Could a 'BRICS plus' alliance help topple US dominance?

Could a 'BRICS plus' alliance help topple US dominance?
Comment: As America's might begins to decline, China looks to its BRICS associates - including Sisi's Egypt - in the search for global dominance, writes Mohamed ElMeshad.
6 min read
06 Sep, 2017
Mexico, Tajikistan, Guinea, Thailand and Egypt were invited to the BRICS summit as observer [AFP]
The world's major emerging industrial countries have long recognised their growing influence in the global economies. 

As the so-called "developed" nations began to specialise away from manufacturing, and towards service-based growth centered around financial accumulation, the BRICS countries were consolidating their positions as some of the world's main "suppliers". This organisation would coordinate development strategies, macro-economic policies as well as provide a platform for further cooperation.

At this year's BRICS conference, held last week in China, the group looked to leverage its position politically. With China leading the way, at this point, BRICS could help define a new world vis-à-vis the continued growth of these countries, their cooperation and, in some cases agreement.

The state of the global power dynamics perhaps presents them with a golden opportunity for that. 

Since their first formal meeting eight years ago, the combined GDP of BRICS countries has grown from about 12 percent to around 30 percent of the global economy. The countries combine to roughly 40 percent of the world's population and one-third of its land mass. These countries' ability to use the enormous potential they possess has always been present.

In fact, much of their economic and development strategies have been packed with political undertone. In 2012 they made a collective pledge to boost the IMF's lending ability by $75 billion. This would not, in and of itself constitute major news, except the fact that they did so together, was a major statement. More importantly plans were made to create a New Development bank by 2014. Internal disputes stalled the launch to this year.

Since their first formal meeting eight years ago, the combined GDP of BRICS countries has grown from about 12 percent to around 30 percent of the global economy

Unsurprisingly, China had wanted to be the head funder, manager and host of the bank's headquarters. It has thus far succeeded in doing so, as construction has begun on the building in Shanghai this year. It is the group's largest economy, by far, and the closest thing it has to a rival to the US domination of global finance and politics.

As the largest holder of US bonds globally, it also has the most amount of economic leverage over the US. 

However, China is not yet a true rival. The US alone accounts for almost one quarter of the global economy. China has identified BRICS as one of the main alliance-building mechanisms through which it could build on its political ambitions. The 2017 BRICS has thus far played as "the big reveal" to these plans.

The first important indication of this, was President Xi Jinping's call for expanding BRICS, back in March to what he called, BRICS Plus. Thus the invitation of Mexico, Tajikistan, Guinea, Thailand and Egypt as observer countries represented not only an opportunity for these countries, but also a test-run for Xi on how he may integrate the role of smaller, yet influential countries with the broad BRICS plus framework. 

The observer countries are in no way large enough (nor economically developed enough) to be considered as counterparts to the BRICS countries, but they do represent nations that are in need of a boost, but ones that also offer a certain degree of geopolitical advantages.

Egypt is a prime example. Ever since President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi received his invitation, pro-regime media have been awash with boastful proclamations that this somehow vindicates his development plans.

The two deals he signed with the Chinese to help fund a railway and a satellite launch, were celebrated as yet another foreign policy triumph.

Sisi also finalised plans of funding a nuclear power plant with the Russians in the same trip. In between all of that, Egypt and different BRICS nations agreed in broad terms to combat terrorism as the main threat to world peace; his cause celebre.

At a time when the US cut aid to Egypt by up to $300 million, allegedly over its North Korean ties, this visit could be misconstrued as a pivot towards BRICS by Egypt, as the regime seems to be on the hunt for a more reliable super-power patron.

The uncertainty over the US-Egypt relationship (although not unprecedented) comes at a time when Donald Trump is causing trepidation for the US globally, and on many levels.

He had pulled out of numerous international agreements (such as the Paris Climate Accord), and has worryingly broken with political norms in many cases, but most recently when insinuating that a major military confrontation with North Korea is definite possibility.

Read more: Egypt and UAE condemn NKorea, buy its weapons anyway

All the while, he had been alienating - perhaps prodding - China, one of the few global powers that may be in a position to credibly face the US in the case of a cold war of sorts.  

Timing is definitely a factor for Xi Jinping. He could sense a vacuum being created in the global scene, and China is attempting to step-in to fill it. The country has already sunk its teeth into many economies around the world with major investments.

At the same time, its historically rapid rate of economic growth during the 2000s is already slowing down. With Trump in power, convincing the world of a need to for more level-headed global leadership is more possible.

Sisi also finalised plans of funding a nuclear power plant with the Russians

Perhaps one critical piece of the puzzle will depend on how willing its most prominent BRICS homologue will be, to play a part in all of this. Russia has its own ambitions. Putin is shrewd enough to know that he cannot overplay his hand everywhere, and so he has chosen which states to keep under his sphere of influence, and where to remain neutral.

However, if China and Russia somehow manage to provide a unified front on a select variety of international issues, and become a true hub for macro-economic development policy and funding for medium-sized emerging economies, we may be seeing a shift of global power tectonics.  

With the help of sub-regional power players such as Egypt and Mexico, and the unwitting assistance by Trump, this process may be hastened, especially if China is able to contain the general perception of the looming North Korean nuclear threat.

Mohamed ElMeshad is a journalist and a PhD candidate at SOAS, focusing on the political economy of the media. He extensively worked in Egypt, Bahrain, West Africa, the UK and US. Recently, he contributed to the Committee to Protect Journalists’ book, Attacks on the Press (2015).

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.