It has been three and a half decades since South Korea made its historic transition to democracy and its leaders vowed never to let the military take over the reins of governance ever again. While much water has flown down the bridge since then, the shadow of Militarism of the yester years continues to linger.
The Era of Militarism
South Korea’s post colonial political history has been divided into Six Republics, each marked by a major Constitutional amendment.
The Synghman Rhee regime, which marked the First Republic (1948-1960), was highly notorious for its undemocratic governance. While the Civil society was effectively repressed, Rhee’s Liberal Party dominated all aspects of the Political Society in a “quasi-Leninist” fashion. Everything- from police and military to the economy- was kept under firm control as the Party penetrated all State institutions, weakening it in both functionality and essence. The wealth chasm between the rich and poor also drastically increased. South Korea was largely regarded as not just the poorest but also a lawless “failed” country with a virtually non-existent government.
Anger brewed over Rhee’s naked abuse of power leading to mass protests which resulted in the “April Revolution’‘ and Rhee had to flee to Hawaii. He was replaced by South Korea’s first government with a Prime Minister, the Second Republic (April 1960-May 1961) led by Chang Myon but Chang was soon overthrown by General Park Chung Hee and a military junta ruled from the coup d’état of May 1961 (known as the “5.61 incident”) till the formation of the Third Republic (December 1963-1972) after which the ruling military officers including General Park took off their uniforms and entered politics as civilian leaders.
As to pursue his commitment to uplift South Korea from excruciating poverty, Park Chung Hee ruled with an iron fist where all opposition was ruthlessly suppressed. While the economy grew phenomenally, opposition continued to mount and Park responded by implementing the Yushin Constitution in 1972 marking the commencement of the Fourth Republic (1972-1979). Though the new Constitution emboldened Park by concentrating all powers in his hands while brutally suppressing dissent, opposition grew to the extent that Park was assassinated by his own officer in 1979.
Social unrest grew beyond the control of the succeeding Choi Kyu hah’s government and the military which was eagerly waiting for an opportunity to move back into the political corridors found an excuse to intervene as happened following the December 12 coup (“12.12 incident”) when General Chun Doo Hwan took over power. Soon after, in 1980, Chun dissolved the National Assembly and appointed himself as the President, marking the advent of the Fifth Republic (1979-1987). While Park was ruthless, Chun’s oppressiveness knew no bounds as evident in the tragic Gwangju Massacre of 1980.
Transition to Democracy
A strong, nonviolent Civil society movement predominantly led by students in 1987 marked the historic transition to democracy in South Korea after nearly three decades of military rule, marking the advent of the Sixth Republic (1987-present). A new Constitution promising free and fair elections ensured that democracy would never be compromised with. Though the military has constrained itself to the barracks since 1987, the impact of its rule continues to be felt in all aspects of South Korean life.
The Shadow of the Gun
Politically, the military continues to remain the most important institution, if not the most developed, in South Korea, evident from the election of former military officer Roh Tae woo soon after the end of military rule. His government was dominated by ex-military personnel who reserved important say in both policy making and implimentation. Today, the importance of the military is aggravated by the threat of a North Korean invasion, marked by heavy budgetary allocation.
This can be seen at the Constitutional level too. Article 39 (1) makes service in the military mandatory for all adult male citizens, circumvention of which does not receive popular favourable response.
The Sixth Republic inherited the democratic institutional weakness of the preceding quasi-civilian regimes. The political system’s excessive grant of power to the Executive vis à vis other institutions has been labelled by many as “Imperial Presidency“. The Presidents can, and have been, controlling the legislature or the National Assembly through an authoritarian party system. The Judiciary’s independence is too questionable since its appointees are nominated by the President. Moreover, the Congressional executive powers, the Prosecutor and the Board of Audit and Inspection which are supposed to scrutinise government acts, remain under the thumb of the President. The Prime Minister too is appointed by the President (though with the consent of the National Assembly, which too remains weak) and is known to follow his orders rather than checking his power. There exists no real system of checks and balances.
Following Park’s ruling style, South Korea continues to be a heavily centralised state where the national government led by the President enjoys enormous financial powers at the cost of local governments which has sustained imbalances in regional development. Calls for greater decentralisation and division of power have not led to any tangible results.
A weak opposition to the ruling party is another legacy which was immediately seen and must be understood as part of the formative stage of democratisation in South Korea. Even when the military receded from the political scene in 1987, the ruling party, Democratic Justice Party, won the elections because its candidate Roh Tae woo presented the only moderate alternative to the public among the two rival factions of Kim Dae Jung and Kim Young sam. Hence, after decades of struggle yet another former military leader sat in the Blue House with just 36.6% of total votes.
