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The fragmentation of the old world order

The expansion of BRICS reflects a striking shift in the global balance of power.

Frank Furedi

Frank Furedi

Topics Politics World

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The BRICS summit in Johannesburg this week represents a potentially significant moment in the shifting, fragmenting world order.

BRICS – an acronym for Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa – is an economic bloc made up of the fastest-growing developing countries. From the very moment of its first summit in 2009, this bloc has positioned itself as an alternative to the G7 bloc of advanced economies, made up of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the UK and the US.

BRICS members resent the dominant role of the G7 in world affairs, and the hegemonic pretensions of the US in particular. BRICS nations argue that their bloc represents the interests of the Global South, and that soon BRICS will more than match the economic power of the G7.

At this week’s Johannesburg summit, the leaders of BRICS invited six more nations to join their club: Argentina, Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Their membership will certainly increase BRICS’s influence over global affairs. Indeed, one of BRICS’s chief aims is to blunt the influence of the West. With some 40 more countries showing an interest in joining BRICS, that objective looks achievable. Make no mistake, this economic bloc could become a serious geopolitical force.

For Russian president Vladimir Putin, the BRICS summit has provided a useful opportunity to demonstrate to the world that Russia is far from the pariah portrayed in Western media. Putin didn’t attend the summit in person, addressing it remotely instead. But he still made his presence felt, especially with his announcement that the 2024 BRICS summit would be held in the Russian city of Kazan. As a Financial Times commentator noted, this is a ‘boost for Moscow’s attempts to show that it has not been isolated over Putin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine last year, especially among countries of the Global South’.

Russian foreign policy certainly benefits from an association with BRICS, but China is the main beneficiary here. There has even been the suggestion that if the bloc uses its own currencies to trade with each other, instead of relying on the US dollar, then the Chinese currency, the renminbi, could emerge as a serious rival to the dollar. BRICS therefore serves as an ideal medium for the projection of Chinese power. That is why Chinese premier Xi Jinping has frequently urged the leaders of the BRICS nations to speed up the pace of expansion.

BRICS plays a key role in China’s geopolitical ambitions. If this bloc were to become more coherent and able to act as a united force, it really could become a serious rival to the G7, and China could directly challenge the hegemonic role of the US in world affairs.

But that’s a very big ‘if’. BRICS is an economic bloc rather than a political union. Many of the leading BRICS countries have divergent geopolitical interests. China, India and Russia are competitors for power in Asia. And India and China, in particular, regard one another with suspicion. Their diplomatic ties are governed by pragmatism rather than affection. Moreover, some of the newly invited countries, such as Saudi Arabia and Iran, are actively hostile to one another. It is unlikely that their differences will be patched up just through membership of BRICS.

What is significant about BRICS and its programme of expansion is that it shows the huge potential for the fragmentation of the existing global economic order. Through the partial coordination of its members’ economic activity, BRICS might be able stop the West from always having its way.

With the emergence of competing economic blocs in place of the formerly globalised economy, it is likely that there will be a shift in the global balance of power. But how fast, and to whose benefit, remain open questions.

Frank Furedi is the executive director of the think-tank, MCC-Brussels.

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Topics Politics World

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