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Oh brave new world, that has such BRICS and blocs in it

Oh brave new world, that has such BRICS and blocs in it
A security guard near signage ahead of the upcoming G20 Heads of State and Government Summit in New Delhi, India. The Indian capital is all set for the summit scheduled for 9 and 10 September. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Rajat Gupta)

Recent diplomatic movements — and those just about to occur — bear careful watching, but one must be careful not to believe everything one reads about their momentous importance. There are other movements just below the surface.

Only a few days ago, China and India were, seemingly, best buddies at the Sandton BRICS gathering. That meeting was supposed to be a lovefest among a new, emerging “South-South” Tyrannosaurus rex, poised to dominate the global political economy and push the G7, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund (and the US) off their high horses.

In things like this, there is always hype versus reality. Even attendance at this event could only be virtual for one key participant. In the end, Russian President Vladimir Putin elected not to attend, presumably because of that still active International Criminal Court arrest warrant — but also, perhaps, because he was about to be very busy dealing definitively with his one-time chef de cuisine, Yevgeny Prigozhin. 

Nevertheless, in some more overwrought, pre-meeting commentary (and even in some of the post-event analysis, or perhaps, more properly, cheerleading), the predictions were that the gathering would focus like a laser beam on rebuilding the economic and financial (and just maybe the political) infrastructure of the world. Then, it would move on to respond to the growing siren calls for the forum to undertake decisive steps for the formation of a new, multipolar world. 

Perhaps Miranda in The Tempest summed up those hopes (and ironies) when she said:

Oh wonder!
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is!
Oh brave new world, That has such people in’t. 

A whole new world — V2.0 — was now on the go, in the wake of the new and improved BRICS+.

Well, that was then; but this is now. Already in the arrival schedules for the leaders to the BRICS meeting, there was one spot of bother (and maybe a harbinger of things to come for the G20 meeting, about to take place on 9-10 September) that reportedly saw Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi sulk in his tent, er, jet plane, because, unlike the presidential welcome accorded to Chinese President Xi Jinping, Modi was only welcomed by a lowly Cabinet minister. (South Africa’s Deputy President was hastily dispatched to go to the airport to do the deed instead, once it was clear Modi was staying on the plane, waiting, waiting…) There was also the mysterious absence of the Chinese president at one of the sessions, when his speech was read by an underling instead.

Problematic questions

For the time being, let us leave alone some seriously problematic questions about the new and improved BRICS. One of these is how new entries into the BRICS forum like Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia and Iran could possibly enhance the group’s members’ unsteady global human rights reputation and the group’s international influence.

Similarly, we should put aside for now the question of how having two sets of angry sparring partners — Iran v Saudi Arabia squabbling in a Yemeni civil war as well as who will have pre-eminence in the Persian Gulf, along with some real unpleasantness between Egypt v Ethiopia over the ownership of the crucial waters of the Nile River — can possibly improve the internal coherence of the group in international political terms.

Furthermore, we shall add to that “to do” list the question of how there is an improvement in the forum’s financial stability when one of the new entrants, Argentina, is one of the countries most dependent on IMF and World Bank bailouts in dealing with its perpetually disastrous national economic policies.  

There is, moreover, a need for some deep analysis that quantifies the actual benefits that accrue to South Africa from its association with the group, rather than the simplistic totting up the trade that would have happened anyway, such as mineral exports to China that have been part of the newest global, basic commodities boom. Further, South Africa’s trade with Russia and Brazil, let alone the new entrants, has been largely a rounding error, save for oil and natural gas. But there is also the potential damage to other existing international trade and financial relationships that might occur from an ever-closer geopolitical embrace of Russia and China.

Greg Mills and Ray Hartley addressed some of these questions in their 6 September article in Daily Maverick, “The truth? It’s been downhill for South Africa since we joined BRICS.” But these questions deserve a broader, more thorough examination.

That analysis should compare the positive economic effects of relationships operating outside the BRICS formulation. That should include the impact of existing EU-Africa trade agreements as well as tariff-free entry into the US for products, courtesy of the African Growth and Opportunity Act (Agoa). The impact of the latter has been well-examined in terms of employment and growth in export earnings from the export of value-added products, in contrast to just shiploads of rocks and other raw materials.