The narrow ideological spectrum which places anti-Communism at the centre of political values continues to exist post the era of military dictatorship in the form of the National Security Law (NSL) even after repeated attempts at democratisation. The most fierce debate to amend the law came under Roh Moo Hyun’s government who saw it as an impediment to political expression and freedom of speech. The issue went to the Constitutional Court in 1990 where it was recognised that the NSL in its form is crucial to sustain liberal democracy in South Korea. Despite the progressives’ repeated attempts, anti-Communism remains a part of South Korean political life to the extent that even the most well meaning of Moon Jae-in’s welfare measures have been read by conservatives as ‘too radical’ and harmful to the safety of the nation. Communist leaning organisations remain banned while the ideology itself continues to be a taboo.
Associated with anti-Communism is the fear psychosis of North Korea that continues to exist as a pretense to suppress all genuine challenges to the Executive’s authoritarianism as all voices which favour equality and structural reforms are seen as North Korean sympathisers.
Ethnic Nationalism and extreme groupism lingers on as a legacy of the militarist past. South Koreans view ethnic Koreans living abroad more favourably than foreigners living in Korea as many cases of racial discrimination show. Similarly, interracial marriages and progeny of such unions are not viewed favourably and are rather seen as a threat to cultural homogenity of the nation. It can be traced back to Park’s policies of inculcating a sense of ethno-cultural superiority among the Koreans.
Anti-Americanism is another legacy of the militarist period. Chae-bong Ham points to the presence of “two South Koreas” since democratisation- the Conservative trend who conform to the pro-US, anti-North Korea, monopoly capitalist tradition and the Progressives who seek to alter this view. Many progressive leaders like Kim Dae Jung not only witnessed US’ staunch support and indifference to atrocities inflicted by the military regimes but also saw it as the main reason behind the conflict with North Korea, a chasm which was both created and sustained by the US for its own interests during the Cold War. Progressives’ favourable political opinion came to be popularised where North Korea was seen both as a brother, an independent country which did not allow any interference or troops to be stationed on its terrain unlike South Korea under Conservatives, as well as a victim of US imperialism and Cold War politics. Kim’s Sunshine Policy,which won him the Nobel Peace Prize, was a step in this regard. The issue of rape and assault of South Korean women by American soldiers during the initial phases post division, the 2002 Yangju Highway incident where two South Korean schoolgirls were killed by a US military vehicle and the 2008 US beef protests where thousands hit the streets to protest against the Government’s decision to reverse a ban on US beef imports are all events which underscore growing Anti-Americanism. In fact, it was by riding on the wave of anti-Americanism post the Yangju Highway incident that Kim Dae Jung won the 2002 Presidential elections.
The ethos of militarism have been imbibed at several levels of South Korean society.
Park regime’s emphasis on maintaining a rigid patriarchal structure with fixed codes of masculinity and femininity which privileged men as the breadwinners and decision makers continues to exist, in ways so subtle that even progressive female participants of the pro-democracy movements against the military regime neither questioned the sexual division of labour within anti-regime students’ groups which priveleged men nor linked compulsory military service for young men or rise in sexual violence against women as linked to militarism.
South Korean society remains deeply hierarchical and gendered where women face discrimination both at home and at the workplace. Seoul was placed 115th in the World Economic Forum Gender Gap report as well as 124th out of 149 countries in terms of economic participatory opportunities for women. Wage differences between men and women is another major issue with South Korea having the largest pay gap among OECD countries. In terms of the number of female ministers, South Korea has the third lowest percentage among OECD nations. Though the Moon government has been committed to raising the percentage of women in senior government positions to 10% and 20% in public company executives by 2022, women are largely seen as homemakers and are expected to leave their jobs for raising children, a trend which would be further reinforced in future considering the new President Yoon Seok-youl plans on dissolving Ministry of Gender Equality.
The same can be seen in Korean television dramas which fall prey to the “Cinderella Complex”, “Beauty and the Beast Complex” and what Collette Dowling describes as “women’s hidden fear of independence”. Shows like True Beauty (2020), Goblin (2016) and My ID is Gangnam Beauty (2018) depict female characters as ‘damsels in distress’ who constantly require male leads to reassure and protect them. Others such as Jugglers (2017), Hyde, Jekyll and Me (2015) and What’s Wrong with Secretary Kim? (2018) , to name a few, depict female characters as striving to change a careless, rude ‘beast’ into a caring and loving ‘prince’.
The show Descendants of the Sun (2016), partially financed by the Ministry of National Defense and promoted by the President Park Geun-hye herself as a “remarkable contribution to tourism industry, patriotism and nationalism”, was seen by many as a way of soft power promotion and image correction of the military as the South Korean soldiers have not just been portrayed as extraordinarily brave but also humane. The innocent stylisation of the lead characters playing military officers speak nothing of its ugly past. One of the characters, in fact,is portrayed as being transformed from a lawless street fighter to a calm and responsible person once he joins the military.
