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BRICS: The New Great Game – Analysis

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China’s successful courting of South Africa to become the newest BRIC (subsequently BRICS) member has potentially intensified the Asian giant’s growing influence on the African continent. South Africa, however, has yet to clearly define where its allegiances will ultimately lie within the group.

By Rupakjyoti Borah for ISN Insights

In response to criticisms of its growing influence in Africa (such as the warning by the US Secretary of State in May that its presence on the continent may represent a ‘new colonialism’), China often highlights its own history of exploitation by the very countries delivering such criticisms. While this narrative is likely to play well vis-à-vis the US in many African countries, it could also be used by India– and in Africa it is the Sino-Indian rivalry that is of more significance.

The history of Sino-Indian relations is fraught with border disputes and confrontations. For years, China has been issuing special stapled visas to residents of the Indian provinces of Arunachal Pradesh – to which China lays claim – and Jammu and Kashmir, as opposed to regular visas for people from other parts of India. And since January of last year, a number of Chinese officials have referred to the Sino-Indian border as only 2000 kms long (as opposed to the conventional 3500 kms), a figure that deliberately questions the status of the Indian province of Jammu and Kashmir. Moreover, China’s support for Pakistan’s nuclear and missile programs point toward other sore spots in the relationship. Trade relations are a further complication. Although Sino-Indian trade reached $61.74 billion in 2010, India’s trade deficit was more than $20 billion.

As was manifest at the meeting of the BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China – and now South Africa) held in Sanya, China in April, India and China have recently taken their rivalry onto the big BRICS stage. (Together the BRICS countries account for nearly 30 percent of the world’s land area, and are home to 42 percent of the world’s population.) Although the Sanya Declaration that came out of the meeting states that the BRICS countries “reaffirm the need for comprehensive reform of the UN, including the Security Council,” China and Russia did not unequivocally support India’s candidacy for a permanent seat in an expanded Council. The declaration only mentions that “China and Russia reiterate the importance they attach to the status of India, Brazil and South Africa in international affairs, and understand and support their aspiration to play a greater role in the UN.”

China’s South Africa success?

South Africa’s entry into BRICS represents a diplomatic coup for China. By roping South Africa into the group, China is trying to undercut the relevance of the IBSA Dialogue Forum (with India, Brazil and South Africa as members) that aims to promote South-South cooperation among democracies. South Africa knows that despite having more in common with India, China may ultimately hold more economic and political clout. Trade between China and South Africa was $25.6 billion in 2010, making China South Africa’s largest trading partner, and South Africa China’s second largest partner in Africa. In contrast, in 2009-2010, India-South Africa trade was just $7.73 billion. Chinese investments in South Africa also provide far more jobs than Indian ones, and China’s backing can further South African interests in forums like the UNSC.

Nevertheless, BRICS countries continue to experience significant challenges in their relationships with China. Brazil and South Africa already have concerns about cheap Chinese imports flooding their domestic markets, and during her visit to China in April, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff pushed for Brazilian companies like the aircraft manufacturer Embraer to have increased access to the Chinese market. In a setback to closer ties on that front, China did not unequivocally back Brazil’s bid for a permanent seat in an expanded UNSC, and Chinese land purchases in many parts of Africa have raised nationalist ire.

In addition, India’s long-standing historical ties to South Africa give it an edge over China. India led the international community in the fight against South African apartheid and was the first country to cut off trade relations with the apartheid government in 1946. A common legacy of British rule helps to explain why almost 1.2 million people of Indian origin live in South Africa, comprising about 2.5 percent of the total population, as well as the popularity of cricket in both countries. In 2009, South Africa successfully hosted the Indian Premier League – despite acute security concerns in the face of numerous terror threats inside India at the time – bringing the two countries even closer.

In spite of these historical and personal links between India and South Africa, however, it was China that worked harder to bring South Africa into BRICS, showcasing its increasing global leadership. All eyes will now be on how – or indeed if – India will deliver a diplomatic rejoinder.

Dr Rupakjyoti Borah is a Senior Lecturer at the Department of Geopolitics and International Relations, Manipal University, India. He was a Visiting Fellow at the Centre of International Studies, University of Cambridge, UK in 2009 and an Australian Studies Fellow at the Australia-India Council. Published by International Relations and Security Network (ISN)

ISN Security Watch

ISN Security Watch

The ISN is one of the world's leading open access information and knowledge hubs on IR and security issues, based at ETH Zürich, Switzerland.

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