The dust has well and truly settled on the tenth Brics summit, hosted in Johannesburg last month. While the event was generally viewed as positive from a South African perspective, it failed to capture the popular imagination. Most public interest centred on whether Russia’s strongman President, Vladimir Putin, would make an appearance and whether he would raise the nuclear deal, which he reportedly did.
An indication of just how muted the event was for many South Africans was arguably reflected in the fact that South Africa’s leading business daily didn’t even feature the summit on its front page on July 27, notwithstanding the fact that President Cyril Ramaphosa had chaired a meeting of some of the world’s most important and influential leaders the day before.
Regardless of this lack of profile, the gathering is likely to have far-reaching implications not only for South Africa, and its place in the world, but also for the future shape of global governance and power relations.
This is largely attributed to the fact that China approached the summit with a clear agenda and a compelling vision, much of which was integrated into the Johannesburg Declaration, signed by Ramaphosa, Putin, Chinese President Xi Jinping, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Brazilian President Michel Temer on July 26.
Xi used the Brics platform artfully to offer an attractive alternative to the increasingly disagreeable face of American hegemony.
He argued that the international community had reached a “crossroads”, with unilateralism and protectionism threatening multi- lateralism and the multilateral trading system.
“We are facing a choice,” Xi averred, “between cooperation and confrontation, between opening up and a closed-door policy, and between mutual benefit and a beggar-thy-neighbour approach.”
The message took on a practical dimension in the Johannesburg Declaration, in which the leaders expressed a “determination” to work together to strengthen multilateralism. In the face of trade-war threats, they also underlined the centrality of a rules-based, transparent, nondiscriminatory, open and inclusive multilateral trading system, as embodied by the World Trade Organisation, which they said faced “unprecedented challenges”.
Perceiving a widening opportunity to shift the geological balance of forces in light of the contempt being shown almost daily by US President Donald Trump for many in the international community and the rules governing it, China urged the five Brics countries to broaden the Brics network. Again, this found expression in the declaration, which outlined the aspiration of greater “Brics-Plus cooperation with emerging markets and developing countries”.
Should the Brics “network of friends”, as Xi described Brics-Plus, be broadened as envisaged, the Sandton summit could prove to be a genuine tipping point in international power relations. That said, scepticism and cynicism about the role of China, as well as Russia, remain extremely high, including in South Africa. Therefore, it might not take very much for the US to shift the momentum in its favour once again. Whether that is possible under Trump, though, is far from certain.