One of the enduring and most remarkable legacies of the military regime is its phenomenal economic growth which continues to enhance Park’s popular image as a nationalist and prudent leader. The development state of the Park Chung Hee era continues till date as the South Korean state heavily intervenes in a state guided capitalist economy. However, its ills can also be seen till date.
Unionisation of labour remains a contentious issue even under progressive regimes as there is always a threat of the demand of workers’ rights leaning further left which might compromise national security. The formation of the National Association of Managers and the Federation of Korean Industries under the Roh Tae woo’s administration, gave capitalists a united,interventionist power while disorganising the labour, ran in the same vein as the military regimes’ attempts at breaking workers’ solidarity.
As a 2015 case against Samsung Electronics for alleged union busting shows, Chaebols or family owned business conglomerates continue to remain equally repressive. Though Kim Dae Jung promised to reform Chaebols, his neoliberal policies in the wake of the ‘IMF crisis’ as a result of the organisation’s Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs) turned out to further embolden them. The conservative government of Park Geun hye presented one of the most glaring cases of a Chaebol-State nexus which ultimately led to her impeachment from office. Chaebols continue to exist in a symbiotic relationship with the State which protects them through favourable policies. Even the judiciary which is supposed to be a neutral organisation remains pro Chaebol through the famous “Three Five rule” where if found guilty, the businessmen are sentenced a minimum three year imprisonment term which is then delayed for the next five years, no matter what the crime and eventually annulled if he restraints from committing any other offense during the period. Chaebols are seen as the lead actors of both the past and future economic growth of South Korea.
Though no attempts have been made for the military to gain centrestage since 1987, the lingering shadow of the militarist past presents both a challenge for South Koreans to further the ideals of democracy and wash away the stains of the past and a case study for students of politics to understand the transitions from authoritarianism to democracy in post colonial societies.
On Chinese Democracy
In recent years, China has been following the adage that “he who controls the discourse controls the world” with increasing vigour. That is, the first side to describe a given phenomenon, with a new coinage emerging, determines global attitudes towards it. There are two nations, one on either side of the Pacific, the two main economies of the world. Both declare they have a constitutional republican system and respect for human rights. Yet, one is considered a model of democracy and an example to be followed, while the other is seen as an archaic authoritarian system built upon censorship and repression. We are, of course, talking about the United States of America and the People’s Republic of China.
As recently as 15–20 years ago, it was generally accepted that the U.S. version of democracy was the model to aspire to, but this is no longer the case. Against the backdrop of the Ukraine crisis and the various reactions thereto around the world, Western journalists are increasingly giving in to the temptation to characterize this period of world history as a struggle between “democracy” (represented by the West, led by the United States, and “correct” non-Western countries such as Japan and Lithuania) and “authoritarianism” (China, Russia and the “enfants terrible of world politics” that joined them). One of the fallouts, therefore, is that there have been new turns to the discussion about whether China’s socio-political system can be called “democracy”.
Western observers are unanimous in their appraisal: “there’s no democracy in China.” However, the problem is that the very concept of “democracy” (a certain “power of the people”) is fluid. It is much like a “healthy lifestyle”—it is easy to assume that you are leading a healthy lifestyle, while your rival is not. How can you know for sure, though?
Even political analysis falls short. For instance, any researcher who was brought up in the Western paradigm of political science will argue that if there are no direct democratic elections and a separation of powers, this is no “democracy” but something entirely different. Neither exists in China, yet this does not stop Chinese scholars from proclaiming—with no hint of irony—that their country is indeed democratic, only in a distinctly Chinese way.
It is not only the definition of “democracy” that is fluid, so too is the genesis of democratic traditions. For example, it is generally accepted that the Western neo-liberal model can be traced back to the democratic practices of Ancient Greece and that the subsequent history of humankind is a single process of encouraging and improving such practices. However, what most people do not know is that democracy, even in Athens, was an expression of the oligarchic elite’s power at best, and this was done with the help of populism and appeals to the legitimacy of the “popular opinion.” A similar situation was the case with the Veche in medieval Veliky Novgorod. At the same time, proto-democratic procedures (for example, the election of chiefs among nomads or the self-government of agricultural communities in Ancient China) existed among all the peoples of the world in one form or another, and it is a mystery why some practices led to “good democracy,” while others led to “bad authoritarianism.”
Thus, when the Chinese talk about their own “thousand-year traditions of democracy,” they are not paltering with the truth, but sincerely believe it to be true. They call the political system they now have “democratic,” with China’s Constitution containing a reference to “a socialist state governed by the people’s democratic dictatorship, led by the working class and based on an alliance of workers and peasants.” Who said democracy was anything other than that? And who endowed someone with the right to decide what democracy is or is not?
