2011 has definitely started off on a high note for South Africa’s foreign policy ambitions. With assuming its two year non permanent rotational seat on the United Nations Security Council and becoming the fifth member of BRIC, the charm offensive of President Zuma’s 2010 BRIC foreign policy diplomacy has certainly paid off.
Of course for some analysts like Jim O’ Neill who coined the term BRIC, South Africa was not seen as a suitable candidate to be included into this clutch of resurgent countries. O’Neill is noted as saying: “It is not entirely obvious to me why the BRIC should have agreed to ask South Africa to join. How can South Africa be regarded as a big economy? And, by the way, they happen to be struggling as well.”
Likewise Razia Khan, Head of African Research at Standard Chartered based in London was bemused at South Africa’s inclusion. According to her “It is not clear how South Africa fits very easily into the Bric group…. And besides the size of its economy and its rate of growth, the most controversial aspect is South Africa’s share of global GDP compared with the others,”
Clearly then for O’Neill, Ms Khan and other skeptics the concern was really about whether South Africa’s comparative economic advantage was on par with or complimented that of its fellow members to be make the BRIC club a global economic hegemon by 2050.
Lets consider some of the economic facts.
First South Africa’s economy, population and growth rate are much smaller than all the other BRIC members are. Second, the country’s GDP last year was US$ 286 billion, far less than the US$ 2 trillions of India and Brazil, China’s US$ 5.5 trillion, and even Russia’s US$ 1.6 trillion.
Third, Pretoria has recorded sluggish economic growth. It has been a tepid 3 percent, less than Russia’s 4 per cent, Brazil’s 7.5 per cent, India’s 9.7 per cent and China’s 10.5 per cent.
Finally, its population of approximately 50 million people is dwarfed by that of China (1.36 billion) and India (1.2 billion).
Therefore it is understandable if the economists pundits are concerned that South Africa’s entry into the BRIC club could have been eclipsed by other better performing emerging economies like South Korea, Turkey, Mexico and Indonesia. These countries have GDP rates that are impressive and outstrip South Africa by a fair margin. South Africa’s GDP is less than half of South Korea’s US$ 832.5 billion, Turkey’s US$ 617.1 billion and Mexico’s US$ 874.9 billion. It is two-thirds of Indonesia’s US$ 540.3 billion.
So how should we judge this latest development in President Zuma’s BRIC charm offensive?
Most analysts have claimed that it is purely geo-politics that informed China’s decision to invite Pretoria to join the BRIC club.
From a cursory level and certainly from the economic evidence it does seem that geo-politics instead of geo-economics played a significant factor in driving the decision.
The geo-politics is really about having a voice at the table that can assist in lobby politics and leverage influence around significant decisions. As Mzubisi Qobo, the Head of the Emerging Powers and Global Challenges Programme at the South African Institute of International Affairs highlighted about South Africa’s role globally: “Its made substantial contributions to global governance issues and played a very active role in post-conflict reconstruction in Africa. Its voice has been fluent and it’s seen as an honest broker in international relations. That would definitely have some influence”.
But is it really only about South Africa’s political leverage?
The China Factor
Some analysts (including myself) are inclined to believe that China’s timing of the decision to invite South Africa to the BRIC club was strategic and a master stroke on the part of Beijing’s own diplomatic ingenious.
First, Beijing is moving expeditiously to make sure that it has significant political capital in Africa when it comes to taking tactical decisions that affect Africa’s domestic and international affairs.
One of these is the referendum on Southern Sudan. Depending on the outcome of the referendum, Beijing has definitely gain at ally at the Security Council to support its views and decision if things regress in Sudan as a result of the referendum results.
Therefore as a P5 member China played its trump card by being the country to actually extend and support Pretoria’s BRIC membership. It was neither Russia nor Brazil, which clearly demonstrates how Beijing perceives it rotational chairmanship of BRIC.
And to this end, this indeed, makes Pretoria more receptive to Beijing. Consider that the underlying implications of such move could well mean that there could be simmering tensions when it comes to conflicting views between India-China over issues at the UNSC, especially where New Delhi calibrates towards Washington’s side and China is at the other pole.
It should also be mentioned here that South Africa’s membership into BRIC has received a lukewarm response from New Delhi.
Second, the fact that South Africa offers a gateway into the Southern African Development Community Market and beyond also fits into Beijing’s strengthening of its corporate strategy. The going out strategy of Chinese companies certainly will get a boost by joining South Africa corporates in exploring and exploiting market opportunities in African economies.
Third, it enables Beijing to demonstrate its global leadership qualities, especially in lieu of the South and the developing world. In fact this move reflects one of the four cornerstones of China’s foreign policy priorities, namely its ensuing engagements with the Third World.
The India Factor
It is difficult to see why New Delhi would remain muted about Pretoria’s entry into BRIC. Perhaps part of this is aligned to how China has once again leveraged its geo-strategic status and manoeuvred itself to be seen as championing the voice of Africa, despite the misgivings about South Africa’s identity in this regard.
Or maybe it is because once again China has overshadowed the political and economic distinctiveness of IBSA where India plays a much more high profiled role and enjoys a tactical offensive vis-à-vis its other alliance members.
