In a multipolar world, China is becoming the leading counterweight to the United States. It is amassing alliances and expanding its economic networks worldwide, focusing mainly on the Middle East, Latin America, and Africa.
One of the many avenues through which China is pursuing this balance is through its engagement with BRICS — a term coined only as BRIC in 2006, which became BRICS in 2010 when South Africa formally joined. Today, the term BRICS describes the world’s five leading emerging economies, Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa.
The bloc has been making moves to establish itself as an alternative choice in the global economy, pitting itself against current global financial institutions such as the World Bank, the IMF, and the United Nations — the reigning, though perhaps declining, multilateral institutions, which are all dominated by the United States and the West. In 2014, BRICS created both the Contingent Reserve Arrangement (CRA) as a monetary fund and the New Development Bank (NDB) as a source for development financing, both as direct alternatives to the World Bank and IMF. The NDB is based in Shanghai, and China owns about 40% of the CRA’s voting rights.
Now, with a GDP that is more than twice as large as Russia, India, Brazil, and South Africa combined, China is leading the charge to expand the economic bloc by adding countries to BRICS including Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Egypt, Argentina, Indonesia, the UAE, and Nigeria.
If these nations were all to join BRICS, the group would have a GDP 30% larger than the United States, would be home to over 50% of the world’s population, and would be in control of 60% of global gas reserves.
China has been recently courting and signing individual bilateral economic agreements while also using that goodwill and influence to grow its international standing with efforts to also add these budding partners to BRICS. One of the unilateral ways in which China is projecting its power in the Global South is through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a vast collection of development and investment projects that are taking place in Africa, Oceania, and Latin America.
Among the flurry of recent Chinese expansion are the following:
Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi visited Beijing in February, where he signed 20 different agreements with China, including deals on trading crude oil, natural gas projects, mining, the automotive industry, and the transfer of technology.
In a similar fashion, Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Riyadh in December, where he and Mohammed bin Salman signed a “comprehensive strategic partnership” agreement, while also agreeing to hold meetings every two years. Included in this partnership are 34 agreements regarding information technology, genetics, mining, hydrogen energy, and manufacturing.
With regard to Turkey, no official diplomatic visit has taken place recently between the two nations, but economic cooperation has grown between them, despite recent frosty relations over China’s Uyghur policy. Participation in the BRI, as well as bilateral rail and seaborne freight transport, allowed Chinese investment in Turkey to reach a value of $3 billion between 2016 and 2019.
THE UNITED STATES SHOULD REALIZE THAT ITS POSITION AS A HEGEMON IN A UNIPOLAR WORLD IS COMING TO AN END, AND THAT IT WILL HAVE TO SHARE A TOP POSITION WITH AT LEAST CHINA IN THE COMING YEARS.
Likewise, the Egyptian cabinet announced on March 8, 2023, that China Energy would build a green hydrogen project with investments worth $5 billion. Further, el-Sisi and Xi both met in December 2022 in Riyadh, where they bolstered relations and cooperation in the BRI.
Argentina also joined the BRI on a visit by President Alberto Fernandez to Beijing in February 2022, where he and Xi agreed to a five-year plan for agricultural cooperation and investments that cost over $23 billion.
Indonesia and China recently agreed to hold joint military exercises, while refusing to purchase American fighter jets.
In Abu Dhabi, China has become the UAE’s largest non-oil trading partner in the world, with trade between the two nations exceeding $64 billion in the first eight months of 2022.
Regarding Nigeria, trade with China increased by about $12 billion to a sum of $13.7 billion from 2003 to 2019. During this same time, Nigeria’s trade with the United States decreased by $4 billion to a sum of $7.5 billion. China has also been investing in infrastructure projects, including constructing airports in Abuja, Lagos, Kano, and Port Harcourt.
While China has been busy at work striking bilateral deals with prospective BRICS partners, it has plenty of work to do with current BRICS members if it is to succeed in building this coalition of the Global South to counterbalance the United States and the West.
India, which hosted the G20 meeting in 2023 has been gradually pivoting away from China and towards the US and the West. India is aware of all of the moves that China is making and does not want to fall under China’s shadow. It is therefore seeking to become less dependent on China and to “promote itself as a gigantic potential market and a trusted partner that, unlike China, is a democracy.”
The US has taken notice of China’s expanding influence worldwide and has found a willing ally to undermine China’s growing power. It has been reported that the US gave India intel on Chinese troop location and movement in the disputed Himalayan region in December 2022.
Similarly, Africa is a continent in which these countervailing forces are coming into contact. As Russia and China look to fill the security and economic gaps left behind by colonial powers such as France, the US is also providing nations like Chad with intel on Russian mercenary movements and designs for a larger African footing. This is happening in parallel to attacks against Chinese nationals in the neighboring Central African Republic. These movements in Africa are part of the US’s continuing efforts to undermine the growing reach of BRICS, led by China.
On the other hand, some of the nations China has been courting are increasingly looking to play both sides against each other to cherry-pick from both China and the US benefits that are in their best interests. While Saudi Arabia signed dozens of agreements with China, it is also seeking security guarantees from the US, along with help in developing its nuclear program. In a nutshell, Riyadh is seeking to be a major non-NATO ally, which would allow it special status and easier access to American-made weapons. Similarly, Abu Dhabi is also using this same playbook — playing the US and its adversaries against each other for its own gain.
In acknowledging the middle path that countries like Saudi Arabia and the UAE are seeking between the US and China, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Barbara Leaf said on March 9 that the US will act to stop Beijing from accessing US technology via its relations with countries in the Middle East. Leaf explicitly stated that she is not asking countries to pick between the US and China because “it’s not the Cold War,” but that areas like technology are “no-go.”
While China has its work cut for it as it creates this countervailing force against the US and the West, it is nevertheless taking a myriad of steps to put itself in the best position to offer this alternative vision of the world to the Global South.
Besides signing bilateral agreements with nations in the Global South, Xi has also called for “more quickly elevating the armed forces to world-class standards” in order to “systematically upgrade the country’s overall strength to cope with strategic risks, safeguard strategic interest and realize strategic objectives.” More pointedly, Foreign Minister Qin Gang has said that “if the United States does not hit the brake, but continues to speed down the wrong path, no amount of guardrails can prevent derailing and there surely will be conflict and confrontation.”
Most importantly, China has increasingly maneuvered itself into a position as peacemaker in ways that the US has not. It has brokered an agreement between “arch-enemies” Iran and Saudi Arabia. China has also cemented and reinforced its relationship with Russia and agreed to economic cooperation worth tens of billions of dollars. Crucially, both leaders called for “acceleration of the process of establishing a multipolar world order” and China reportedly hopes to enter into talks with Ukraine. China has provided the Global South with an alternative to the US as peacemaker.
As a result, the United States should realize that its position as a hegemon in a unipolar world is coming to an end, and that it will have to share a top position with at least China in the coming years.
While India tries to rise up from under the shadow of China, and with Russia still owning approximately 6,000 nuclear warheads — thereby most likely retaining its relative strength regardless of the outcome of the war in Ukraine — the United States will have to adapt to not just a bipolar world with China, but a multipolar one. This world will retain the US and China in top positions, but India and Russia will be right on their heels. US foreign policy must acknowledge and act upon this realization, as it cannot afford to continue pursuing policies as if it were still the lone hegemon.