The Big C is the only game in town

The optics of this year’s Brics (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) summit, with its focus on the “C”, makes it easy to forget about the other members.

The combination of China’s President Xi Jinping’s visits to Senegal and Rwanda, his meeting with President Cyril Ramaphosa (with an investment pledge of about $14.7-billion) and South Africa’s focus on pulling the rest of Africa into the Brics orbit creates the impression that the gathering is functioning as a stepping stone to September’s Forum on China-Africa Co-operation (FOCAC) summit in Beijing. South Africa’s dual role as host of the Brics and co-chair (with China) of this year’s FOCAC strengthens the impression that Brics and China-Africa relations are flowing together in complicated ways.

One big reason for this overlap is that China has been active in emphasising the China-Africa narrative and broader co-operation. Beijing actively draws on the benevolent Ming Dynasty connections between China and Africa’s trading empires, its Cold War support for African liberation movements and current win-win co-operation in the shadow of its proposed global trans-regional integration drive, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

Although not all Africans buy into these narratives, they do not completely run counter their own interests. Likewise, China’s use of narratives today tends to increasingly bring Africa’s own priorities (such as the Agenda 2063 development road map) into the fold.

Although there are also counter-narratives on Africa-China links and even the BRI, China has effectively created much debate and discussion about its relationships, placing its role at the forefront of many government and business agendas.

In comparison, the Brics lack such clear narratives. The bloc functions like a crystal, breaking up any issue into multiple fractured perspectives. Big ideas of development, governance and human rights shatter into multiple competing narratives, where the Indian or Brazilian approach might stand opposed to ideas coming from Moscow or Beijing. This is exacerbated by internal divergences in the group. It is challenging to develop a shared concept of development, for example, when China’s BRI is seen by India as a strategic land grab.

The development of shared narratives will be important for the Brics in the future. But some of this is already being written. The Trump administration’s apparent retreat from multilateralism and dismantling of an international trading order, which was partially built to American specifications, creates a gap for an alternative vision of globalisation.

The Brics’ genesis in the Global South, outside of traditional power centres, already provides a new, shared narrative. As a trade war looms, the value of a bloc of large emerging economies dedicated to free trade, inclusive growth and globalisation is becoming apparent. Arguably, similar trends such as Brexit could provide the Brics with another ready-made narrative.

But there’s an elephant in the room — the sheer weight of China compared to the other members. China’s economic clout and its increasingly clear ambition to step into a global leadership role raise questions about what the Brics would be without the “C”, and what role the bloc plays in China’s global engagement.

It is clear that China is interested in greater global influence, be it through traditional bilateral means, or through its rapidly proliferating membership of multilateral platforms. It then makes sense to look at Brics and FOCAC in tandem (and to consider similar platforms China has set up with South America, the Middle East, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, Portuguese-speaking states and many more).

This flurry of multilateralism, frequently undergirded by bilateral state-to-state relationships, is echoed by China’s massive BRI, which is changing shape before our eyes.

Originally narrowly interpreted as a set of geographically bounded routes connecting China to Europe via East Africa, it is now stretching to include West Africa, Southern Africa and further afield.

This raises questions of how Brics fits into this wider global roll-out, and whether China has outgrown Brics.

Perhaps greater engagement with Africa could open new narratives for Brics by positioning it as dedicated to developing Global South solutions to Global South problems. This would entail focusing the wealth of development experience shared by the Brics members on helping Africa to leapfrog into the most effective and pragmatic forms of governance with Global South characteristics. But first the members would have to agree on what those are.

China is increasingly highlighting its relations with Africa to display its peaceful rise, and part of this is because of the continent’s relative positive reception of its investments and support. Africa too could become a best practice example for the Brics.

Yu-Shan Wu is a research associate of the Africa-China Reporting Project at the University of the Witwatersrand and a doctoral candidate (international relations) at the University of Pretoria. Dr Cobus van Staden is a senior researcher: China Africa at the South African Institute of International Affairs

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