The weeks following an underwhelming Brazil-Russia-India-China-South Africa (BRICS) mid-September summit in Goa and the United States presidential election in November have unveiled ever-widening contradictions.
Thanks to blatant corruption, presidential delegitimation has reached unprecedented levels in both Brazil and South Africa; while ruling-party religious degeneracy in India also included an extraordinary bout of local currency mismanagement; and sudden new foreign-policy divergences may wreak havoc in China and Russia.
The BRICS bloc’s relations could well destabilize to the breaking point.
Even before the next major world recession arrives, probably within two years, the inexorable rise of intra-bloc conflict will be apparent at the September 2017 BRICS summit in Xiamen, China. Most obviously, the Brasilia, Moscow and New Delhi regimes are shifting toward Washington while those in Pretoria and Beijing are spouting well-worn anti-imperialist rhetoric, just as Donald Trump and his unhappy mix of populists, paleo-conservatives, neo-conservatives and neoliberals take power on January 20.
We should have been more concerned about these power relations much earlier. For more than a decade, Washington militarists and their academic allies (like Keir Lieber and Daryl Press) have believed that “the United States now stands on the cusp of nuclear primacy… [having] the ability to disarm the nuclear arsenals of Russia or China with a nuclear first strike.” Such men are further empowered by Trump’s Christmas-time threat to any opponent that he would engage in “an arms race. We will outmatch them at every pass and outlast them all.”
In spite of regular promises to disarm the nukes, outgoing president Barack Obama’s recent recommitment to a new generation of precision-guided mini-warheads will not only cost more than $1-trillion over the next three decades, but also makes their use “more thinkable,” according to one of his top strategists.
And in several other ways Obama’s legacy set the stage for the worst of Trump’s coming policies: economically empowering the top 1% at the expense of the vast majority, continuation of a belligerent foreign policy, promotion of corporate interests across the world, denial of civil liberties especially to refugees and prisoners, and construction of a vast surveillance capacity by Washington’s deep state.
Still, while each of these dangerous elephants trample the grass underfoot, there are a few surviving blades – the subject of a coming essay. Only grassroots initiatives offer encouragement for a bottom-up anti-imperial afterlife following the top-down imperial, inter-imperial and sub-imperial follies of 2017. The main point of the pages ahead, though, is that whether in Washington or BRICS capitals, the wedge may well work but the broader right-wing agenda will fail.
Tensions in Taiwan
To illustrate the insanity ahead, one ‘country’ seems poised to centrally play at least a symbolic role: Taiwan. In late December, Solly Msimanga – the centre-right mayor of South Africa’s capital city, Pretoria, elected just four months earlier – visited Taipei to seek out trade and investment opportunities, following an invitation from his counterpart in Taiwan’s capital.
The prior municipal political establishment became as wild-eyed-angry about this trip as were Chinese elites about the December 2 congratulatory phone call Trump happily took from Taiwan’s president Tsai Ing-Wen. Reflecting an unusual global sensibility, the African National Congress (ANC) branch that had ruled the city for the prior two decades furiously complained that Msimanga’s trip “exposed the conspiracy against BRICS countries… We are without doubt characterizing this trip as treason” (sic).
The national Department of International Relations and Cooperation spokesperson, Clayson Monyela, reiterated that Msimanga “was advised against undertaking this trip. The SA government respects the One China policy.” Actually, Monyela’s unit has its own Taipei Liaison Office which promotes cooperation in biomedicine and auto electronics. Likewise the Taiwanese have Liaison Offices in Pretoria and Cape Town.
Indeed dating to 1996 when Taiwan held its first-ever democratic presidential election, Nelson Mandela had committed to recognize a government which “supported us during the later phase of the struggle… It is not easy for me to be assisted by a country, and once I come to power, say ‘I have no relations with you’. I haven’t got that type of immorality, and I will not do it.” The ‘support’ was merely a bribe: in 1993-94, Taipei officials donated $20-million to the ANC for its election campaign, a U-turn after a long history of the pro-U.S. military regime’s collaboration with apartheid. (Mandela similarly celebrated Indonesian dictator Suharto in 1997, after receiving his taxpayers’ similarly generous donations.)
Always exhibiting his deal-making instincts, Trump had replied to critics, “I don’t know why we have to be bound by a One China policy, unless we make a deal with China having to do with other things, including trade.” (Washington had recognized One China since 1979, as had the UN General Assembly since 1971.)
One reasonable response from Taiwan was a request not to be used as a bargaining chip. Complained a “very annoyed” researcher, June Lin from the Taipei-based Formosan Association for Public Affairs, “Trump tried to be free and easy, but he is very specific about the exchange deal: ‘Who cares? Unless you give me A and B and C, or I won’t give a damn.’”
A Chinese state mouthpiece, the Global Times, threatened that if Trump “openly abandons the One China policy, there will be a real storm. At that point, what need does mainland China have for prioritising peaceful unification with Taiwan over retaking the island by military force?”
