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IMPERIALISM, BRICS, AND THE ‘GLOBAL SOUTH': The rapid shift in the global balance of power looks set not only to continue but to accelerate in 2024

Proletarian Writers, CPGB-ML

Jan 1, 2024

As US military power is increasingly exposed as a hollow shell, the growing moves towards economic sovereignty by non-imperialist countries of all types can only grow stronger. The lessons of 2023 are being well learned by the oppressed, and with its economic, military and technological supremacy all in doubt, the future looks grim for the crisis-ridden system of global monopoly capitalism.


As part of the XV Brics summit in South Africa on 24 August 2023, the leaders of the bloc invited six countries: Argentina, Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to join the group as of 1 January 2024. As a result of this decision, the countries in the group (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) have taken a major step in the development of a trading system capable of standing apart from and bypassing the hegemonic ‘global market’ dominated and controlled by US imperialism.


Since its first summit in St Petersburg (2005), the group has developed various mechanisms for cooperation and collaboration. The latest of these include a planned shift to trading in domestic and digital currencies instead of in the US dollar, the development of an alternative payment system to the US-controlled Swift, and the creation of the New Development Bank (NDB) to enable countries to obtain loans outside of the US-controlled International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank.


Since Brics is not a formal alliance, but a group of countries looking for alternatives to existing worldwide economic and financial mechanisms, the initiative to expand the group was hailed by many commentators as a “giant step for multipolarity”. The fact that interest in membership has been expressed by more than 40 countries, while 23 have formally applied, clearly demonstrates the growing economic and political significance of the independent course that the Brics group is charting.


Brics beyond Brics


Laying out the reasons for Brics expansion, South African president Cyril Ramaphosa said that “the value of Brics extends beyond the interests of its current members”, adding that an expanded Brics “will be able to better align the voices of those countries that seek a fairer global governance, financial, investment and trading system based on clear rules that apply equally to all countries”. “Brics,” he stated, “will be an important champion for the global south.”


After all, Brics countries are leading members of the United Nations (UN), the G20, the World Trade Organisation (WTO), the Non-Aligned Movement and the Group of 77, as well as of various continental and regional organisations, including the African Union (AU), the Southern African Development Community (SADC), the Southern Common Market (Mercosur), the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (Bimstec), the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) and the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA), to name but a few.


In economic terms, the journey of the group has been one of steady development. As Brazilian president Luiz Inácio ‘Lula’ da Silva summarised:


“In 1995, G7 countries held 44.7 percent of the world’s GDP by purchasing parity, and the countries that would later make up part of Brics represented only 16.9 percent. In 2010, the G7 had already fallen to 34.3 percent of GDP by purchasing parity, while Brics had risen to 26.6 percent. In 2023, the G7 has 29.9 percent and Brics, 32.1 percent. And the most important thing is that, with the entry of new countries, Brics will reach almost 37 percent.”


Moreover, Brics countries represent more than 46 percent of the world’s population. Analyst Pepe Escobar claimed recently that the expanded Brics “instantly becomes an oil and gas powerhouse, controlling 39 percent of global oil exports, 45.9 percent of proven reserves and 47.6 percent of all oil produced globally”. (Welcome to the Brics 11, The Cradle, 25 August 2023)


Underlining this point, former Brazilian president and now president of the New Development Bank Dilma Rousseff stressed at the summit: “The expansion of Brics is a force in the global south that can never be ignored.”


In political terms, the main pillars of Brics’s strategy are the creation of an economic and financial system not under the control of imperialist powers, a commitment to supporting sustainable development and inclusive growth, openness in developing countries, including the sharing of information and technologies, and consensus in decision-making.


As Russian president Vladimir Putin pointed out: “We are all united in our commitment to shaping a multipolar world order with genuine justice, based on  international law and in keeping with the key principles set forth in the UN charter, including sovereignty and respecting the right of every nation to follow its own development model. We oppose hegemonies of any kind and the exceptional status that some countries aspire to, as well as the new policy it entails, a policy of continued neocolonialism.”