Whatever the reason for India’s tepid response, New Delhi, indeed, has an opportunity to influence some of the posturings within the new constituted BRICS.
At one level, India can use its position within IBSA to shape a common consensus within BRICS around critical global governance decisions and policy interventions.
Two, India does have a comparative advantage because it now has a strengthened democratic currency within BRICS, which it can use to its own advantage and manoeuvre vis-à-vis China and Russia.
Third, as much as New Delhi may see feel eclipsed by China as leading the pride, this may also be in India’s favour by working behind the scenes to actually give BRICS a critical identity. In other words and at the moment BRICS does not seem to have a strategic distinctiveness: Is it’s a political alliance? Is it an economic grouping? Or is it merely some kind of Musketeers Club? Nobody knows how to define what BRIC really is.
Finally the India factor could have a positive impact on the direction that BRICS follows because it is clear that New Delhi has a like-mindedness and synergy with all its alliance partners, which is something that must be explored in further depth.
The Corporate Factor
While most commentators were focused on the geo-politics of South Africa’s inclusion into BRIC, the corporate factor cannot be ignored as an influential agency in this decision.
The overwhelming business delegations that accompanied President Zuma during his BRIC visits have in
deed leveraged their presence during those trips.
For one thing, South African corporate capital needs access to the BRIC markets as much as the BRIC countries need to enter the South Africa market as a gateway into Africa.
This is definitely discernible as the South African corporate is also on the hunt to boost their presence globally. Similarly by positioning themselves in the BRIC economies, SA Inc. is on the threshold of entering regional markets in China, India, Brazil and Russia’s regional neighbourhoods.
Second, the commercial learning that the South African business sector brings to the alliance in terms of technology, research and development and innovation may also be a driving factor for admitting SA into the BRIC.
Third it is clear that the experiences that SA Inc engender and its willing to underwrite risk in the African markets also holds them in good stead for jointly exploiting economic opportunities not only in Africa markets but also in regional economic environments which can be seen as equally difficult to penetrate.
Therefore, as we contemplate SA’s entry into BRIC, the corporate factor provides an interesting impetus that perhaps we are going to witness a new BRICS Transnational Corporation formation emerging that will wield strategic economic power and penetration.
So while Pretoria and SA Inc may languish in the glory of its conquest, there are certain caveats, which have been identified that need to be assessed.
Not a BRIC of Roses
First, the Chinese newspaper, the People’s Daily was quoted as saying that “By joining the BRIC countries, South Africa also hopes to become the gateway for the BRIC countries’ entry into Africa … South Africa has the ability to promote agendas related to Africa on the international arena … This is an important factor that makes South Africa valuable as a BRIC country”.
As much as this may reflect a normative and rhetorical approach to how South Africa is perceived by the outside as representing the African voice on multilateral fora, it is not clear whether the African bloc actually sees South Africa in this way.
Clearly the attempt to identify Pretoria as having the same agenda and pushing forward the African agenda could in reality create a backlash because of post-apartheid South Africa’s own prejudices and xenophobia against African migrants. Moreover, the behaviour of corporate SA and its links to Southern TNCs could easily be interpreted by what Patrick Bond calls South Africa’s sub-imperial agenda in Southern African and across Africa.
So it maybe premature to assume that South Africa and the continent speaks with one voice.
Second, as South African contemplates its role and duties, it would be critical to evaluate how this will intersect with its interests in the India-Brazil- SA (IBSA) forum and the G20. By becoming a member of BRIC this definitely constitutes an overlap in membership and a contradiction in behaviour and outcomes. How will Pretoria decide which club takes precedence? Which decision will override the other? What can kind of rationality and harmonization will there between belonging to several groupings?
Surely these issues must be given consideration since it will affect the global governance issues that BRIC seeks to reshape and the polycentric world order that it wants to create.
Finally, is BRIC becoming the equivalent of the G8? Will membership to this premium club stop with South Africa? Or are we likely to see more members being added to the Club? There are definitely other countries waiting in the wings like those mentioned above, including the Next 11 or CIVETS (minus South Africa). If so, then are we going to witness a new era of South-South cooperation where BRIC will be expanded and it will follow the same history and evolution of the G8? And will we see another set of countries challenging the dominance of the BRIC like we saw when the G8 invited the Outreach 5 countries to attend their Summits?
In whatever way South Africa’s position within BRIC is interpreted, one thing is certain and that is Pretoria must certainly starting punching above its weight. Moreover, not only does it need to demonstrate to BRIC partners the confidence they have shown in its membership, but it must also illustrate to the South African people the efficacy of being part of BRIC. Alliance politics should not only be about multilateralism and a kind of musketeer ideology. Rather it should be directly linked to how our domestic challenges and aspirations are going to be addressed through the BRIC Club, especially those related to unemployment, a viable industrial policy and social development.
Therefore, the greatest challenge for South Africa is to start making BRIC work for itself while at the same time reconciling the expectations its BRIC partners have including the promises and trade-offs President Zuma may have made to his BRIC allies during his lobby visits to the BRIC countries last year.
Sanusha Naidu is the Research Director of the Emerging Powers in Africa Programme based in Fahamu, South Africa.
(Republished with permission)