Finally, the much-touted notion of a BRICS currency has now taken a hit from reality through statements from government financial leaders in South Africa. There has been a realisation that a hoped-for BRICS currency (as part of a concerted “de-dollarisation” of the global economy) requires a group-wide central bank, much more transparent national economic policies and integrated monetary policies. 

It is crucial to realise it took EU members many years and much anguish, compromise and debate to achieve the group’s euro currency. While there will inevitably be growth in denominating for some trade other currencies (or even through barter agreements) as the US’s relative share of the global economy recedes, the relative stability, the security of US sovereign debt instruments, the ease of use and the convenience of using the dollar means, in the opinion of most experts, that the dollar as the favoured global reserve currency still has much life left in it.

We shall leave further analysis of these questions for another time. There are other important fish to fry right now.

From BRICS to the G20

In the next day or so, a whole new gaggle of foreign leaders will gather in India for the annual G20 meeting. Collectively, this gathering brings together the leaders of the 20 largest, most powerful economies on the planet (along with a few lesser economies, to be sure).

Once again, however, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov will attend on behalf of his nation, government, and president because there still remains the matter of an ICC warrant hanging over Putin’s head. This is a palpable demonstration that Putin has effectively become a walking, breathing pariah.

Internationally, he is unable to do much more than meet with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un in Vladivostok, Russia (or perhaps carry out a state visit to Belarus or one of those towns in a partially conquered Ukrainian province). In his meeting with Kim, Putin will reportedly be begging for desperately needed munitions (in exchange for equally needed foodstuffs and rocket and missile technology) so Russia can continue its war of choice against Ukraine.

Possibly a carryover from international ill-will that has been generated by a new Chinese map that shows disputed territories along the Chinese-Indian border as definitely Chinese, as well as virtually the entire South China Sea as a Chinese quasi-lake, Chinese President Xi Jinping has also elected not to attend the G20 gathering in India. It is also possible that Xi wanted to avoid a meeting with the US president, given the two nations’ current antagonisms over trade and other issues.

There is some speculation that Xi decided to give the meeting a pass so he and his top team could concentrate more closely on troubling news in China in the banking and property development sectors that are beginning to be a real drag on the country’s economic health. As a result, China will be represented by the premier of the State Council, Li Qiang. Accordingly, a tense photo op of a Xi-Biden meeting will not take place, nor will they have to stand near each other in the meeting’s “class photo”. 

Per information so far, G20 scheduled top attendees from the group’s official members and guest countries, in addition to the Indian prime minister, now include Biden, Li Qiang, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, Russia’s Sergey Lavrov, South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol, French President Emmanuel Macron, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Argentine President Alberto Fernández, Nigerian President Bola Tinubu and Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. As a future host of the G20 gathering, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa also plans to attend. 

At the time of this writing, however, a number of countries have not officially and definitively confirmed the participation of their top government figure, including Saudi Arabia (although it is understood that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman expects to attend).

The summit will also include leaders from “guest countries” including the Netherlands, Singapore, Spain, the UAE, Oman, Egypt and Mauritius. This is in addition to the official list of member nations that encompasses Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, the Republic of Korea, Mexico, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Turkey, the UK, the US and the European Union (EU).

‘One Earth, One Family’

The official programme’s theme, as defined by the host nation, is “Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam” or “One Earth, One Family, One Future,” inspired by words from the Sanskrit classic Maha Upanishad. No one should expect, however, that the G20 rules the world.

We should assume that fights over the group’s final resolutions and final communique will significantly focus on the circumstances of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. In addition, there will be significant discussions over the challenges of global climate change (paralleling a just concluded African leaders’ climate summit) and, crucially, who is going to pay — and how — for the changes in economic behaviour that can stabilise or reverse the planet’s climate change.

In fact, even before the meeting has begun, there has already been wrangling over a draft resolution about the Ukrainian war proposed by India, as it is deemed to be too weak by some attendees. No surprises there.