Shorn of all euphemism, this is an alliance aimed at bypassing the economic and technological mechanisms of imperialist hegemony.


New members, new challenges


With the exception of Iran, the countries invited to join Brics in this first round of expansion will prefer to maintain their existing trade relations with the main western powers rather than to confront them. The aim is not to cut off trade with the west, but rather to deny the imperialists the ability to stifle any country’s economy by their unilateral actions.


Fyodor Lukyanov, chair of the Council on Foreign and Defence Policy in Russia, explained: “The outcome of the Johannesburg summit should be considered not from the point of view of rivalry but in the context of objective international trends.


“The supporters of turning the Brics into an anti-western association could not prevail. Apart from Russia, the members are not interested in direct conflict with the west. As a result, the direction has been determined. The Brics will move toward the alter-west rather than the anti-west.


“The grouping will expand the space of interaction bypassing the western world and without the participation of western countries. Each of the Brics states is free to develop its relations with the United States and Europe, but these should not harm its relations with the Brics states.”


The countries invited to become Brics members are all major actors in their own regions. They all have strong existing trade relations with Brics countries and will benefit from the development of a multipolar world.


Egypt and Ethiopia


Ethiopia is one of the fastest-growing economies in the world. With a GDP growth of 36 percent in the period 2017-21 and a population of 109 million people, it is Africa’s second most populous country.


Ethiopia’s imports from Brics+ countries presently account for 51.8 percent of all its imports, with China (26.4 percent) and India (15.7 percent) being its two biggest trading partners.


China has helped with the construction of the biggest power plant in Africa, the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (Gerd), with a planned installed capacity of 5.15 gigawatts. This development has created tensions with neighbouring Egypt, but the inclusion of both countries in the Brics is expected to help provide a framework in which these differences can be peacefully settled.


According to Ethiopian professor Mukerrim Miftah: “Ethiopia serves as a political anchor in east Africa and Africa as a whole, helping the Brics counter the dominance of the west on the African continent.”

Egyptian imports from Brics+ countries presently amount to 35.42 percent of its commerce, its main Brics trading partners being China (13.6 percent), Saudi Arabia (8.5 percent), India (3.4 percent) and Russia (3.4 percent).


For Egypt, considering that two other regional countries, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, have joined the bloc, the immediate benefits will be the increase of trade using domestic currencies and the development of alternative supply chains. (All figures above taken from the World Bank)


Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates


These two middle-eastern sheikdoms share enormous energy and financial resources, and both have historically been staunch proxies for US imperialist hegemony in the region. However, differences over levels of oil production and the war in Ukraine, combined with the growing influence of eastern trading partners China and India, have opened up new possibilities even for the most subservient of stooge regimes.


Most significant in this regard has been the Chinese diplomatic coup that opened up a new chapter in relations between former bitter antagonists Saudi Arabia and Iran – a move that was itself prepared by Saudi Arabia’s abysmal failure in the US-backed war against Yemen.


Moreover, Saudi Arabia has become one of China’s most important trade partners in the region in recent years, accounting for 25 percent of the $432bn trade between China and all Arab countries by 2022. At the same time, bilateral trade between the two countries hit $87.3bn in 2021, and more than $106bn in 2022, as compared with the $55bn of US-Saudi trade.


Let it be noted in passing that while much of US trade with Saudi Arabia is carried out in overpriced arms deals for military toys the Saudis are unable to use without US supervision, Chinese trade brings commodities and technologies of real and immediate value to the country, enabling it to develop and diversify its economy.


The UAE is an important trade partner for Saudi Arabia, India and China. The kingdom has for some time supported Chinese foreign policy goals including the Belt and Road (BRI) initiative, south-south cooperation, and technological cooperation. As a result, the UAE’s trade and investments with China have experienced rapid growth in the last five years, from $38bn in 2018 to $51.7bn in 2021. (World Bank figures)


Iran


Iran is perhaps the most interesting of the countries invited to join Brics+. On the one hand, the cornerstone of the middle-eastern axis of resistance has been suffering from the imposition of harsh economic sanctions imposed by the USA and the European Union for many years. Until recently surpassed by Russia, it was the most sanctioned country in the world.


