One of the headlines is that the BRICS bloc, consisting of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, has expanded its influence by inviting six new countries to join its ranks. The August 2023 summit, held in Johannesburg, South Africa, marked a historic moment with the accession of Argentina, Egypt, Iran, Ethiopia, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. One major superpower stands out in this group, and that is China. China's role in the BRICS group is crucial, given its status as the world's second largest economy. Its economic success story began in the late 1970s and early 1980s. By attracting foreign capital and facilitating economic growth, China's industrial sector expanded significantly and became the world's largest exporter of goods, overtaking Germany and the United States.
China's economic model, characterised by simplification and attracting foreign direct investment, has created a vast manufacturing industry that satisfies almost the entire world, transforming the world economy and trade. As a result of this over-export, China has become a major buyer of raw materials and food, benefiting the other BRICS countries - Brazil, Russia, India and South Africa - which have abundant resources needed for China's industrial growth. But this was only a temporary solution to the needs of the Asian Super Power, which has set its sights on the African continent.
The relationship between China and Africa is multifaceted and is driven by China's interest in Africa's natural resources and export markets, while African leaders hope for protection and economic development through Chinese participation. However, reactions to Chinese involvement in Africa have been mixed, with government officials generally positive and some segments of African societies criticizing China's pragmatic approach as exploitative and neocolonial. A model in which the interest ends with resources travelling to one country and all the necessary goods produced in China travelling to Africa.
But in order to secure all safe trade corridors, Beijing realizes that the route to Africa and Europe goes through the Middle East. Which means that China needs the region to be integrated into the BRICS. As China's growing influence in the Middle East is a reflection of its broader global ambitions and the strategic importance of the region, combining key geography and rich energy resource deposits. Through its Belt and Road Initiative, China aims to improve connectivity and promote economic cooperation between Asia, Europe and Africa, making the road a lucrative fragment of China's geopolitical domino. A game inexorably linked to BRICS development plans.
The BRICS concept first entered the global conversation in late 2001 when Goldman Sachs published a forward-looking study on the future of these countries. The study predicted that Brazil, Russia, India and China would achieve significant economic growth and become the world's leading economies by the middle of the 21st century. This bold prediction has attracted the attention of economists and policymakers around the world, sparking debate about the potential implications of this emerging energy hub. However, it was not until 2009 that the BRICS countries came together formally to discuss their unification and explore opportunities for cooperation. Today, BRICS is a model dominated by China and, to some extent, Russia, which provides a platform for similar political regimes. Modalities that have come together by identifying common challenges and pursuing common interests within the existing international order. Their future depends not only on their negotiating strength, but also on their ability to overcome the domestic obstacles to sustainable economic growth that underpin their international positions.
China's role in BRICS
Among the BRICS countries, China stands out as a key player because of its enormous size, economic power and strategic approach. China's rise as an economic power has been remarkable, its transformation beginning in the late 1970s when it implemented economic reforms and opened up to foreign investment.
The success of the world's second economy is due to a unique development model that combines elements of socialism and capitalism. China's manufacturing sector has become the 'factory of the world', dominating global supply chains in industries such as textiles, electronics and machinery. Low labour costs and efficient production processes have enabled the country to become a major exporter, driving its economic growth. In addition, China's focus on infrastructure development, research and development and technological innovation puts it at the forefront of the global economy. The country's investments in areas such as high-speed rail, renewable energy and artificial intelligence position it as a leader in these critical sectors.
This economic success as a leading power has a significant impact on the other BRICS countries. China's insatiable appetite for raw materials and food creates symbiotic relationships with countries such as Brazil, Russia and India, which possess abundant natural resources. This mutual need and trade promotes strong economic ties between the BRICS countries, contributing to their overall growth and prosperity. But China's growing influence in global infrastructure development raises important questions about governance, transparency and sustainability. Ties to corrupt regimes and lack of accountability pose risks to long-term economic and social development.
