The expansion of BRICS that is expected to be discussed during the BRICS summit in South Africa later this year is turning into one of the highlights of this year’s global agenda. But what this expansion agenda is uncovering is a very important underlying trend that some of the observers are starting to acknowledge – the rising prominence the so-called “middle powers” or better “regional powers” of the Global South. This layer of the international community holds the future of the global economy in terms of economic growth rates, the expansion of the global “middle class” and the new patterns of economic alliances.
The emerging regional powers are starting to exhibit global ambitions and are seeking to realize their potential via platforms such as BRICS/BRICS+. Among the growing number of countries that have formally applied or expressed interest in the BRICS are most heavyweights in their respective regions such as Argentina in Latin America, Bangladesh in South Asia, Egypt in Africa, Saudi Arabia in the Middle East, Indonesia in East Asia. One may liken this new emerging group of countries to the next wave or generation of BRICS, though this time around the number of countries is greater, with more emphatic implications for the revamping of global governance.
There are several reasons why some of these “regional powers” are starting to come to the fore on the international stage:
- Global geopolitical fragmentation: Extended periods of bi-polarity (Cold war) and unipolarity (mostly the 90s) that deprived the middle powers of playing a more prominent role on the world stage
- Constrained modernization: Pent-up demand from middle powers for a stronger impulse towards modernization and the surmounting of the “middle income” trap; efforts to secure optionality and leeway to avoid burdensome conditionality and sanctions
- The rise of regionalism amid cracks in the globalization process – this calls for novel gateways to international cooperation that bring together the regional leaders and middle powers rather than pursuing a top-down globalization pattern led by the select few advanced economies
- Internal economic imbalances under the “unipolar” globalization paradigm– something that engendered efforts to play a greater role on the world stage while seeking to secure additional/alternative sources of financing
The innovation of the BRICS+ concept was to discover and reveal the great potential of the regional powers on the international stage. By opening up the possibility of joining BRICS/BRICS+ it provides a platform for these powers to finally express themselves on the international arena through building horizontal ties across all of the main regions of the Global South. For the regional powers of the Global South the BRICS+ platform becomes not only a way to play a more active role on the international stage but also to capitalize on their regional role and the resources/capital built in their respective regional integration projects.
In this respect the significance of the flurry of applications to join BRICS is that it serves to identify those economies of the Global South that not only have regional and global ambitions, but that also possess important political/economic/geo-economic strengths that entitle them to play a more visible and active role on the world stage. Rather than the scholars and pundits surmising the composition of the next wave of leading economies, the Global South leaders are “making the call” themselves and stepping into the global limelight. In effect, this “revealed ambition” of the regional powers of the Global South is a way to convert the regional potential and the value of the regional integration arrangements that they lead into global capital/recognition. And the arithmetic of the pros and cons of a unipolar system vs a regionalized global economy with a leading role played by emerging regional powers is increasingly shifting in favor of the latter.
This is exemplified by the rising prominence of the emerging regional powers vs. leading developed economies and international organizations in terms of the resources and the financial prowess. The combined resources of all the Regional Financing Arrangements (RFAs) are greater than those of the IMF, which is even more the case in the comparison between the World Bank and the regional development banks (RDBs). The relative power of the regional integration arrangements (RTAs) is progressively rising compared to the lackluster WTO. In the financial space, 9 out of 10 largest sovereign wealth funds (SWFs) are from the Global South. And then there is also the political dimension as the rise of the leaders of regional powers from the Global South such as Lula may start to increasingly overshadow the prominence of the leaders from the advanced economies and “globalistic” international fora.
The scale of changes witnessed around BRICS and BRICS+ may also be indicative of a certain life-cycle stage that the global institutional framework is going through. The “superstructure” of international institutions (attuned more to a globalized world) is less congruent with the increasingly regionalized “foundation” of the world economy. There needs to be a flexible and multipolar platform that can bring greater coordination into the operation of the increasingly impactful RTAs, RFAs and RDBs. In terms of its life cycle, the “unipolar paradigm” has gone from the phase of innovation and growth/maturity to a decline that is punctuated by an increasing frequency and severity of global crises. Hence, the need to turn the cycle back to the “innovation stage”. Which is where BRICS+ comes in.
As the world map is redrawn, the paucity of “global centers” will give way to an increasingly variegated pattern of regions. New economies will enter the global stage with ambitions and the zeal to deliver their contribution to building the new global economic architecture. The regions and their development institutions through building cooperation platforms with their counterparts in the Global South will increasingly become the incubators of “breakout nations”, i.e. economies that demonstrate the most significant advances in growth and modernization. These new waves of BRICS+ economies will in effect be the “regional derivatives” of the main areas of the Global South.
With time the new layer of the regional powers/middle powers from the Global South may start to play the same role in the world economy that the “middle class” and SMEs play in the developed countries – we may witness their growing share in the total GDP pie, their rising contribution to innovation and employment. These trends are likely to be supported by continued urbanization, a rising share of the services sector, as well as greater emphasis placed in their modernization on the development of digital and green economy. There may also be increasing competition for swaying these economies closer to either the BRICS or the advanced economy camp, akin to the competition witnessed in the electoral process at the national level over the electoral range close to the “median voter”. And it is this “median voter” that will likely increasingly drive outcomes and decisions in the re-assembled global economy.
The role of the regional powers from the Global South will continue to grow on the international stage due to their increasingly coordinated actions – whether in sectoral fora such as OPEC+, or international platforms such as BRICS+. As these regional powers start to cooperate within the BRICS/BRICS+ platform, there will be also growing scope for the co-integration of their respective regional integration arrangements. This will open up further possibilities for smaller economies to find their niche in the re-assembled global construct to deliver a more palpable coordinated contribution to international development. Within such a paradigm, an increasingly sizeable “bulge of regional/middle economies” may also be conducive to reducing the power conflicts and inequalities on a global, regional and national levels (again in line with how the rise of the middle class at the national level is typically associated with declining inequality).
In the end, the consolidation of the regional powers of the Global South may result in a transformational change of the global economy, a re-assembly of economic alliances that further shifts the center of gravity into the developing world. The top-down globalization that persisted in the preceding decades is increasingly superseded by a regions-driven paradigm with new pathways to economic integration and international economic diplomacy. The regional powers that are likely to drive the new stage in globalization will form the basis of the BRICS+ platform together with the respective regional blocks and regional partners. And it could well be that this new re-assembled paradigm will prove to be less crisis-prone and more sustainable than the previous “convergence-to-one-model” pattern of globalization.
Author’s note: first published in BRICS+ Analytics