After a long romance with the G-77 and being courted by the United States, China has decided its new best friends forever are going to be Brazil, Russia, South Africa and India. Presidents Hu, Medvedev and Zuma, along with Prime Minister Singh, are busy meeting first in one capital city and then the next to try to forge common positions on a number of critical global challenges. The BASIC (Brazil, South Africa, India, China) countries are working on climate change, the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, China) countries on global financial issues, and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (Russia, China, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan) on regional security concerns. (China, interestingly, is the only country common to all. )
The countries are tackling the tough issues of the day, including reforming the global financial system, sanctioning Iran, and combating climate change. Some of their instincts are good, such as discussing how to transfer climate change-related technologies to Africa within the BASIC grouping. But other initiatives seem dedicated only to limiting these countries’ broader responsibilities to the global community, such as rejecting tough sanctions on Iran in favor of maintaining their strong trade and investment ties (the BRIC countries).
It is still early to worry that these largely informal alliances will demonstrate real resilience or prove more than talk-fests and photo-ops for the respective leaders. These countries possess radically different political systems and in some cases have long-standing rivalries and mistrust between them. Moreover, their interests on some core issues diverge dramatically: Brazil and India, for example, are now complaining publicly about China’s currency policy.
Nonetheless, for the United States, particularly in its relations with China, these informal alliance structures are likely to be increasingly problematic. We have finally discovered how to push China along the spectrum of greater global responsibility by bringing other allies to bear on an issue (think Copenhagen, where the developing countries fractured and argued for China to do more). If China can seek cover with other large emerging powers, it will be far more difficult for the rest of the world to exert leverage on such critical issues as sanctions against Iran. Maybe the good news is that in the world of geopolitics, China will just be one of the gang, and the rest of the large political economies will finally get their time in the sun. A little competition never hurt anyone.