China's leading role in the developing world
Chinese President Xi Jinping has positioned himself as the leader of the developing world, mobilising support for an alternative to the US-dominated global order. During his visit to South Africa, President Xi stressed the need for closer cooperation with African countries, acknowledging the "changes and chaos" in the world. China's investments in Africa, including in infrastructure development and resource extraction, are strengthening its influence in the region. Africa is becoming an emerging battleground for global influence as China's support gains diplomatic backing in international organisations such as the UN. This support also provides China with access to important minerals needed for developing industries, such as electric vehicles.
The motivation for Chinese support
China's growing engagement in Africa can be seen as part of its broader geopolitical strategy. By investing in countries that have long been neglected by the West, China seeks to challenge the dominance of Western powers and demonstrate an alternative development path. President Xi's aim is to discredit the West by exploiting the discontent and frustration of many countries in the Global South with the perceived duplicity and hypocrisy of the rich countries. China's investments in Africa, combined with its support for Russia and its offensive stance on issues such as Taiwan, serve to reinforce its message that there is an alternative to the US-led global order.
Economic Dominance: China's Influence on Africa
China's economic presence in Africa far exceeds that of the United States. It is Africa's largest trading partner, with trade volume reaching $254 billion in 2021. China is also becoming Africa's largest provider of foreign direct investment, supporting job creation and economic growth. This economic dominance raises concerns about debt sustainability, as some African countries have accumulated significant debt from Chinese loans. Although China has restructured debt in some cases, the overall debt burden remains a challenge. However, it is important to note that African governments owe much more to Western creditors than to China.
Africa as a battleground for global influence
Africa is emerging as a significant battleground for global influence as China and the United States jockey for strategic partnerships and resources. China's investments in Africa provide diplomatic influence and access to important minerals, while the US seeks to strengthen alliances and promote a vision of shared values. The expansion of BRICS into Africa further underscores the region's importance in the global geopolitical landscape.
The Middle East is China's bridge to Africa
The Middle East, a region where Africa, Asia and Europe converge, has always played an important role in world affairs. In recent years, China's presence and influence in the Middle East has steadily grown, serving as a bridge connecting the continents. With its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), China is increasing its investment and political engagement in the region, seeking to build a trade and infrastructure network linking Asia with Europe and Africa along the ancient Silk Road trade routes.
China's engagement in the Middle East goes beyond the traditional focus on energy security and economic ties, with its cooperation expanding to cover a range of sectors. China is investing heavily in domestic BRI projects, infrastructure development and emerging technologies, seeking to integrate each country's development strategy with its own. This broader engagement strengthens China's strategic ties with the Middle East and positions it as a key player in shaping the region's future. As China seeks to expand its influence, it is also pursuing limited security alternatives in the Middle East. Through initiatives such as Xi Jinping's Global Security Initiative and the New Middle East Security Architecture, China has demonstrated a stronger resolve to engage in regional security and politics. This shift indicates a growing desire to protect its interests and contribute to regional stability.
Beijing's involvement in regional conflicts further underscores its changing role in the Middle East. By actively participating in these processes, China has shown its willingness to engage in security mediation and contribute to regional peace. However, there remains a disconnect between China's rhetoric and actions, raising questions about the effectiveness of its approach and its commitment to its stated goals. China's military engagement in the Middle East is also expanding, with its first foreign military base in Djibouti and its active participation in UN peacekeeping missions in the region. These actions demonstrate China's growing military potential and its desire to contribute to regional security. China's growing influence in the Middle East has significant implications for regional dynamics, with deepened engagement with Middle Eastern states accelerating the implementation of the Belt and Road project and bringing regional governments closer to China. Some states, such as Saudi Arabia, are increasingly shifting their alliances towards China, recognising its growing influence and economic capabilities. However, China's lack of religious affiliation with the Abrahamic religions poses challenges to its long-term influence in the region.
Economically, China is becoming a major player in the Middle East, surpassing the United States as the largest trading partner in the region and as the largest foreign investor in some Middle Eastern countries. Chinese investment covers a variety of sectors, including infrastructure, telecommunications and manufacturing. However, there continues to be a disconnect between China's rhetoric and actions, raising questions about the effectiveness of its approach and its commitment to its stated objectives.