It should be noted here that the term “democracy” has long been absent in the Chinese tradition. In fact, the word “minzhu” (民主, “the power of the people” or “the people are the masters”) was brought by Sun Yat-sen from Japan in the early 20th century. This was merely a re-rendering of the Japanese term “mingshu” (民主), which itself came from the Western notion of “power of the people.” The Hanzi and Kanji (which the Japanese originally adopted from China) are identical, but the wording first came from Japanese for a fact—much as the word “gongchanzhui,” 共产主义, meaning communism, as well as other “-zhui”-words (主义), which is something like the English “-ism”—and never appeared in classical Chinese texts.
On the one hand, the term “democracy” is borrowed, and so too is its understanding. On the other hand, the term has no historical base and can be filled with any content. Or, rather, its understanding can be corrected for the sake of political expediency or local conditions. And that is exactly what has happened to “democracy.”
In China, the term appeared on the eve of the Xinhai Revolution and the overthrow the Manchu-led Qing imperial dynasty. For Sun Yat-sen and his cohort, it was important that the “power of the people” (“minzhu”) was directly opposed to the “power of the sovereign” (“junzhu”, 君主). That is, any political system where the head of state is not the sole sovereign is seen as a democracy. Incidentally, Sun Yat-sen used the word “minquan” (民主, “sovereignty of the people”) in addition to “minzhu” (民主) to denote democracy, although most people consider these terms to be identical.
In any case, if we proceed from Sun Yat-sen’s understanding of democracy, we can say that a democratic state was founded in China in 1912, since power was seized by the party, and the party consists of the people and reflects the interests of the people. This is fundamentally different to the situation where power belonged to the Son of Heaven (the Emperor’s official title).
Of course, China’s political system of the 1910s to the 1940s—that is, before the Communist Party ascended to power—was far from the high standards of neoliberal democracy. If we were to put a label on it, we would say that it was a combination of the power of the oligarchy and generals, multiplied by the partocracy (the ruling Kuomintang party) and the cult of its leader Chiang Kai-shek. But this, of course, was also called “democracy.”
When the Communists came to power, Mao Zedong wanted to show that China would be a democracy—not the “bad” kind of democracy that reigned under Chiang Kai-shek, but a different, “new” kind of democracy. This “new democracy” (新民主), as it was called, was seen as a stopgap on the way to building a socialist society. It was still a single-party system (only it was a different party that was in power), and the position of leader (Mao Zedong) looked almost indistinguishable from that of emperor in the end.
The death of Mao Zedong was followed by a series of reforms that laid the foundation for the modern Chinese political system, where elections do take place, although the Party’s monopoly on power remains very much intact. The Chinese people define this phenomenon as “the people’s democratic dictatorship led by the working class” (a quote from the preamble to the Constitution of the People’s Republic of China). It is essentially a partocratic regime based on the one that once existed in the Soviet Union, only reimagined and improved.
One of the most striking features of China’s political system is the absence of the separation of powers. Officially, the only “state power” is the national people’s congresses—the institution through which the people exercise their power under the Constitution. People’s congresses are a multi-layered pyramid, at the very bottom of which direct and quite democratic elections are indeed held. What is more, the higher people’s congresses are made up of members of the lower ones, meaning that the pyramid works as one big filter. Thus, the people actually play an indirect role in the formation of the highest body of state power – the National People’s Congress (NPC).
It just so happens that most members of the people’s congresses at all levels are communists. While some opposition-minded figures may appear as if out of nowhere at the bottom of the pyramid from time to time, they will not make it past the multi-stage filter, and only proven and reliable people will end up in the NPC. The vast majority of these (although not all) are members of the Communist Party. It is only natural, therefore, that they act within the framework of party discipline and go along with decisions adopted by party congresses in the past.
The workings of this system are quite easy to trace if you look at key personnel decisions. For example, the party leadership for the next five years will be elected this autumn at the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party. The new convocation of the NPC will convene somewhat later in March, where the President of the People’s Republic of China will be elected (or re-elected). Therefore, it would be logical to assume that it will be the General Secretary of the Central Committee elected (or re-elected) at the autumn Congress.
Other key appointments will be made in a similar fashion. For example, the second-highest person in the party hierarchy will become the head of government. Is that democratic? If you were to ask China’s idea-mongers, they would tell you that it most certainly is. The NPC is formed as a result of multi-stage elections. Theoretically, parties other than the CPC can compete for a parliamentary majority. But the main thing is that the Party represents the interests of the people, meaning that the power of the party is the “power of the people.”
Are Chinese people aware that their understanding of “democracy” is different from Western standards? Of course they are. Are they about the abandon their system in order to conform to Western standards? Of course not. What is more, Chinese politicians have been actively using the term “democracy” in their official rhetoric and stressing that democracy exists in China too. They do this in defiance of the West and its “monopoly on deciding where there is democracy and where it is absent.” China realizes that the West uses this monopoly to exert pressure on foreign policies of its opponents and seeks to demonopolize this function and achieve parity in the struggle for control over the information discourse at the very least.
