For many years now, the multilateral system’s inability to reform (or even transform) to make it more effective in dealing with 21st century challenges – both in terms of the rise of new powers and new transnational issues – has resulted in the emergence of different arrangements or groupings aiming to address these shortcomings and advance their particular interests and values.
In the 21st century power constellation, China has been the preeminent rising power. In certain forums in the current system of multilateralism, it is already recognised as such (see the UN Security Council for example), while in others such as the IMF and the World Bank it is not. Nevertheless, many countries in the developing world consider China an important potential driver and partner in making reforms to the global governance system, or even transforming it and creating new institutions, rules and foundational ideas.
In discussing South Africa’s perspectives regarding China and the BRICS as actors in managing multilateralism in the 21st century context, five words encapsulate the South African approach.
The first is of course multilateralism: South Africa values an effective system that manages the behaviours of states, the processes of cooperation among them and the means through which global cooperation can be achieved. Functioning multilateralism enables (for the most part) a level playing field – although great powers in practice have much more room for manoeuvre than smaller countries. In a world with nearly 200 states, however, creating smaller groupings and layers of engagement within the formal global multilateral process can be an effective instrument for making progress on cooperation in the more formal multilateral processes. South Africa’s membership of the BRICS, as well as of the India-Brazil-South Africa (IBSA) Forum is one of those layers. (The G7 and the G20 also fulfil a similar purpose.)
The second word is multipolarity: we need to understand the emergence of the BRICS as an expression of the emerging multipolar world, where the diffusion of power is growing, but equally where China is a rising superpower and thus indispensable in terms of impetus towards the reform of the system,
The third word is heterogeneity: The world has passed the point of believing that all countries are headed in the direction of liberal democracy and market economy. In fact, since the end of the Cold War, which it was hoped would create more global homogeneity, the opposite has happened – there continues to be diversity in political and economic systems, in values and principles. The BRICS as a grouping is itself heterogenous but also compels other global powers to recognise that its emergence is a function of heterogeneity in the global system.
Fourth, South Africa considers its membership of the BRICS as an important bridge to Africa. This has both an economic and a geopolitical dimension, where Africa should be empowered to take its rightful place in the global system.
The final term, which also builds on the previous point is cooperation — and, in particular, the promotion of South-South cooperation, which South Africa sees as a vital role for the BRICS. With important emerging economies as members of the BRICS, cooperation with others in the Global South can build momentum. More recently, the concept of the BRICS as a hub for the Global South has gained more prominence as a number of countries have expressed an interest in joining; and in 2022, under the Chinese presidency, there was agreement that the BRICS would develop a ‘terms of reference’ for countries wishing to apply for membership.
South Africa - China
In the BRICS, China is by far the central player, certainly economically as its economic relations with each of the other members is greater than those of the other members with each other. South Africa has very good relations with China across a range of fora. South Africa has a comprehensive strategic partnership with China, which was signed in 2010 – upgraded from a strategic partnership. With the exception of the EU (considered as a single trading bloc), China is South Africa’s single largest trading partner. South Africa has also been a leading member of FOCAC, the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation, which China established more than 20 years ago as a platform bringing together all African states and itself. (Between 2015 and 2018 South Africa was co-chair with China of the platform.)
In some respects, the economic relationship between China and South Africa exhibits the traditional features of trade relationships between countries in the Global-North and countries in the Global-South — an exchange of natural resources for higher value-added products. But this traditional pattern of North/South exchange is perhaps a little less predominant than usual in the case of China/South Africa economic relations, because South Africa also has been an important investor in China. This characteristic of the relationship reflects South Africa's particular economic position, which differs from much of the rest of the continent.
When the BRIC was established, South Africa was not a member. At the time, it lobbied hard to be admitted as its other two partners in the IBSA, which had been created much earlier in 2003, were members of BRIC. Although various members indicate that they pushed for South Africa to be admitted, the country was invited to join during China’s presidency in 2011. This was the BRICS’ first expansion. In 2023, with South Africa as chair, the BRICS are developing a set of criteria upon which subsequent expansions would be determined. With South Africa’s admission, the ‘summit’ fortunes of IBSA also declined. Ironically, China had frequently expressed an interest in joining IBSA – and South Africa had apparently proposed that – but it had not passed. With SA’s admission to the BRICS, the IBSA summits ceased in practice. For the Chinese leadership the inclusion of South Africa in the BRICS brought in a representative from Africa, the other Global-South continent.