China's recent involvement as a mediator between Saudi Arabia and Iran has surprised many observers, reflecting its longstanding engagement in the region dating back to its actions in the 1980s when it supported both Iraq and Iran during the Iran-Iraq war. The future of Chinese influence in the Middle East is still too early to determine, but it deserves increased attention from regional and global actors.
BRICS expansion in the Middle East and North Africa
In a historic move, the BRICS group is extending an invitation to Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Iran - three countries with significant geopolitical influence in the MENA region - to join its ranks. An invitation that is a strategic victory for Iran, which has long sought to challenge Western dominance and faces economic sanctions. On the other hand, Egypt and Saudi Arabia see their participation in BRICS as an opportunity to diversify their economic ties and reduce their dependence on the West.
The decision to expand the BRICS bloc comes after more than 40 countries expressed interest in joining, highlighting the growing demand for a platform to represent the developing world. The six countries chosen for membership reflect the strategic interests of current BRICS members and their desire to forge alliances with significant countries in their respective regions. Brazil, China and India have been vocal proponents of expanding the bloc to further challenge Western dominance and promote a multipolar world order. The expansion of BRICS to include Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Iran has far-reaching implications for the world order. These additions add significant geopolitical weight to the group and further challenge the dominance of Western-led institutions. As the BRICS seeks to change the global financial and governance system, the inclusion of these Middle Eastern states means a shift in the balance of power away from traditional Western powers. Increased cooperation among BRICS members and strengthening economic ties within the group could have a profound impact on global trade, financial systems and regional dynamics.
Balancing Saudi Arabia: Seeking economic opportunities and diversification.
For Saudi Arabia, joining BRICS represents an important step in its quest for economic diversification and reduced dependence on oil revenues. The kingdom's invitation to join the group reflects its desire to balance its relations with the United States and emerging powers such as China. Saudi Arabia's growing ties with China, its biggest oil customer, are already straining its traditional alliance with the United States.
Motives and opportunities for Egypt
Egypt, with its strategic location and growing economy, sees joining the BRICS as a means to strengthen its economic cooperation and reduce its dependence on Western-led institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. The country's political and economic leaders see potential benefits in BRICS' alternative payment systems, the development of a dollar-free financial system and the creation of a common digital currency. Egypt's participation in the New Development Bank (NDB), established by BRICS countries to finance infrastructure projects, offers opportunities for investment in national development priorities. Egypt's close trade ties with Russia and India also played a role in its selection as a new BRICS member. The country's inclusion reflects Russia and India's strategic interests in forging closer alliances with countries in the Middle East.
The inclusion of the United Arab Emirates in BRICS underlines the country's desire to diversify its alliances and move away from the traditional US orbit. As a key player in the Middle East and a major economic power, the UAE brings economic clout and geopolitical power to the bloc. Joining the BRICS allows the UAE to forge closer ties with emerging powers and assert its global relevance.
Iran: a strategic partner on the road to Africa
Iran's admission into BRICS can be seen as a significant strategic victory for the country's foreign policy. As a staunch supporter of Russia's invasion of Ukraine and the target of US-led sanctions, Tehran sees joining BRICS as a means to challenge Western dominance and reduce its economic isolation. The country has long advocated the de-dollarisation of international trade and finds support in the BRICS grouping. By joining the alternative bloc to Western powers, the ayatollahs seek to neutralize U.S. efforts to isolate it and strengthen its position on the world stage. As relations between China and Iran have grown significantly in recent years, with China becoming Iran's largest trading partner, while Tehran is a key player and ally in China's path to Africa.
Historical background: from the Silk Road to the modern partnership
The roots of trade and cultural ties between China and Iran can be traced back centuries, as the two countries have been linked through the ancient Silk Road. However, in the 20th century their relationship underwent significant changes. However, the severing of diplomatic relations between Iran and the United States in 1980 opened the door for China to deepen economic and strategic cooperation with Iran. At that time, Western countries imposed an arms embargo on Iran, leading it to turn to non-Western countries, including China, for military support during the Iran-Iraq war. China became Iran's largest source of arms during the war, providing vital military equipment and allowing Iran to continue the conflict indefinitely.
