For much of the past decade, the seemingly inexorable growth of the BRICs led many experts to argue that the post-American world was at hand. This was always an exaggeration, but the narrative stuck. Today, the BRICs have stalled or gone into reverse while America is enjoying a period of renewed good fortune.
Yet you wouldn’t guess this from recent news. This past March, America’s closest ally handed a diplomatic victory to China. At the urging of Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne, Britain broke from an EU consensus, and from its understandings with Washington, to accept a Chinese invitation to join the Shanghai-based Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. Within days several other European countries signaled their intent to join, and the U.S. strategy to constrain China’s institutional moves collapsed. Neither the Transatlantic fracas nor the impact on the global financial system were decisive or even profound, but in the diplomatic game of weakening the hold of the West on the international architecture it was China’s most important victory to date.
There was irony in the timing, however. For while the move boosted the narrative of China’s growing geopolitical clout, it came as China faces a litany of bad economic news. And Beijing is not alone in this: Moscow and Brasilia are also reeling from economic and political woes as well. After two decades of explosive economic growth and nearly a decade of rising geopolitical clout, the BRICs bubble is beginning to burst.
Turn the clock back 15 years, and it is easy to see why the international financial community became transfixed by the BRICs’ potential. Between Brazil, India and China, more than two billion people were living at low to low-middle income levels, and all three capitals had been taking the necessary policy steps to unleash their growth potential. And grow they did—massively.
Russia grew rapidly too. It was always a bizarre conceptual error to lump Russia in with the other three countries, but it is true that roughly between 1999 and 2009 Russia grew rapidly. This should never have been thought of as dynamic growth, however; this was an oil-driven recovery from the near-total collapse of the country’s economy at the end of the Soviet era, a 90 percent contraction. Still, Russia rode the global growth wave and the commodity super-cycle to recover from that nadir.
All of this fueled a bubble of expectations about the BRICs’ capacity to reshape the international order. We were entering a “post-American world”, and the “rise of the rest” was set to reshape the international order. The West’s role was waning, and America was in decline, in retreat, or both.
This was a reaction to a prior, exaggerated narrative of American dominance. The post-9/11 period witnessed the odd phenomenon of American pundits loudly asserting the dominance of American power even as the BRICs’ growth spurt was gaining momentum. Now, the reverse is true. The concept of a “multipolar” world is dominant, and even countries like the UK are making calculations on the basis of assumptions about the sustainability of Chinese growth. Yet the reality is that the BRICS may already have experienced the high-water mark of their collective influence.
Financial trouble has been brewing for a while. In 2013, George Magnus of UBS described the countries as “hitting a BRIC wall.” He pointed to a phenomenon that academics had warned might take hold, namely the “middle income trap.” The growth period hadn’t ended, but the stratospheric growth that had fueled the BRICs boosters’ narrative was ending, and normal or lower-than-normal rates were taking hold. What’s more, tough reforms would be needed to sustain even the new low growth levels.
For some members of the BRICs, things are even worse than this analysis suggests.
Take Brazil. In 2000, it grew by more than 4 percent. In 2008, 5 percent. In 2013, just 2.5 percent. The IMF forecasts that this year Brazil’s GDP will grow by just 0.3 percent. There is a litany of worrying statistics beyond these. Last month, inflation was at a 12-year high, causing the central bank to raise its interest rates to a six-year high of 12.75 percent. This month, the Brazilian real hit an 11-year low. And in the past year, industrial production fell 5.2 percent. There have been important successes: the middle class has grown, giving more people access to better standards of living and a stronger political voice. But extreme poverty is also rising. Moreover, political reforms have not kept pace with the demands of the new middle classes. Corruption still runs rampant, as exemplified by petroleum giant Petrobas. President Dilma Rousseff’s approval ratings have nearly halved since she barely won reelection in October. March 2015 brought the largest political demonstrations in the country’s history as a democracy.
In Russia, the picture is bleaker. Russia was included in the BRICs initially due to its recovery from the post-Soviet nadir, but its economy really doesn’t match the others’ in potential. In 2013, Russia had recovered to hold just over 2.5 percent of the world’s GDP—close to the same figure it had in 1990. And now its economic prospects are as bad as they’ve ever been. The low price of oil is a disaster for Russia. Oil revenues make up 45 percent of Russia’s national budget; it loses about $2 billion in revenue for every dollar the price of oil falls. In December, the World Bank’s updated economic outlook for Russia predicted a 0.7 percent GDP contraction in 2015—based on an average oil price of $78 per barrel, higher than current levels. At $70 per barrel, the World Bank predicts a 1.5 percent contraction in 2015. Meanwhile, Russian economists have predicted that GDP will shrink as much as 4.7 percent in 2015 if the price remains below $60 per barrel. All of this combined with the biting sanctions slapped on the country for its annexation of Crimea. Signaling that these facts are not lost on Russia, its central bank in December announced one of the largest hikes in interest rates on record, from 10.5 percent to 17 percent. The rubble has been punished by the combination of sanctions and the oil price drop. Russia has substantial reserves, but it is spending through them at a fierce rate.