This is most evident not in the concept of “democracy,” but rather in the concept of “human rights.” From a Western point of view, human rights are first and foremost the right of the individual to do or have something contrary to or regardless of the interests of society or the state. The classic liberal understanding of human rights is the triad of fundamental natural rights put forward by the British political philosopher John Locke, namely, the right to “life, liberty, and property” (the understanding is that the state was created to guarantee these rights, even though they may be contrary to the interests of the state).
For China, the very notion that the interests of the individual and the state may not coincide is inconceivable. The Western understanding of human rights thus not have any foundation. The Chinese concept of “human rights” (also absent in the traditional political and legal system) is also different. Human rights, as the Chinese understand the term (at least those I have had the chance to talk to), means, first of all, the right to food and a decent quality of life, and the state exists to ensure this. This implies that the highest interests of the state and the highest interests of the individual are one and the same.
Thus, as long as there is economic growth in the country and people are fed and clothed, the Chinese version of democracy and human rights will be supported by its people. And the idea that all the countries in the world will, as globalization marches forward, eventually adopt the Western socio-political system is no longer popular or seen as a given.
After the West emerged victorious from the Cold War at the turn of the 1990s and everyone wanted to be like the winners, it was the United States who perhaps had the moral right to say which countries were “democratic” and which were not, and everyone listened. What is more, both China and Russia sincerely wanted to become a part of the “global West.” But when it became clear that they would never occupy a place other than the periphery in this pro-Western global model, and that Western society had become a prisoner of its own agenda (poorly understood and not at all appealing for the “non-West”), people started to voice their criticism of the West’s monopoly on the right to play the role of arbiter.
Nowhere can these voices be heard louder than in Russia and China, and to some it may seem that they are singing this tune in unison. At the same time, the two countries have a number of differences and contradictions, and the Chinese political agenda is even less clear than the Western one. Thus, Russia and China should not be lumped together into some kind of “axis of authoritarianism,” not only because there is no military–political alliance between the two countries (this is just a formality), but also because the terms “democracy” and “authoritarianism” are little more than “labels” that rivals in the current political climate tag each other with in the struggle for control over the information discourse.
From our partner RIAC
Tension prevails after Pelosi’s Visit
Already tense geopolitics are boiling and making the whole world more nervous. Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan has damaged International politics and heated the tension around the globe. Her visit was opposed by more than 100 countries and equally criticized domestically. Many scholars, intellects, politicians, and civil society is criticizing her visit.
Looking at her profile and past, she was a rigid, hardliner, and non-flexible personality. Her role in American politics is also the same tough. She is not willing to accept others’ point of view and always insist on her opinion, or precisely described – imposing her ideology on others.
The same happened in the case of her Taiwan visit, although there was opposition from within the US as well as globally, in addition to strong warnings from China, yet, she made her visit. It was her deliberate attempt to offend public opinion and spoil the international political environment. Certainly, it has created a lot of adverse impacts, on the global economy, security, and peace.
One-China policy is well recognized and a pre-condition to establishing diplomatic relations with China. There are only 13 countries, that maintain formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan. It means the rest of the whole world recognizes China only and sticks to the One-China policy. Her visit was totally against the One-China policy.
1.4 Billion People in China are offended and public sentiments were ignored. There is tremendous pressure on the Chinese government from the public to protect its sovereignty. Although, China has made tremendous developments on the economic front, technological advancement, and defense capacities. China possesses the ability to capture Taiwan by force. Yet, Beijing has never used military options. China is a responsible state, and very mature in its international affairs. It always kept on convincing for the peaceful reunification of Taiwan with Main Land through dialogue. China has introduced “One Country, Two Systems” to manage Hong Kong and Taiwan, and is always willing to offer a similar option to Taiwan, even a high degree of autonomy. If Taiwan thinks smartly, can bargain more concessions and favors from China, but, ultimately have to reunify with the mainland.
The implication of her visit and its consequences must be serious, but, to describe it precisely, may not be possible at this stage, the immediate actions taken by Beijing are as:-
1. Canceling China-U.S. Theater Commanders Talk.
2. Canceling China-U.S. Defense Policy Coordination Talks (DPCT).
3. Canceling China-U.S. Military Maritime Consultative Agreement (MMCA) meetings
4. Suspending China-U.S. cooperation on the repatriation of illegal immigrants.
5. Suspending China-U.S. cooperation on legal assistance in criminal matters.
6. Suspending China-U.S. cooperation against transnational crimes.
7. Suspending China-U.S. counter-narcotics cooperation.
8. Suspending China-U.S. talks on climate change.
The big Military exercise is ongoing in the Strait of Taiwan, where China is using live ammunition and using all three forces, Land, Air, and Navy, very close to Taiwan. In fact, surrounds Taiwan closely.