Phase 1: Iran-Iraq war and military cooperation
The Iran-Iraq War, which lasted from 1980 to 1988, played a key role in strengthening military ties between China and Iran. Western countries that had previously sold arms to Iran imposed an arms embargo on Tehran, forcing it to seek alternative sources of military equipment. China fills this gap, becoming a major arms supplier to Iran. Chinese weapons, including anti-ship missiles, surface-to-air missiles, tanks and radars, allow Iran to quickly replenish its losses and continue the war. By the end of the conflict, China had supplied Iran with billions of dollars worth of military equipment.
Phase 2: Chinese industrialisation and energy cooperation
After the Iran-Iraq war, China's rapid industrialization and growing energy needs created new opportunities for economic cooperation with Iran. In the early 1990s. China went from being an oil exporter to a net oil importer, and Iran became an important source of energy to fuel China's industrial growth. Bilateral trade between the two countries is flourishing, especially in the energy sector. Iran, which previously relied on Western markets for its oil exports, has found in China a steady and eager buyer. The volume of trade between China and Iran has increased significantly, reaching USD 1 billion in 1997.
Stage 3: The era of sanctions and Chinese support
The imposition of international sanctions on Iran's nuclear and energy sectors in 2010 over concerns related to its nuclear program posed new challenges for Sino-Iranian relations. China seeks to balance its trade with Iran while complying with US and UN restrictions. Nonetheless, China continues to be extremely important to the Iranian economy, especially as the United States and its allies reduce their engagement with the Iranian market. China continues to import large quantities of Iranian oil even as sanctions are tightening. It discreetly transports shipments by renaming and reflagging ships, while Iranian ships turn off identification systems to avoid tracking.
Economic cooperation: Iran's biggest trading partner
China became Iran's largest trading partner as their economic cooperation has steadily increased over the years. Despite international sanctions, bilateral trade between the two countries remains robust. In 2022, the trade volume reached almost USD 16 billion, a seven percent increase compared to the previous year. In December 2022, China's imports of Iranian oil reached a record high, indicating China's continued reliance on Iranian energy resources. In addition, China is already a significant investor in key sectors of Iran's economy, particularly energy and transportation. Approximately 100 major Chinese companies have invested in Iran, contributing to the development of infrastructure projects including dams, power generators and railway systems.
Security cooperation: Strengthening defence ties
China and Iran are also strengthening their defence cooperation, positioning themselves as strategic partners in the region, and during the Iran-Iraq war China was a major arms supplier to Iran. In recent years, the two countries have engaged in joint military exercises, training and strategic cooperation. Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe is visiting Iran in April 2022 to enhance strategic defense cooperation. The naval exercises conducted by Iran, China and Russia in the Gulf of Oman in March 2023 further illustrate their growing ties in this field. Although Iran is not purchasing Chinese weapons in the 2020-2022 period, their defense cooperation extends beyond arms sales to military strategy and regional stability.
Diplomatic cooperation: a balancing act
China's role in brokering diplomatic ties between Iran and Saudi Arabia in 2023 underscores its growing influence in the region. China is facilitating the re-establishment of diplomatic relations and the reopening of embassies between the two countries, demonstrating its ability to navigate complex regional dynamics.
The impact of sanctions: Overcoming the challenges
The reimposition of sanctions against Iran by the United States in 2018 poses significant challenges for both countries. While China continues to import Iranian oil, the threat of financial sanctions is causing Chinese companies to be more cautious in their dealings with Iran. On the other hand, Iran is facing a decline in its overall oil exports and is struggling to find new buyers in the face of sanctions. However, both China and Iran are looking for creative ways to circumvent sanctions. Iran has offered discounts to Asian buyers, and Chinese companies have discreetly continued to import oil from Iran.