War is one scenario but an economic blockade is more likely, given Taiwan’s reliance on China, especially sending world-leading semi-conductors to the desperately dependent West via eastern mainland China’s high-tech assembly facilities. One Beijing official told Reuters, “We can just cut them off economically. No more direct flights, no more trade. Nothing. Taiwan would not last long. There would be no need for war.”
Moreover, if Trump continued to be – as the Global Times put it – “as ignorant of diplomacy as a child,” then China would aid (unspecified) anti-U.S. forces. “This inexperienced president-elect probably has no knowledge of what he’s talking about. He has overestimated the U.S. capability of dominating the world and fails to understand the limitation of U.S. powers in the current era.”
If Trump is merely an ignorant conman, as seems the case, he nevertheless has a potent instinct for divide-and-rule rhetorical flair, confirmed by his support in the U.S. white working class. Trump’s economic localization slogan “Buy American and Hire American” may, in turn, combine with his geopolitical deal-making to become a major wedge between the BRICS. For behind the resurgent inter-imperial sentiments lie vast economic contradictions that now appear beyond the capacity of multilateral capitalist regulation to resolve.
Rightwing or Leftwing Localization?
Beijing will certainly face worsening problems with Trump, given the latter’s propensity to blame trade competition – specifically, subsidised Chinese exports and currency devaluation, as well as alleged Chinese commercial computer hacking – for U.S. deindustrialization. Advised by the notorious Sinophobe economist Peter Navarro, Trump’s answer is a series of localization-oriented policies that will allegedly benefit U.S. manufacturing industry by increasing protection from foreign imports with what may be a 45% tariff on China and 10% on goods from other overseas sources.
Centre-left economist Joseph Stiglitz warns against Trumponomics, in part because of the lack of redistribution that might make such high import tariffs feasible: “Higher interest rates will undercut construction jobs and increase the value of the dollar, leading to larger trade deficits and fewer manufacturing jobs – just the opposite of what Trump promised. Meanwhile, his tax policies will be of limited benefit to middle-class and working families – and will be more than offset by cutbacks in healthcare, education, and social programs.”
A trade war is just as likely an outcome, reminiscent of the protectionist Smoot-Hawley Act of 1930 which is credited with contributing to the Great Depression. Like that period, the major question is in which direction populist sentiments channel working-class politics, rightwards or leftwards. (A coming essay considers the left option.)
Momentum in most sites is enjoyed by right-wing leaders: the U.S. (Trump), Britain (UK Independence Party and Brexit supporters), France (National Front led by Marine le Pen), Germany (Alternative for Germany) and the Netherlands (Party of Freedom led by Geert Wilders), with the latter three holding elections in 2017, along with Italy whose Five Star Movement (led by comedian Beppe Grillo) also has right-populist support.
If this tendency continues to prevail, we can expect the widespread emergence of what is often termed a ‘fascist’ regime: when the populist sentiments of working-class people are revealed as nativist, racist, misogynist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic, anti-Semitic, ablist and anti-ecological, when imperialist and militaristic sentiments are acted upon, and when the socio-cultural agenda of the right is conjoined with corporate power to take control of the state.
In the period 2017-20, the dominant alignment appears to be a combination of far-right socio-cultural politics with mega-corporate interests, at least in the USA. (In Britain, the City of London’s financial-corporate agenda conflicts more explicitly with the far-right’s Brexit strategy.) It became clear immediately after the election that Wall Street’s giddy investors expect military, financial and fossil fuel industry stocks to prosper far more than any others, as the Dow Jones index hit a new record.
Trump promises to lower corporate taxes from 35 to 15% and rapidly inject what might be called ‘dirty Keynesian’ spending on airports and private transport infrastructure, heralding a new boom in U.S. state debt. Along with the Federal Reserve’s rise in interest rates, this in turn will at least initially draw more of the world’s liquid capital back into the U.S. economy, similar to the 2008-09 and post-2013 shifts of funds that debilitated all the BRICS currencies aside from the Chinese yuan.
New Alliances Loom as Several BRICS Continue to Crumble
With Trump’s election and the resulting rearrangement of geopolitical alliances and economic uncertainty, the BRICS will be under increasing pressure on several fronts. One winner may well be the Russian economy, as a result of loosening sanctions and the higher oil prices that will likely result from the December 2016 Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries agreement. At rock bottom in February 2016, the price per barrel had fallen to $27, but by year’s end it was $55, giving some prospect of relief to the Russian economy.
Nevertheless, as the world becomes more geopolitically dynamic and economically dangerous – what with ongoing Chinese overcapacity, unprecedented global corporate debt while profit rates continue falling, worsening stagnation and rising financial meltdown risks emanating from weak European banks such as Germany’s Deutsche as well as several Italian banks – the political coherence of the BRICS bloc is in question.
