopia), autocratic monarchies (Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates), authoritarian regimes (Egypt), and an Islamic theocracy (Iran). This is very much like multilateral institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund where democracies coexist with undemocratic states.2  While no government is faultless, democracies are perceived as better than others. However, this does not legitimise the promotion of the liberal hegemonic peace thesis, and it certainly does not advocate illiberal hegemonic peace. China appears to use similar narratives as the US-led Western world in establishing its hegemony. If the world is now safe for China, one must wonder whether China is safe for the world. 

BRICS Expansion with Chinese characteristics

BRICS expansion, featuring Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, signifies a notable shift in the global landscape, characterized by increasing multipolarity and assertive middle powers challenging the established Western-led order. Furthermore, in this changed multipolar paradigm, a country’s domestic policies often influence its approach towards international relations.

China‚Äôs modus operandi abroad reflects much of its domestic principle and experience, including its centralised single party-led political and economic model of organisation¬†(Xavier & Jacob 2003: 1). The emergence of the ‚ÄėParty-state‚Äô brand of nationalism derives its inspiration from China‚Äôs dream of ‚ÄėGreat Rejuvenation‚Äô. It aims to correct ‚Äúthree belief crises‚ÄĚ (sanxin weiji): the crisis of faith in socialism (xinxin weiji), the crisis of belief in Marxism (Xinyang weiji), and the crisis of trust in the party (Chen 1995).

In this context, the so-called ‚ÄėBeijing Consensus‚Äô refers to managed globalisation, industrial policy, and state capitalism. It argues electoral autocracies, which hold semi-competitive elections, possess the highest demand for Chinese investment¬†due to their heavy reliance on clientelism coupled with a high level of state control over the corporate sector.3 ¬†Moreover, the concept of the Beijing consensus was developed to characterize the Chinese development model. The term ‚ÄúBeijing Consensus‚ÄĚ coined by Joshua Cooper Ramo, refers to the economic policies that led to China's economic miracle. Unlike other development models, the Beijing Consensus does not promote universal values or principles.

China’s approach to multilateralism is driven by its desire to shape the world order based on ideology of Marxism-Maoism, State Capitalism, and the Communist-party State system. According to China, any country that challenges its beliefs and characteristics is considered a threat. Moreover, China not only sees the US as an existential threat, but tends to judge other countries’ actions, or look at other countries policies, from the prism of Sino-U.S. rivalry. China’s paranoid behaviour appears to be fuelling its rivalry with the US at the international stage. The expansion of BRICS is seen as an effort to legitimise Chinese world-view in this rivalry. 

Meanwhile, BRICS aims to create a fairer international order and reformed multilateral system, but lacks a geopolitical basis for asserting its economic strength. The collective might of the BRICS economies is huge; the group is highly reliant on the $17.9 trillion Chinese economy, which accounts for 62.9 per cent of the group’s total economic output. Moreover, the eclectic mix of different political, economic, and cultural systems, including democracies, autocratic monarchies, authoritarian regimes, and an Islamic theocracy would expose BRICS as a multilateral group with Chinese characteristics. China’s centrality in BRICS provides it with required leverage and scope to implement its world view as a hegemon. It violates the principle of balance of power, which is crucial in preventing the group from being dominated by one country.

Furthermore, BRICS‚Äô attempts to reform the multilateral system lack a geopolitical basis to assert their economic strength, making the group appear more like a business consortium than a political alliance or grouping, which runs counter to the concept of ‚Äėembeddedness‚Äô which expounds the idea that the economy is not autonomous, but subordinated to politics, religion, and social relations.4 ¬†The BRICS countries do not have the necessary depth and resources to maintain such a level of integration.¬†The argument here is that economic diplomacy should not be separated from socio-political and cultural factors. However, there is a risk that BRICS countries could be negatively affected by ‚Äúasymmetric interdependence5 ,‚ÄĚ as China's dominance may lead to the recreation of an old institutional order, with emphasis on the power of China‚Äôs illiberal and one-party state.

The liberal intervention in sovereign states increased in the 20th century in the name of protection and promotion of democracy. Going by the same logic, illiberal intervention in sovereign states would certainly aim at promoting autocracy. Susan Strange in her book, The Retreat of the State, argues that the progressive integration of the world economy has yielded three propositions for power shifting; (i) power has shifted upward from weak states to stronger ones having global or regional reach; (ii) it has shifted from states to markets and thus to non-state actors are deriving power from their market shares; (iii) power has evaporated with no one exercising it.6  In the case of BRICS, the first two propositions would indicate a shift in power not only to China because of its economic centrality in the group but also to the country’s One-Party state-system. 

Conclusion

The expansion of BRICS with new members is not suitable for creating political alliances/partnerships to reform multilateral institutions. The bilateral disputes among member states, combined with growing Chinese expansionism and hegemony, make it incapable of offering any reformative arrangements. Additionally, since there is no uniformity in political values, BRICS cannot offer any universal set of values that can dictate the terms of any possible policy to make multilateral institutions more representative and accountable.¬†Some would argue that the expansion of BRICS appears to be driven by rivalry between the US and China. Meanwhile, China is expected to exploit BRICS‚Äô economic potential to advance its national interest, guided by Chinese characteristics‚Äē autocratic, hegemonic, and expansionist‚Äē to enlarge its sphere of influence in a competitive world order.

*  Dr Shraddha Rishi teaches International Relations at Magadh University, Bihar, and Dr Ajay Kumar Mishra teaches International Political Economy at Lalit Narayan Mithila University, Bihar, India. Both have earned their Ph.D. degrees from the Centre for South Asian Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. The views expressed here are their own.


Endnotes
1. Kenneth Waltz, ‚ÄúStructural Realism after Cold War,‚ÄĚ International Security, Vol. 25, No. 1, p.17.

2. Ibid. p. 11.

3. Richard W. Carney, China’s Chance to Lead, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2023, p.1

4. Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation, Farar & Rinehart, New York, 1944, pp. xxiii-xxiv.

5. Robert Keohane and Joseph Nye, Power and Interdependence, 2d ed. HarperCollins, New York, 1989.

6. Susan Strange cited in Kenneth Waltz, end note no 1, p.16.