Looking ahead: a deeper strategic partnership
Deepening ties between China and Iran point to a trajectory toward a deeper strategic partnership. China's economic power and Iran's rich natural resources make them mutually beneficial partners. China's interest in Iran extends beyond energy cooperation, as it sees Iran as a key player in its Belt and Road Initiative. Iran's strategic location and its potential as a market for Chinese goods further reinforce their interdependence. While China is navigating its relationship with Iran carefully, it is clear that both countries share a common interest in countering Western influence and promoting a multipolar world order.
Africa: Africa: a struggle for power and influence
China's growing influence in Africa is becoming a significant topic of discussion, with the US-Africa Leaders Summit in Washington marking the beginning of a power and influence battle between the two countries. The summit is an important platform for strengthening US-African relations, and African leaders have shown a positive response, with most accepting invitations.
China's engagement with Africa dates back to its support for liberation movements in the mid-20th century. In recent decades, China's trade activities in Africa have increased, with an emphasis on infrastructure development and resource extraction. China has systematically increased its presence in almost every African country, overtaking the United States as Africa's largest trading partner and supplier of foreign direct investment. Although some Chinese activities, such as military bases, are of concern, it is important to distinguish between sensitive and insensitive economic engagements.
China's economic dominance in Africa is undeniable, as it is becoming Africa's largest trading partner, with the volume of trade far exceeding that of the United States. Chinese companies have invested heavily in infrastructure development, creating job opportunities for Africans. Although China's loans to African countries have recently declined, they remain significant. Recognizing China's economic dominance is critical to understanding the dynamics of power and influence in the region.
China's military activities in Africa, particularly its interest in establishing a naval base on the Atlantic coast, raise U.S. national security concerns. Equatorial Guinea has emerged as a potential location for the base, prompting the United States to enter into discussions with the country to address security concerns. Although some Chinese infrastructure projects in Africa do not pose a national security threat, the United States should focus on challenging activities related to telecommunications and strategic minerals. It is essential to distinguish between troublesome military engagements and insensitive economic activities.
China's role in conflict resolution in Africa is limited compared to its commercial presence. The African Union has taken the lead in diplomatic efforts, with the United States providing both public and behind-the-scenes support. However, if China expands its traditional policy of "non-intervention" and assumes a greater diplomatic role in African conflicts, the United States should be prepared to adjust its approach accordingly.
The Chinese model for Africa
China's objectives in Africa
China's strategic interests in Africa can be summarized in four key areas. First, it seeks access to natural resources, particularly oil and gas, as it seeks to secure future energy supplies. China seeks resources including cobalt, lithium, rare earth metals, hydrocarbons as well as access to food products. These resources are abundant in Africa and are critical to China's continued economic growth. Over the past two decades, China has invested heavily in infrastructure, energy and the financial sector across the continent.
China has made significant investments in the oil sectors of countries such as Sudan, Angola and Nigeria. Secondly, China sees Africa as a huge market for its exported goods, which could help restructure its own economy by moving away from labour-intensive industries as labour costs rise in China. Thirdly, China seeks political legitimacy and believes that strengthening its relations with African countries strengthens its international influence. Most African governments' support for China's One China policy facilitates Chinese aid and investment. Finally, China seeks to contribute to stability in the region to protect its economic interests.
China's rapid economic growth has been accompanied by the construction of megaprojects both in China and abroad. However, these projects are not only a means of corruption, but are also proving to be a mortal danger to society. The recent floods in China's southern, eastern and central regions highlight concerns about the structural stability of dams, including the notorious Three Gorges Dam. These concerns raise questions about the quality and durability of Chinese infrastructure projects in Africa under the BRI.
On the other hand, African governments and military regimes look to China for political recognition, economic development through aid, investment, infrastructure development, and trade. They see China as a potential partner that engages with them in ways that differ from those of Western governments, avoiding condescending lectures on good governance and investing in high-risk projects or remote regions. Some African countries seek to replicate China's economic development and believe they can learn from China's experience in poverty reduction.
Mixed reactions to Chinese involvement
African ruling elites generally have a positive attitude towards China's role in Africa. They appreciate China's intergovernmental agreements, which often have fewer strings attached than in Western countries. China's contribution to infrastructure development, such as roads, railways and bridges, has been a visible improvement that has stimulated economic activity and job creation. These tangible benefits resonate with ordinary citizens.