What other measures or reactions will China take, is not known yet. As China is an inward society and does not reveal what they are planning or thinking, so one may not guess precisely. China believes in doing more but beating the drum less (Less Shouting). It is well understood that Taiwan is a very sensitive issue for the Chinese nation and the reaction must be very serious.
The adverse impact of the Ukraine war is already harming the global economy and if something goes wrong in this region, the price has to be paid by the whole world. China is a World Factory and provides almost 70% of consumer products to the rest of the world. The price offered by China is incompatible and meets the needs of a majority of the middle and lower middle class of the whole world. Only filthy rich people can afford expensive products, but, China caters to the absolute majority.
In case of crisis, the developing and underdeveloped nations will suffer severely. Poverty will jump globally and the masses will be deprived of consumer products. The world will be divided into more blocks. China will be more close to Russia and the cold war may revive once again.
BRICS – How Will the Organisation Get a ‘Second Wind’?
BRICS, which was rapidly gaining momentum in the first decade of its operation, has, expectedly, over the past few years faced a certain crisis in its development (this crisis is understood not as a decline, but as a turning point, a transitional situation). At the level of official discourse, the word “crisis” was never used; the rhetoric continued to be predominantly optimistic, however, the expert community has increasingly called for a rethinking of the role of the association, overcoming the mounting internal contradictions. The very logic of the development of any association implies that periods of growth, expansion of the agenda, the predominance of centripetal forces, and crises will alternate, and that it is necessary to look for new foundations for rapprochement. The reasons for slippage, as is always the case, have been both external and internal. On the one hand, a fundamental transformation of the globalisation process has begun (and this process is only gaining momentum); there are calls for the basic principles and mechanisms which bring the BRICS countries together to undergo reform. This challenge is facing all global multilateral organisations today; BRICS is not unique here: the WTO, the G7, the G20, and even the UN and its structures — all of them are faced with the loss of their status as universal platforms for overseeing the global rules of the game. For BRICS, on the one hand, this is a problem of self-identification, since the countries have advocated the transformation of global mechanisms imposed by developed countries. At the same time, it is also an opportunity to “rebuild” the association, turning it into an alternative, new platform for uniting the entire developing world. The latter scenario inevitably implies the expansion of the union, both by accepting new members (which is already happening), and in the BRICS+ format that has become a permanent issue for the current Chinese presidency in 2022.
The difficulties of the BRICS were also caused by internal reasons. The test for BRICS was 2020, when the association, contrary to expectations, did hardly anything to assist in countering the COVID-19 pandemic. While initially considered a club of the most dynamic economies, the union of five countries has become internally highly heterogeneous. China and India continue to vie with each other as leaders of economic growth, while Brazil, South Africa and Russia have witnessed a systemic crisis since the mid-2010s, when the fall in GDP alternates with stagnant growth. Economic difficulties in Brazil and South Africa have led to a change of elites. The new leaders have sought to critically rethink their goals and priorities in unification. However, today BRICS is no longer a club of growth leaders, and the ability of the candidate countries to effectively participate in solving the most acute current problems facing the developing world — the energy and food crises — is coming to the fore. In many respects, these considerations have dictated China’s desire to include Argentina and Iran in the union, despite all the well-known problems facing the economies of these countries.
The aggravation of contradictions between China and India, and along the China-Brazil line, has also led to a slowdown in active work in the BRICS. The rise of China, securing for it the role of the “main sponsor” of the BRICS (primarily as the main founder of the New Development Bank) presents a kind of challenge for Beijing, since the line between leadership and dominance, as the experience of other associations shows, is usually very thin. The accumulated dissatisfaction with the real results of the decade-long work of the association has also made its contribution: many initiatives, including the task of strengthening the voice of developing countries and reforming the global regulatory institutions, still remain only slogans.
To understand the prospects for BRICS, it makes sense to look at the evolution of approaches to unify the current government in Brazil. The victory of Jair Bolsonaro in 2018 was perceived by some experts as a moment of risk for the five, as the new elites in power made no secret of their desire to place their main stake on rapprochement with the United States. The negative scenarios did not materialise. However, Brasilia did significantly rethink its priorities, goals and objectives. Unlike his predecessors from the leftist camp (Presidents Lula da Silva and Dilma Rousseff), Bolsonaro was not close to the idea of uniting the Global South under the banner of reshaping the world order. However, more pragmatic, technocratic areas that are objectively beneficial to the country (technological cooperation, the fight against organised crime, digitalisation and the Development Bank) were chosen as priorities in the year of Brazil’s chairmanship in 2019. Paradoxically, such a narrowing of the agenda played a rather constructive role in the development of BRICS, since the quality of the elaboration of joint decisions was so high that Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov, Sherpa of the Russian Federation in the BRICS, even commended the brilliant organisation of the work, saying that there were far more specifics than general declarations. Paraphrasing the famous phrase of Alexander Gorchakov, one can say that the Brazilian presidency allowed BRICS to focus, to replace the extensive growth of the agenda of previous years with intensive progress in really important and compromise-driven areas.
