(from left) President of Brazil Lula da Silva, President of China Xi Jinping, President of South Africa Cyril Ramaphosa, Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi and Minister of Foreign Affairs of Russia Sergey Lavrov, in a family photograph, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in 2023 in Johannesburg, South Africa, on August 22, 2023. 15th BRICS SUMMIT, PDM-owner, via Wikimedia Commons.
This article originally appeared in The Hill on September 14, 2023
During the Cold War between America and the Soviet Union, there was an economic competition, in which each side tried to lure unaffiliated and discontented poor nations to choose sides.
Today, the primary competition for nations is a contest between Western capitalism and the market-oriented communism of China, which aims to end the West’s dominant economic status.
Authoritarians of all stripes seek economic alternatives in order to avoid sanctions and not be scrutinized by the Western nations who so loudly criticize their monopolies on power and their human rights abuses. Hence the attraction to Chinese economic organizations such as BRICS and the Belt and Road Initiative, offering poor nations loans that are too good to be true.
One area of competition is the Middle East, which has a long history of American influence. As Sarit Zehavi, CEO of the Alma Research Center said, “China is implementing a systematic strategic plan in the Middle East to convert its economic power in the Middle East into political power, on the way to a military foothold.”
Over the last twenty years, an alternative coalition of nations under the Chinese-led BRICS umbrella has emerged to challenge the dominance of the G7 group of democratic economies. This summer, the original BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) welcomed six new members, with another twenty anxiously hoping for an invitation soon. BRICS members represent nearly half of the world’s energy producers as well as consumers.
According to Sadanand Dhume of the Wall Street Journal, the BRICS expansion represents “an attempt to reshape the global world order and provide a counterweight to the U.S. and its allies.”
BRICS is a byproduct of American rivalries with China and Russia, analogous in some ways to the Cold War competition between America and the Soviet Union. President Xi Jinping of China, a quintessential authoritarian, is assembling a growing bloc of nations that want to extricate themselves from American and Western dominance. Russian President Vladimir Putin hailed the expansion of BRICS as “a new multipolar world order.”
However, many of these BRICS countries want economic benefits but no part of the fierce U.S.-Sino rivalry, thinking they can still rely on American security. They cannot be allowed to have it both ways.
America needs a carrot-and-stick strategy, offering economic opportunities to BRICS members to distance themselves from China, with the threat that American security is not going to be there for those who cozy up to China too much.
The U.S. also needs to remind BRICS nations that betting on Chinese-centric organizations is a losing proposition. China has long-term structural issues based on its aging demographics, its ongoing housing collapse, its shrinking labor force, and all of the inherent problems of an authoritarian government-run economy. A strong case must be made that the Western economic model is a better path to prosperity.
There are other challenges for BRICS, as several of its members are geopolitical adversaries, such as China and India. It is still an open question whether this informal group can form an economic force to challenge the West or, more ambitiously, develop a security alliance displacing America.
India, the world’s largest democracy, should not in theory belong to an economic organization dominated by authoritarians. But India has always gravitated toward non-alignment and, paradoxically, toward Russia. BRICS members have undermined Western interests concerning Ukraine, helping Russia circumvent sanctions. As a World Politics Review put it, BRICS is “Abetting Russia’s War in Ukraine…Moscow’s BRICS partners have ensured Russia’s economic and diplomatic survival.”
Regarding BRICS in the Middle East, America’s primary adversary is Iran, one of the new members of BRICS-plus. Reuel Marc Gerecht and Ray Takeyh, writing in Foreign Affairs, explained how Iran has already benefitted from Chinese and Russian support. As “Washington’s power and influence have declined…China provides Iran with U.S. sanctions-resistant trade” while Russia “helped modernize Iran’s military.”
For nations like Iran, BRICS is a get-out-of-jail card for their economies, burdened with American sanctions. Being a member of BRICS-plus allows Iran to take advantage of two significant initiatives of BRICS: a development bank that competes with the World Bank and a Contingent Reserve Arrangement designed to compete with the IMF.
Another Chinese project, the Belt and Road Initiative, aims to tie and bind nations to China economically. Pakistan, a longtime U.S. ally, is financially in China’s grasp with debts that are nearly unpayable. More governments in vital strategic areas are becoming indebted to China, a growing security threat to the West. China has invested over one trillion dollars in Belt and Road, the world’s largest infrastructure project.
A Council on Foreign Relations Task Force has described China’s goal as to “lock countries into the Chinese ecosystems and leave countries more susceptible to Chinese political pressure.”
In response, the G7 created a Partnership for Global Infrastructure Investments, hoping to raise $600 billion for infrastructure development in poorer nations. The initiative focuses on “clean energy, digital connectivity, health, and gender equality.” BRICS makes no political demands on its member nations.
America must solidify its relationships with allies, developing a more comprehensive plan to compete with China in the Middle East and beyond. Focusing on infrastructure development initiatives is an opportunity to restore trust in America. We don’t demand they become indebted to us, as the Belt and Road Initiative does. By increasing foreign investment, we get disproportionate influence, but getting members of Congress to understand the value of foreign aid is an uphill battle.
In short, America and China will continue battling it out on the economic, security, and geopolitical fronts. And BRICS is a significant threat that needs a comprehensive answer from the West.
Eric Mandel is director of the Middle East Political Information Network and Mandel Strategies, a consulting firm in the Middle East. He is the senior security editor for the Jerusalem Report.