But despite the many difficulties created by this harsh sanctions regime, Iran has successfully diversified its economy, developed its technological and industrial base, deepened its economic ties with China, founded a military partnership with Russia (both countries have been allies to Syria in its war against the US-led invasion), and fostered successful relationships with other sanctioned countries – as demonstrated by President Ebrahim Raisi’s recent trip to the anti-imperialist Latin-American states of Venezuela, Nicaragua and Cuba.


Furthermore, Iran has a strong strategic influence in the region. It is home to the world’s second-largest gas reserves and a quarter of middle-eastern oil reserves, plays an important role in China’s Belt and Road initiative, has been accepted into the Chinese-led Shanghai economic alliance (SCO), and is contributing to the Kazakhstan-Uzbekistan-Turkmenistan and  Turkmenistan-Iran corridors.


As Iranian foreign minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has pointed out: “The era of unilateralism is ending, and coalitions like the SCO and Brics will have a significant role in future partnerships.”


During 2022, the new rail line carrying freight between China and Iran became operational and relations between the countries were upgraded to a “strategic partnership”. President Ebrahim Raisi greeting this development by describing Iran and China as “friends in difficult circumstances”.


Argentina


Argentina would have been a natural Brics partner in Latin America, since Brazil, China and India are already its main trading partners. Expressing thanks for the invitation to join the bloc, President Anibal Fernandez said: “We are open to joining new markets, consolidating existing markets, raising investment coming in, creating jobs and raising imports.”


In addition to further trade with Brics+ countries, the main benefit to Argentina would have been the possibility of trading in local currencies – in particular using the Chinese Yuan and Brazilian Real for bilateral trade in order to break Argentina’s present dependency on the dollar. Exports to Brazil currently stand $11.7bn and imports from Brazil at $12.4bn, while exports to China stand at $6.1bn and imports from China at $13.5bn. (World Bank figures)


Sadly for the people of Argentina, however, the outcome of the recent presidential election has overturned all these possibilities. Instead of starting to break the stranglehold of the dollar, the fascistic new president Javier Milei has decided to abandon the Argentinean Real altogether and dollarise the economy, removing at a stroke any possibility of independent economic decision-making in Buenos Aires.


Alongside a host of harsh austerity and anti-popular measures, President Milei has abandoned the country’s projected entry into Brics – a decision that will most certainly add to the troubles of the Argentinean masses in the coming period.


Alliances amongst oppressed and developing countries are not imperialist


Opening the Johannesburg summit, President Ramaphosa said: “When reflecting on the purpose and role of Brics in the world today, we recall the Bandung conference of 1955, where Asian and African nations demanded a greater voice for developing countries in world affairs. The conference called for the recognition of the equality of all nations, large and small. We still share that common vision of a fair and just world.”


For decades now, countries in the oppressed world have tried to find ways to trade outside of the mechanisms dominated by the imperialist powers, creating regional associations like the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, Brics and Mercosur.


These genuine attempts to break the chains of neocolonial dependency have been characterised incorrectly by some in our movement, in particular by the theoretical leaders of the Greek communist party (KKE), as an expansion in the number of “imperialist centres”, with one now notorious paper referring to “the alliance of Shanghai, the alliance of Brics, the alliance Mercosur etc” as ‘proof’ of the emergence of new ‘interimperialist’ rivalries.


But the proposers of this argument ‘forget’ that the oppressed countries have been prey to imperialist plundering (G7+EU) throughout modern history; that the world’s major financial institutions are still controlled by the same imperialist powers that were running them in 1914; that the monopoly corporations which dominate the world today are based in the same imperialist countries as they were then; and that the US hegemon backs up its economic power by an extensive network of military bases around the world.


On the one hand, the financial institutions commonly described as ‘international’ – the IMF and World Bank – are completely controlled by imperialist powers. The G7 countries (Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, UK, USA) control 41.25 percent of votes, rising to 54.42 percent with the addition of the EU’s share. By contrast, countries belonging to members of the SCO account for 12.25 percent of votes, while those belonging to members of Brics have 14.15 percent and of the Latin-American Mercosur alliance only 4.42 percent.