The arrival of the Joe Biden administration in Washington in 2021 has led to a cooling of the enthusiasm among the Brazilian elites regarding the prospects for rapprochement with the United States. In Brasilia the incumbent American President’s threats, made during the election campaign, were well-heard: to impose sanctions against the Tropical Giant if it does not reconsider its policy toward the Amazon River. Bolsonaro is also worried about the inclusion of environmental issues in the NATO agenda. That is, the increased attention of the military alliance in the Amazon region is not ruled out, which is traditionally an extremely sensitive topic for Brazilians. In this context, the Brazilian leader is revisiting his previously restrained approach to the BRICS, recognising its importance and strategic significance for the country as a tool to counter isolation in the event that the risks of worsening relations with the US and the EU materialise. Following this logic, Bolsonaro today advocates expanding the association, including within the framework of BRICS +, and in official speeches he speaks of the need to reform the World Bank, IMF and the UN Security Council, which was difficult to imagine a few years ago.
Expansion through the inclusion of new full members has been talked about since the first years of the BRICS. Since the concept of BRICS as an alliance of civilizations initially prevailed, where each macro-region is represented by one leader, the inclusion of a large Islamic country was most likely. Indonesia, as the world’s largest Islamic country in terms of population, and Egypt were usually considered. The recent application for the entry of Shiite Iran alters this logic, since, apparently, when inviting Tehran to the recent 14th Summit, China was guided by the exceptional importance of the country precisely from the point of view of its energy potential as one of the leaders in hydrocarbon reserves.
The possibility of Argentina joining the BRICS was also discussed for a long time, but Brazil was interested in maintaining its role as a regional leader, representing all of Latin America. The possibility of competition from Buenos Aires did not rouse enthusiasm among the authorities of the Tropical Giant, even during the reign of the left, despite the friendly relations between the countries at that time. Argentina then did not yet face the economic problems that it is experiencing today; the country’s economy was one of the most dynamic in the region. At present, the countries are going through a difficult period in the history of their bilateral relations; the leaders have no trusting, friendly contact. In BRICS, any decision on the admission of new members is made by consensus, but how easy it will be to get the support of the Brazilian authorities for the entry of Argentina remains a big question. Argentina’s entry into the association will not only exacerbate political rivalry; the countries are the largest food producers, competing in many markets. The appearance of a second country from one continent in BRICS will finally move the organisation away from its original concept of uniting the political and economic leaders of their continents (or civilizations). However, these challenges also present opportunities. The new global situation requires developing countries to push old grievances to the background, so that they may work on the task of increasing the representative nature of the BRICS, expanding its potential in addressing the food and energy crises.
Without Argentina, achieving this goal will be much more difficult, since together the two Latin American countries are able to provide food for more than 1 billion people. Participation in the BRICS of another state of the region, especially a partner in Mercosur, despite the competition, creates more opportunities to convey the Latin American agenda and priorities.
At the time of writing, Jair Bolsonaro had not officially commented on his decision to support or not support the entry of Argentina, while the statements were limited to the words of the Minister of Economy Paulo Guedes about the possibility of connecting Buenos Aires to the New Development Bank. However, the mere fact of the official application for membership may indicate that there may be some informal arrangements between Brasilia and Buenos Aires.
The inclusion of new full members of the BRICS is a long process, which, even with the consent of all participants, could take several years. The Chinese approach to foreign policy is traditionally characterised by flexibility and action on several tracks at once. It is this “second track” that BRICS+ is intended to become. There are two approaches to the implementation of cooperation within the framework of this format. The approach of Russia is known, which promoted the concept of “integration of integrations”, which implies the cooperation of integration projects, where the participating countries are leaders (EAEU, Mercosur, South African Customs Union). China could participate through the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. If to consider the concept of “integration” precisely as a formalized process of trade liberalisation, then at present individual regional integration blocs would really be interested in implementing deep forms of integration, for example, through the signing of free trade agreements (FTAs). Mercosur, having signed a Memorandum of Cooperation with the EAEU, consistently offers the Eurasian bloc the opportunity to start trade negotiations. China would also be interested in rapprochement with all associations, but many countries see significant risks from such agreements for their producers. It may seem paradoxical that the “integration of integrations” format was promoted by Moscow, whose foreign trade policy is conservative; the EAEU has only a few FTAs with third countries. Despite the optimism of many experts about the prospects for establishing such a network of trade agreements between integration blocs, the author sees such breakthroughs as unlikely in the medium term. Today, in many countries or associations, there is a growing demand for closeness and the protection of national producers in order to achieve greater industrial and technological independence. The willingness to actively cooperate in creating a common financial or logistics infrastructure does not mean the willingness of Brazil, Russia or perhaps Argentina to open their markets and increase competition with imports from China.