Clearly the importance attached to membership of the BRICS varies between member-states. South Africa regards the BRICS as the most important club of which it is a member. We are a medium-sized country economically and demographically, but the BRICS allow SA to play with the emerging major powers. To give just one example, the opportunity to engage with the Chinese president every year is not something that every African leader has the opportunity to do. But the particular importance of the BRICS for South Africa (by comparison, for example, with the G20) is that the BRICS is a grouping through which South Africa can also assemble the support needed to advance its key foreign policy objectives. The most fundamental of these is the issue of reform of global governance. BRICS is seen very much as a mechanism which can mobilise South-South cooperation to help to shift the world from a hegemonic system towards multipolarity, particularly in the area of global financial and economic governance. And this, of course, has a lot to do with China's presence in the BRICS — because the size of its economy makes the BRICS a real counterpoint to the G7.
Demonstrating the BRICS’s importance to South Africa is the existence of a specific inter-ministerial group which manages and coordinates relations between South African ministries which have dealings with the BRICS, to ensure that the South African government as a whole takes a coherent approach to the country’s relationship with other BRICS. Also, in common with other BRICS members, South Africa fosters links amongst non-governmental institutions across the BRICS member states — including academic institutions, such as the South African BRICS think tank that participates in the BRICS Think Tank Council. In all of these ways, South Africa has taken steps to increase its engagement not only with China, but also with the other BRICS. Participation in the BRICS has acted as a catalyst for bilateral engagement, for engagement in multilateral settings (for example at the annual UNGA meetings and at the G20) and for engagement through the BRICS forum itself. It is a case of ‘both and’ rather than ‘either or’.
Inter-ministerial coordination of relations between South Africa and the other BRICS is a testimony to the importance that South Africa attaches to this particular club. South Africa does not have such a system of inter-ministerial coordination of relations with, for example, other (non-BRICS) G20 countries, despite the fact that the G20 has in many ways a much broader agenda. The possibility of establishing an equivalent mechanism in relation to the G20 is something that has been discussed in South Africa but, so far at least, it has not happened.
The formation of the NDB, and the possibility of obtaining loans and grants for development through the NDB has also been very important for South Africa. South Africa sees the BRICS as a grouping that can improve economic cooperation in the Global-South and specifically in the continent of Africa. Then there is the importance of scientific cooperation and research collaboration — leading, for example, to the establishment of the BRICS vaccine centre, which has now been established in virtual form and builds on the issues that South Africa and India have taken up at the international level around vaccine manufacturing, developing the issue of intellectual property rights and so forth. It brings together medical research agencies from all five countries to cooperate on vaccines.
South Africa is chair of the BRICS in 2023. One of the issues that is being debated at the moment is that of BRICS expansion. The possibility of expansion has been on the agenda formally or informally at various points. The 2022 BRICS summit took a decision to consider further expansion seriously — to develop terms of reference, a set of criteria for selection, principles governing expansion, and practical approaches. South Africa, as chair, is now investigating what form that might take. Is it going to be an organic approach where candidates are invited to be observers or dialogue partners or are directly invited to join as full members? What role would existing members from each region have in terms of which new members to accept? There is also a concern in South Africa (and in other BRICS countries) about the impact of expansion on their respective voices and for their respective influence. So the desire for inclusion has to be balanced against the advantages of maintaining a certain exclusivity. While we articulate the desire to be inclusive, there is also an advantage to being the only African country in the grouping. It provides an exclusivity to South Africa and potentially a greater opportunity for influence than South Africa might have if and when the group expands to include other African states. A related question though is whether South Africa has leveraged its membership sufficiently both for its Africa agenda as well as for South-South Cooperation and global governance reform. The jury is still out on this.
It is also interesting to note that there has been growing interest from countries in the Global South to join since the start of the Ukraine war. It is unclear whether this is coincidental or causal in the context of the divisions that the war brought out between the West and the South. It also demonstrates the points about multipolarity and heterogeneity I referred to earlier. Over a dozen countries have applied to join the BRICS.
As we move into a more nakedly geopolitical world, many in the West are increasingly seeing the BRICS as a competitor to the G7. But even those in South Africa who do not use that language, and who wish to avoid a polemical contest, see the advantage in being part of a different grouping with different interests that can act as a counterweight to the G7 in the context of peaceful competition.
Obviously, there are political differences between the BRICS member states. Our interests are different in different fora, but disagreements in some areas have not prevented the BRICS from working together in other areas. And I think that is one of the most important lessons that we need to take forward as we discuss what are the mechanisms that can facilitate trust, cooperation, and collaboration even in a time of strategic rivalry between East and West.
The G7 is more coherent (less heterogeneous) than the BRICS in terms of political outlook, economic systems, and so on. But the fact that the BRICS can actually work together on a whole range of issues, while not necessarily always agreeing on everything (as in the case, for example, of India and China having border disputes) says something very important about the role of the BRICS in the current global environment. That was why it was so significant that, in the context of the G20 in Bali, it was possible to frame a joint communique. We need to be able to adopt common positions on critical global challenges — on climate, on the SDGs, etc. — even if we disagree profoundly on some other issues. The BRICS grouping can provide lessons for some of the cooperation challenges we face in the multilateral space.