Will China walk the talk of collaborative multilateralism at the Moscow Summit?

November 17, 2020 12:49 PM

The Chinese leadership is likely to use the BRICS platform to influence the BRICS agenda to further its national interests.

brics summit, India-China ties, US-led liberal international economic order , wolf warrior' diplomacy, China;'s economic moderationBRICS will help China advocate for alternative forms of governance. (File Photo)

By G Venkat Raman

The 12th BRICS annual meeting is about to get underway. Unfortunately, the world has drastically changed since the previous BRICS summit. The coronavirus outbreak, the worsening of India-China ties, and increasing hostility between the US and other western countries have led to calls for China’s isolation. It has also seen the escalation of tensions between the two most influential member states of BRICS, namely, China and India. China has confronted the new developments with an aggressive form of nationalism in the ‘wolf warrior’ diplomacy. Given these unexpected developments in the last few months, the Chinese leadership’s pronouncements will be a subject of intense interest in this year’s meeting.

The Chinese leadership is likely to use the BRICS platform to influence the BRICS agenda to further its national interests. While it may like to bring some new proposals to the table, it would also reiterate some of the motivating factors that led to significant diplomatic investment in BRICS. Therefore, it is worthwhile to look at the various factors motivating China’s interest in BRICS. These factors can be traced to their domestic sources and their changing foreign policy orientations in response to the broader international system changes.

Influential scholars and policymakers in the last twelve years have differed in their understanding of BRICS. In each of those understandings, the perception of China’s role has been significant in influencing their BRICS interpretation. One set of scholars has looked at the BRICS’ ascent to challenge the US-led liberal international economic order as China’s attempts to manage the international system with its coalition partners. Some others have looked at BRICS to forge a common identity and examine how it affects the International order rules. This school perceives Chinese motivations to reinforce the common identity of BRICS nations as emerging powers to negotiate a fair and just international order.

However, a third school contends that BRICS is merely a platform to focus on the member states’ domestic policies and encourage policy coordination and co-operation. As per this understanding of BRICS, China has always endeavoured to highlight that different socio-cultural and historical factors are bound to cause different political and economic systems. Such domestic differences are bound to lead to differences in policymaking and implementation. Given that the BRICS member states differ in their development models, a platform like BRICS would contest the ‘one size fits all’ approach of the Washington Consensus. Besides, BRICS will help China advocate for alternative forms of governance.

Ever since the inception of BRICS, China has emphasized that it is a developing country seeking to improve its citizens’ overall economic well-being and attain the goal of a moderately prosperous society (xiaokangshehui) by 2021. It has highlighted that the international system inspired by the rule-based liberal international economic order failed to meet emerging countries’ developmental requirements. Washington Consensus model has been unable to coordinate balanced socio-economic development. Moreover, in the post-cold war era, the ‘high politics’ of military security have paved the way for non-traditional security threats in the form of terrorism, disaster management, and cyber-security.

China has advocated that a political formation like BRICS can develop a ‘coalition of interests’ to fight common problems confronting them in poverty alleviation, disaster management, industrialization, and modernization of infrastructure development. Coincidentally, the theme of this year’s annual BRICS meeting in Moscow is ‘partnership for global stability, shared security, and innovative growth’ enabling China to underline the need for BRICS member states to consolidate the gains made from the coalition.

The US financial crisis in 2008 exposed the vulnerability of the Washington consensus. China’s growing international stature and its leading role in setting up of BRICS caused a spike in Chinese nationalism. According to some scholars, the Chinese people started voicing their desire to see China as a significant power. Therefore, success in foreign policy became a critical source of legitimacy for the Chinese communist party. It is further argued that such demands from the various domestic constituencies have forced it to play an active role in forming and strengthening BRICS. The recent developments have provided further credence to this theory. For instance, the corona epidemic’s outbreak has heightened Chinese nationalism. Growing nationalism has prompted the Chinese leadership to combat western criticisms of its apparent mishandling of the corona epidemic. China might express its intent to work with BRICS countries to tackle health emergencies

China’s economic modernization necessitated an ever-growing appetite for an increase in oil imports and other raw materials. The greater dependence on external sources of energy and raw materials motivated China’s new diplomatic initiatives in organizations like BRICS and the Shanghai Co-operation Organization. These investments simultaneously served the purpose of fulfilling its vested interests to strengthen its capacity to protect and promote its national interests by investing in new multilateral initiatives for seeking the address of grievances of other emerging powers like India and Russia. China’s export-oriented industrialization has not led to forging new friendships and alliances. Therefore, the influential domestic constituencies advocated building new partnerships with other emerging powers like the BRICS member states. Such motivations inspired its advocacy to add South Africa as the fifth member of the group.