Biden’s stop in Vietnam

As far the Americans are concerned, before Biden’s participation at the G20, he is visiting Vietnam. For most Vietnamese, the US war in that country from 1965-75 has largely been forgotten by a population effectively born after that war ended. US investment in Vietnam continues to grow and various trade agreements have followed, as well as port visits by naval vessels. Part of the reason for a movement towards the US is that Vietnam’s historical enemy has long been China, with the former’s antagonism to the Chinese assertion of territorial control over the South China Sea, together with other Southeast Asian nations.

As the Washington Post observed just before Biden’s departure for Asia: “Joe Biden once explained his lack of interest in the Vietnam War protest movement — for many, the defining cause of his generation — with a simple answer. ‘I wore sports coats. You’re looking at a middle-class guy,’ Biden told reporters in 1987. ‘I am who I am. I’m not big on flak jackets and tie-dyed shirts and — you know, that’s not me.’

“On Sunday, the man in the sports coat will finally arrive in Vietnam. Biden visits Hanoi on a stop aimed at reorienting the Pacific region as a counterbalance to China. As he is feted by his hosts, he will seek to launch an elevated partnership. He will also offer to help find remains of Vietnamese soldiers who went missing during the war.

“It will be the first time that Biden, who has visited dozens of nations and whose generation was engulfed by the Vietnam War, has set foot in the country. The trip will not be complicated by the personal history that many Americans of his generation have with the region. Biden never served in Vietnam, unlike the late Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), whom he befriended; gave soaring antiwar speeches, unlike Robert F. Kennedy, whom he admired; or agonized publicly over the conflict, unlike John F. Kerry, whom he worked alongside for decades and who will be joining him on the trip.

“Yet the visit could cement a remarkable shift in U.S.-Vietnam relations, from bitter enmity during America’s most polarizing war to a pivotal alliance.

“ ‘This trip is different,’ said Thomas Vallely, a Marine veteran who has participated in planning Vietnam trips for nearly every president for decades and will be in Hanoi for this one. ‘This trip is changing the dynamic between the two countries into a strategic partnership. Historically, this is the biggest trip — this is the biggest trip of the presidents so far.’ 

Asean, Quad, Aukus and the Indo-Pacific

Meanwhile, US Vice-President Kamala Harris joined Asean’s (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations) leaders’ summit in Jakarta, rather than Biden. Some observers see this as a diminution of US interest in that body and a signal to it, especially since it has been unable to take steps against Myanmar’s harsh military government (as well as because of that country’s growing ties with neighbouring China). The generals continue to pursue attacks against ethnically non-Burmese hill tribes who have been fighting off-and-on for decades against government efforts to control them, in addition to that government’s repression of groups and individuals struggling for a more democratic Myanmar. 

The US has continued its efforts to build more cohesive strategic cooperation in the broader region, such as a summit between the leaders of historic antagonists like South Korea and Japan in an unprecedented three-way leaders summit.

Then there are efforts to enhance cooperation between the Quad nations of India, Australia, Japan and the US in the Indian Ocean region. (India’s discontents with China are well-known and the US also has hopes it can gradually wean India off its reliance on Russia for its military hardware as well.) Similarly, the Aukus — Australia, the UK and the US — partnership is being strengthened via various defence and security consultations and cooperative efforts.

There is even an effort to upscale the US diplomatic presence in smaller island nations in the Indian Ocean such as the Seychelles, along with some small South Pacific island nations. These moves are an effort to check Chinese exertions such as aid, and China’s expanded diplomatic presence without being a direct threat or counter. Thus, the focal point of these efforts is addressing the growing presence, impact and influence of China in what the Americans are now calling the Indo-Pacific region.

Warily watching the two powers’ manoeuvres in the region, some are recalling an old Asian proverb that explains that when the elephants make war, the grass suffers. But then there has also been a corollary — a dilemma about how to pick sides — that was once famously offered by the late Singapore leader Lee Kuan Yew. He had warned that when the elephants make love, the grass doesn’t fare any better. There will be consequences no matter what choices are made by the protagonists and the rest of the region. DM


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