However, some segments of African societies are critical of Chinese engagement. Trade unions, civil society groups and good governance watchdog organisations have expressed concerns about poor working conditions, unsustainable environmental practices, job displacement and unfair trade deals that exploit the weaknesses of African governments. They argue that China maintains a neo-colonial relationship where Africa exports raw materials in exchange for manufactured goods. In some cases, this criticism has led to popular protests and violence against Chinese businessmen and migrants.
China's involvement in Africa raises numerous concerns, particularly regarding human rights violations and corruption. According to a report by the London-based Business and Human Rights Resource Center, of 1,690 allegations of human rights abuses related to Chinese investment globally, 181 were reported in Africa. These violations have occurred mostly in the mining and construction sectors, where Chinese companies have been accused of denying the allegations or simply ignoring them.
Geostrategic corruption: China's exploitation of weak institutions
China's expansion in Africa is not limited to economic investment. It also includes the spread of geostrategic corruption, whereby external states use corrupt methods to gain a stake in a country's politics, economy and society. China has mastered this art, using its influence to secure lucrative contracts, domestic financial deals and special relationships with the ruling class. The weak institutions and culture of corruption in many African countries make them vulnerable to China's exploitative tactics.
The impact of corruption on development in Africa
The spread of Chinese corruption in Africa has significant implications for the continent's development. Corrupt practices impede economic growth, discourage foreign investment, undermine public confidence in institutions, and entrench inequality. As Chinese companies engage in bribery and other corrupt activities, local enterprises are marginalised and opportunities for sustainable development diminish. Moreover, the lack of transparency and accountability in Chinese-led projects often exacerbates these challenges.
Human rights violations and environmental degradation
Alongside corruption, China's presence in Africa is marked by human rights abuses and environmental degradation. Chinese companies have been accused of disregard for labour rights, exploitation of workers and unsafe practices. In the mining sector, communities have suffered pollution, land grabbing and displacement. China's low environmental standards and disregard for local communities have led to long-lasting social, cultural and environmental damage.
China's emergence as a global economic power establishes it as the main driver of the BRICS on which the bloc's strategic architecture is built. The rise and expansion of BRICS represents a significant shift in the global economic landscape. Although the future of the BRICS project remains uncertain, its impact on the world economy is already being felt. Together, they represent a significant share of global output and have the potential to shape international trade, investment and economic growth. However, their growing influence also poses a challenge to the existing international legal framework of a rules-based international order and a significant threat to the post-World War II international financial architecture. .
The BRICS countries, led by China's economic power, are challenging the traditional dominance of Western economies and advocating for a more equitable and inclusive global economic system. Their success in achieving their ambitious goals will depend on their ability to tackle domestic challenges, promote cooperation among themselves and adapt to an ever-changing global landscape. As the world watches the progress of the BRICS countries, it is clear that the rise of these emerging economies will define the future of global economic relations and have far-reaching implications for societies around the world. The BRICS era has begun and the world must be ready to accept the challenges that come with it.
To a large extent, the BRICS follow the geopolitical ambitions and patterns of the leading Beijing. Pragmatic and simplistic approaches produce quick results in the short term, but in the long term they are unsustainable and have extremely erosive consequences for the regions caught in their sphere of influence. Taking the example of its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), through which China is investing heavily in infrastructure projects in various countries, it can be seen that the Chinese government's approach to these projects and its association with corrupt regimes raises concerns about the impact on governance, transparency and the long-term sustainability of these ventures.
The spread of corruption and China's support of anti-democratic regimes through the Belt and Road Initiative has far-reaching consequences. Human rights abuses, environmental degradation and the erosion of governance institutions hinder Africa's development and entrench inequality. China's growing engagement with Africa is driven by its interest in Africa's natural resources and markets, often at the expense of the peoples of the African continent in the name of huge trade-offs. It is critical for both China and African states to address these challenges by promoting transparency, accountability and sustainable practices.