External Factors

China has been a beneficiary of the rules-based international liberal order. As its economic strength grew, it has become dissatisfied with its agenda-setting role in global institutions that continue to dominate the US and its wealthier allies. For a while, Beijing’s strategy was to reshape the global governance norms rather than directly threaten existing institutions. A political formation like BRICS served its purpose in multiple ways. It provided a platform to boost its efforts at multilateralism, reinforce its image as a responsible power and provide it adequate flexibility to project itself as a rising power advocating for governance reforms and a developing country eager to defend not only its interests but that of other developing countries. A political formation like BRICS helped it forge an alliance whereby it can take cudgels with the US-led West to avoid confrontation. In the medium to long term, the rationale for Chinese support for BRICS is to explore new platforms that would usher changes in the various international institutions’ decision-making process. Such efforts would facilitate respect for the emerging powers by taking into consideration their legitimate interests and demands.

Given the unique development models of the BRICS member states in general and the state-capitalist model of development of China, it has always been very keen to look for avenues to urge investment in new non-western governance models. Beijing has aspired to be a ‘game-shaper’ and influence the pace of globalization. A platform like BRICS not only provides China with an opportunity to influence the emerging discourses on development assistance and political aid but a possible de-entrenchment of the US-led West’s hegemonic interests. Moreover, the BRICS platform also highlights the West’s hypocritical stances, espoused democratic values to suit their ideologies and interests but have never stopped themselves from violating other accepted norms like sovereignty. For instance, the hypocritical use of these principles to justify US-led foreign interventions, very stringent conditionalities for political aid to developing countries has led to considerable disquiet among Chinese policymakers. In the past, it had increasingly voiced its opposition to the West’s domination. Still, it has taken recourse to the ‘exit’ approach by playing a critical role in forming alternative mechanisms in the AIIB and the NDB.

As against the western norms, the Chinese approach has advocated a pragmatic approach whereby it claims that it respects other nations’ sovereignty by going for what it calls ‘relational governance’ and not the ‘rule-based’ governance. By establishing the Asian Investment Infrastructure Bank, it seeks to rewrite development assistance rules and don the mantle of a leader, which has inspired ‘benign and collaborative multilateralism.’

The International order in the Covid world is becoming increasingly fluid. The salient features of the emerging order and their respective outcomes are a matter of contention. We are likely to witness a world of ‘hybrid norms’ and fragmented governance.’ Till the elevation of Donald Trump as the US president, the core of the liberal order was mostly intact. However, post-2016, the liberal order has witnessed growing fissures. With the US-led global governance undermined with the ‘America first’ campaigns, the world will increasingly face collective action problems. The severity of the coronavirus epidemic should have led to harnessing efforts to combat the menace but what we are witnessing is the rampant growth of virulent nationalism.

China’s increasing aggressiveness on multiple fronts has done no good to its international image, which has been crafted for the last decade and a half. The recent escalation of the border conflicts with India has done no good to China. According to some studies, India and China’s average annual growth rate during 2009-2016 is 7.4 per cent and 8.3 per cent, respectively. The discounting of the Wuhan and the Mammalapuram spirit will not only dent the credibility of the BRICS and dilute China’s investments in BRICS till now; it will further solidify anti-China alliances. The recently held high-level meetings between the quad members can be cited as an example in this regard. Beijing has always believed that power distributions and partnerships change on an issue to issue basis.

(The author is an Associate Professor, Humanities and Social Science, Indian Institute of Management, Indore. Views are personal)

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