The same picture is seen at the International Bank for Reconstruction, a subsidiary of the World Bank, in which G7 countries control 41.9 percent of the votes while Brics countries have 15.26 percent.

All over the world, it remains true that ‘big corporations rule the waves’. As the Forbes 2000 biggest corporations (2022) report shows, 1,040 of the world’s largest corporations are based in the handful of G7 countries, rising to 1,181 when the EU is included. Thus, the G7+EU countries are home to 59 percent of the world’s biggest corporations, while the SCO hosts 18.85 percent (377 corporations with 297 from China), Brics has 20.55 percent (411 corporations with 297 from China) and Mercosur only 1.25 percent (25 corporations).


Of the total sales of the world’s largest corporations, the G7+EU countries account for 63.38 percent of the total, while SCO members account for 20.67 percent, Brics members for 21.92 percent and Mercosur members for 1.01 percent.


Looking at the disposal of military forces around the world, the United States, as everybody knows, is overwhelmingly dominant, with 800 overseas military bases and 173,000 troops deployed in 159 countries. Meanwhile, China has one small naval base in Djibouti, whose only role is to protect Chinese cargo ships from piracy in the Horn of Africa.


US ‘permanent geopolitical confrontation’ v ‘the path towards cooperation and peace’


The extension of invitations by Brics to countries that have longstanding disputes has surprised many. C Raja Mohan in Foreign Policy magazine, dismissed the decision, suggesting hopefully: “The growing geopolitical confrontation between China and India already casts a shadow over Brics and any attempt at creating a cohesive agenda. With new members come new conflicts: Egypt and Ethiopia are fiercely at loggerheads over Nile waters, while Iran and Saudi Arabia are regional foes.”


Along the same lines, Professor Cogan from Kansai Gaidai university has suggested that, for India, “the decision to expand Brics is a major foreign policy blunder, one that puts additional power into the hands of its regional rival while restricting its own”.


But others, like director of the global south programme at the Quincy Institute Sarang Shidore, have recognised that, while sharing “Brics membership alone will not solve the serious problems between these adversaries, it will create unique opportunities for direct, two-way conversations between states that dislike each other in a relatively safe multilateral environment.


“Washington has historically found advantage in exploiting divisions for its own ends, most notably in the middle east. By reducing the distrust between countries, Brics could help counter this unhealthy cycle.”

Certainly, shared Brics membership will allow countries to deal with their differences in a more friendly environment, shrinking the ability of the USA to create and exploit regional divisions. As Brazil’s President Lula has pointed out: “Many have claimed that we are too different to forge a common vision. Experience, however, has demonstrated that the opposite is true. Our diversity strengthens the struggle towards a new order that accommodates the economic, geographic and political plurality of the 21st century.”


“Brics countries invariably advocate and practice independent foreign policies,” says Chinese president Xi Jinping. “We always address major international issues based on their merits, making fair remarks and taking fair actions. We do not barter away principles, succumb to external pressure, or act as vassals of others.


“We Brics countries share extensive consensus and common goals. No matter how the international situation changes, our commitment to cooperation since the very beginning and our common aspiration will not change.”


Imperialist sanctions and the war in Ukraine


Fierce criticism was levelled at imperialist sanctions and other coercive policies at the Johannesburg summit. The final declaration emphasised the participants’ “concern about the use of unilateral coercive measures, which are incompatible with the principles of the charter of the UN and produce negative effects notably in the developing world,” and stressed “the imperative of refraining from any coercive measures not based on international law and the UN charter”.


Moreover, by inviting Iran, one of the most sanctioned countries in the world, to join the alliance, a strong practical opposition to imperialist sanctions made clear that the Brics nations refuse any longer to be intimidated, either individually or collectively, by imperialist economic threats.


As Navdeep Suri from the Observer Research Foundation (India) argued: “The west’s proclivity to deploy unilateral financial sanctions, abuse international payments mechanisms, renege on climate finance commitments, and accord scant respect to the food security and health imperatives of the global south during the pandemic are only some of the elements responsible for the growing disenchantment with the prevailing international system.”