Trump’s election heralded a period ahead in which the BRICS’ dubious claim to building a counter-hegemonic world politics will falter even faster. Two leaders – Brazil’s Michel Temer and India’s Narendra Modi – have strong ideological affinities as conservative nationalists.
Temer’s government, installed in May, has come under intense pressure because of ongoing popular delegitimation of his constitutional-coup regime, in part from unions which had supported the predecessor Workers Party. Temer’s closest allies (e.g., Renan Calheiros and Eduardo Cunha, who arranged former president Dilma Rousseff’s downfall in the Congress, and six of his cabinet ministers) were repeatedly exposed as far more corrupt than the prior president, thanks in part to plea bargain confessions by 77 officials of the Odebrecht construction companies involved in political bribery.
In December, Temer’s government imposed a new 20-year austerity regime that is certain to generate a coming period of unrest. Temer’s two 2016 trips to Asia – to appear with the G20 and especially with other BRICS leaders at the Goa summit – represent one means of distraction from such troubles.
In India, six weeks before hosting the 2016 summit, Modi suffered a strike of an estimated 180 million workers demanding both higher wages and an end to his neoliberal (austerity-oriented, pro-corporate) economic policies. Although his Hindu nationalism assures a strong base, Modi soon became even more unpopular with the non-sectarian working class and poor (amongst others) due to his chaotic banning of large currency notes (500 and 1000 rupees) that make up 86% of the money in circulation. This left many rural areas virtually without cash and hence without economic activity, and banks were compelled to restrict funds withdrawals to small daily amounts.
Modi also attempted, albeit unsuccessfully, to use the Goa summit for intense (albeit unsuccessful) ‘anti-terrorist’ lobbying. The economic and political links that China and Russia have built with the Pakistani government – as it has progressively delinked from Washington in the wake of the 2011 Osama bin Laden execution – remain more attractive than remaining in India’s favour within the South Asian rivalry.
A third leader, South Africa’s Jacob Zuma, seems to require BRICS anti-imperialist myth-making to shore up his internal legitimation, as part of the ANC’s so-called “talk left, walk right“ tendency. For example, in November 2016 Zuma explained BRICS to party activists in the provincial city of Pietermaritzburg: “It is a small group but very powerful. [The West] did not like BRICS. China is going to be number one economy leader… [Western countries] want to dismantle this BRICS. We have had seven votes of no confidence in South Africa. In Brazil, the president was removed.”
The following week in Parliament, Zuma was asked by an opposition Member of Parliament which countries he meant, and he replied, “I’ve forgotten the names of these countries. How can he think I’m going to remember here? Heh heh heh heh!,” he chuckled.
It is evident that Zuma will continue to use the BRICS as a foil for such defensive sentiments, even though his government’s initial endorsement of the NATO bombing of Libya in 2011 was the most egregious case of the BRICS’ geopolitical role in Africa, against the African Union’s wishes (and to be fair, Pretoria did reverse course and opposed further intervention). Behind the scenes, U.S. journalist Nick Turse has identified the Pentagon’s “war fighting combatant command” in dozens of African states, mainly directing local proxies.
It soon transpired that there was a blunt division of labour at work between Washington and its deputy sheriff in Pretoria. At the conclusion of his 2014 meeting with Obama as part of a U.S.-Africa heads-of-state summit, Zuma identified a chilling conclusion: “There had been a good relationship already between Africa and the U.S. but this summit has reshaped it and has taken it to another level… We secured a buy-in from the U.S. for Africa’s peace and security initiatives… As President Obama said, the boots must be African.”
The theatrical aspects of BRICS will continue, apparently designed in part for the local consumption of constituencies who want to see their leaders standing tall internationally in part because of rising local problems. But the most dynamic and contradictory terrain of BRICS to consider is their role in global geopolitics.
BRICS Play the Global Game
Armed conflicts and extreme tensions certainly affect the BRICS directly and in their immediate regions: Syria, Ukraine, Poland, Pakistan, the Korean Peninsula and the South China Sea. In addition, global power balances are adjusting because of dramatic 2016 shifts of leadership loyalties from West to East in Turkey and the Philippines encouraged by Russia and China, respectively.
Meanwhile, the last two years have witnessed major armed (including civil) conflicts continuing in Syria, Afghanistan, Turkey, Pakistan, Mexico and northern and central Africa. Aside from extremist groups such as the Islamic State, Boko Haram and Al-Shabaab, the main belligerent bloc of states catalysing violence in the world today is centred on Washington.The most dangerous such state network continues to feature Israel, Saudi Arabia and Qatar in the Middle East (the latter two of which split favours in funding both Islamic extremists and the Clinton Foundation). Misery, displacement, refugees and brutal repression are evident, as a result, from Palestine to Syria to Yemen, while the Pentagon and State Department are themselves directly responsible for infinitely destructive chaos in Libya, Afghanistan and Iraq. Vladimir Putin’s decision to defend Syria’s corrupt, dictatorial Bashar al-Assad regime in turn led to extensive war crimes against civilians such as bombing East Aleppo.