China’s approach to the implementation of the BRICS+ format implies rather a “union of regionalisms”, when not trade blocs, but regional associations (SCO, CELAC, African Union) participate in the dialogue. China has established a dialogue with all these organisations (or being a member); there is a broad agenda of cooperation related to economic, political, scientific and technological areas and other topics. Obviously, the advantage of the Chinese approach is flexibility, as there is no need to talk about trade agreements by imposing rigid standards. The only formal obstacle to the implementation of the model today is the non-participation of Brazil (by Bolsonaro’s decision) in CELAC since 2019, the return of the country to the organisation has not yet been discussed. However, it is possible to expect that the position of the Brazilian leader in a reasonable perspective will change amid disappointment in the stalled rapprochement with the United States. A softening of the position is also noticeable in relations with the left-wing radical governments of Latin America, primarily Venezuela (it was precisely the preservation of this country’s participation in CELAC that became the reason for Brazil’s withdrawal). In any case, the decision on the possible resumption of participation in the regional union, if it is made, looks most likely after the elections in October 2022. If the left-wing politician Lula da Silva wins, the country’s return to CELAC can be considered a foregone conclusion. Therefore, Beijing is ready to bide its time. Chinese approaches to diplomacy and international politics are known for their strategic vision for the long term, the current formal obstacles to the implementation of their plans are perceived as temporary, and simply to be waited out. When communicating with our Chinese colleagues dealing with the topic of BRICS, one can feel a similar conviction in the objective mutual benefit and usefulness of the format for all participants.
New realities — new agenda
In the year of its presidency, China was noted not only for initiatives to expand the BRICS; it also significantly developed the agenda, including 23 priorities in 5 areas. There have not been such a number of initiatives within the BRICS for a long time, although most areas of work continue to develop the previous priorities. However, attention is drawn to the surprising similarity of the agenda of all major international forums in 2022. For example, within the framework of the 9th Summit of the Americas, held in early June under the chairmanship of the United States, Washington promoted an agenda that included the problems of post-pandemic recovery, combating the food and energy crises, cooperation in the field of healthcare, innovation, security, ecology, and trade. The intersections with China’s priorities in BRICS are significant. Washington’s main message during the Summit can be formulated as a desire to limit the presence of external players in the zone of their traditional interests. China, which did not participate in any way at the Summit of the Americas and was not mentioned by US officials in speeches, was in fact invisibly present. During his keynote speech at the opening of the forum on June 6, Joe Biden, after the announcement of new proposals for cooperation, emphasised, clearly in defiance of China, that the Western Hemisphere has enough of its own resources to solve all its main problems. The competition of the main financial development instruments is also obvious. For example, the United States promised to capitalise the Inter-American Development Bank (IADB) as it is concerned about the growing presence of the Chinese New Infrastructure Investment Bank and the BRICS New Development Bank, financed mainly by Beijing.
Certain signs of rivalry with China can also be seen on the agenda of the 48th G7 summit at the end of June. Developed countries, largely in opposition to the Chinese Belt and Road project, announced their own infrastructure development project in developing countries. There was also talk about the food crisis and assistance to poor countries in counteracting rising prices, where Argentina was also invited to participate. The Western countries and China are entering into intense competition for the developing world, where aid and development programmes will become the main tool, and the developed world is playing the role of catching up in many respects.
For Russia, such a transformation and expansion (geographical and thematic) of the BRICS is obviously beneficial. The intensification of work on the creation of independent financial mechanisms (a new international currency, a pool of reserve currencies, the BRICS Pay payment system) is of interest not only to Moscow, which seeks to reduce its dependence on the monetary infrastructure of the West. The possible inclusion of new members, like Argentina and Iran, demonstrates the failure of the policy of isolating Russia. The Kremlin is ready to move away from the previous logic of the BRICS, when the association was emphatically positioned neither as an alternative to the West, nor as a coalition against it. Today, such positioning is no longer relevant for Russia and China. The latter confirmed this by inviting Iran to participate in the Summit, a country that is in a long-standing conflict with the US, but at the same time has almost 9% of the world’s oil reserves and 17% of its natural gas.
However, such an anti-Western projection of the BRICS is not beneficial to all its participants. Significantly, India, as well as candidate Argentina, took part in the G7 Summit. Argentina depends on the position of the IMF because of its debt problem; it discusses the possibility of obtaining assistance from developed countries. India seeks to pursue a multi-vector policy by participating with the US, Japan and Australia in the Quadripartite Security Dialogue (QUAD). Its interest in achieving the common goals of improving global regulation and interaction for the sake of development does not mean that all BRICS members are ready to oppose the countries of the West. Realising the positive chances from the emerging new period of growth of the association, all countries need to remain diplomatic in promoting their priorities, and seek a delicate balance that will give the BRICS the required stability in the next development cycle.
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