As a matter of principle, Brics countries reject the use of sanctions, and none of the countries in the group has imposed them against the Russian Federation despite huge pressure from the imperialists to do so. Contrary to the US and EU efforts to prolong the war against Russia in Ukraine, the Brics nations have expressed their support for peaceful initiatives that are genuinely aimed at ending the conflict.


At an extended meeting of Brics leaders, President Putin explained the rationale for Russia’s military operations in Ukraine, pointing out: “It was the attempts by some countries to preserve their global hegemony that paved the way for the deep crisis in Ukraine. It started when an anti-constitutional government coup took place in the country with the help of the western countries.


“This was followed by the unleashing of a war against people who refused to accept this coup. It was a cruel war, a war of extermination, which lasted for eight years. Russia decided to side with people who are fighting for their culture, their traditions, language and future. Stopping the war unleashed by the west and its satellites in Ukraine against the people of Donbass is the only thing that defines our actions in Ukraine.”


In the final summit declaration, the members stressed concern “about ongoing conflicts in many parts of the world. We stress our commitment to the peaceful resolution of differences and disputes through dialogue and inclusive consultations in a coordinated and cooperative manner and support all efforts conducive to the peaceful settlement of crises.”


The New Development Bank (NDB) and the future of Africa


Another important Brics initiative has been the creation of the first development bank by and for emerging economies, the New Development Bank (NDB). Since 2014, the bank has financed 100 infrastructure and sustainable development projects in developing countries and has helped many countries in need of alternative credit sources, challenging the hegemony of the imperialist-controlled World Bank and IMF.


As bank president Dilma Rousseff pointed out: “The world is going through a very difficult time. We are living through a crisis of multiple dimensions. The combination of a serious climate crisis, a brutal increase in inequality, low growth, protectionism with the fracturing of global value chains and geopolitical conflicts of all kinds. Not to mention sanctions and geopolitical fragmentation …


“Insecurity and instability have become the rule rather than the exception, creating enormous difficulties, but also opportunities for growth and development in the global south if we know how to face up to these challenges.”


Regarding the development of Africa, Ms Rousseff acknowledged: “The development of the African continent is strategically important for the global south. Africa is a continent that has been hurt by and bears the wounds of colonialism, unbridled exploitation and shameful slavery. Africa is where we come from, and the 21st century is the time to rescue it once for all.”


During the last ten years, Brics countries have considerably expanded their economic involvement in Africa. “In 2010, the Brics share of foreign direct investment (FDI) on the African continent was 4.9 percent of the world total. In 2021, the Brics share reached 8.8 percent. As for international trade, between 2010 and 2022, the buying and selling of goods between the Brics countries and Africa increased from $280bn to $473bn.”


Amongst future plans, Dilma Rousseff pointed out that the projected Grand Inga Dam provided “the largest untapped hydroelectric potential on the planet, which can guarantee renewable, continuous, basic, safe and affordable energy for the entire [African] continent”.


Brics support for democratisation of the UN


Brics members have demanded a comprehensive reform of the United Nations, including greater representation in the security council for developing countries. As President Ramaphosa pointed out: “Countries from Africa, Asia and Latin America, including Brazil, India and South Africa, can play a greater role in international affairs. This was a most significant decision in view of the fact that it was supported by two Brics members who are permanent members of the UN security council”.


Indian prime minister Narendra Modi called for “further cooperation to strengthen a multipolar world” and emphasised the need to reform the global institutions to keep them “representative and relevant”, while President Putin stressed: “Brics has been following a forward-looking strategic course which meets the aspirations of a significant portion of the international community, the so-called global majority.”


As Russia prepares to assume the Brics chairmanship in 2024 under the motto ‘Strengthening multilateralism for justice in global development and security’, the country is planning to hold more than 200 events on political, economic and social matters in more than ten Russian cities.


It is clear that, from humble beginnings, the Brics alliance has become a decisive factor in the economic and political life of the world, and will continue to affect the rapidly shifting balance of power in 2024.


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