For China, the situation is nowhere near as bad, but China nevertheless faces growing economic—and perhaps political—headwinds. As Chinese growth rates have slowed to 6-7 percent, many in the West have joked that their countries would kill for such “bad” growth rates. But going from growth in the high teens or low twenties to growth in the single digits represents a genuine slowdown. Moreover this slowdown has occurred while China has being actively pumping debt into its economy. At present, the ratio of total Chinese debt to GDP is above 250 percent—a totally unsustainable level. China has the reserves to weather that, but the risks of economic contraction or financial crisis are growing. When a country is pumping debt into its economy and its growth rates are slowing, there is trouble ahead.
India is the exception. To be sure, it has many challenges: about 300 million are mired in acute poverty and have limited or no access to electricity; corruption and poor infrastructure continue to exact a heavy toll. But India also has great potential. Its free-market economy is diverse, leading to a more sustainable growth than can be had by China, with its state-driven companies. India’s workforce has high intellectual, technical, and engineering skills—and whole swaths of the population are as yet untouched by potentially transformative education. Furthermore the economy has been growing well despite weak governance and poor infrastructure. If the Modi government can improve both of these pieces, India could experience a sustained growth run.
Now, as most of the BRICs face new challenges and much slower growth, is the time we ought to ask ourselves whether these powers pose a greater problem as a result of rising, or falling.
It would be inaccurate to suggest that the mounting tensions between the West and Moscow are a function of Russia’s economic downturn. The political and economic clash between the West and Russia over Ukraine happened well before the collapse of oil prices, and it was Russia’s decision to annex Crimea that generated sanctions. Perhaps Putin or his historians will look back and ponder his timing. Turning up the volume on an expansionist nationalism and weakening Russia’s ties to the global economy, just as the commodities super-cycle was winding down and the air was coming out of energy prices, might prove in the end to be catastrophic to the core of Russia’s economy. But either way, it’s too late to walk back that decision.
There’s every reason to believe that an economically contracting Russia will be dangerous. With the collapse of his Eurasian Union project, to which Ukraine was key, Putin is left with few choices to reverse his economic plight. Aggressive nationalism appears to be sustaining his political standing and may be the only card he can play if the middle classes start to feel the pinch of a recession. However, if oil prices stay low and the West maintains sanctions pressure, Russia’s capacity to pursue aggressive strategies will deteriorate. Already Russia appears to be straining to keep up its operations in Ukraine—and these constitute a modest operation conducted just across its border. If Russia’s economy doesn’t rebound, its ability to mount even more challenging operations will be increasingly constrained.
Brazil poses no such threat, but its economic downturn and political troubles are a net negative both for the region and the international system. As a growing, democratic power, it has been an anchor for stability in a region that now faces mounting social and economic factors in the wake of the democratic and market experiments of the 1990s, which are beginning to run out of steam. Internationally, Brazil is still torn between an interest in developing a more mature foreign policy and its older instincts for reflexive anti-Americanism. It’s hard to see how a sustained economic contraction would empower the more engaged forces in the Brazilian elite. Brazil has enormous potential, domestically and internationally, but for the next period of time Brazil may turn inwards and struggle to maintain its more positive international engagement.
The big question of course is China. If China’s slowdown is sustained, as many economists predict, what will that do to Chinese attitudes? Of course, China, like the other powers, is far from monolithic. It’s also divided between those who seek a more assertive posture and a more direct challenge to the West, and those who seek to maintain a calm international environment in order to enable continued economic reforms. What will a slowdown do to that debate?
It’s not obvious that a slowdown will lead to increased nationalism and militarism. After all, the relaxing of tensions between China and Japan in the East China Sea happened in late 2014 and early 2015 precisely as Chinese economic indicators were beginning to flash yellow, and there’s some evidence to suggest that the two are related. Xi Jinping badly wants a Bilateral Investment Treaty with the United States and appears to have read the Obama Administration’s signal that that’s not going to happen while China is harassing one of America’s closest allies. (Of course China has continued its aggressive program of establishing “facts on the sea” in the contested waters off its southern coast.)
Things would get complicated if, as some observers suggest, the present economic difficulties translate into serious trouble for Communist Party rule. In that case, a Putin-like temptation to stoke nationalist sentiment could trump the logic of a sustained focus on economic development. But this scenario is still an outlier.
There are other things to think about. A slowing Chinese economy will play itself into a slower global economy. The U.S. economy will take a hit, though not a deep one—at least not unless there’s a deep financial crisis in the Chinese economy.
Overall, there’s little doubt that the slowing of the BRICs provides a moment of opportunity for the U.S. Indeed, the biggest effect of the bursting of the BRICs bubble may be in terms of perceptions. In the wake of the crumbling narrative of American decline and the inexorable rise of the rest, a more realistic picture of the remaining balance of power may gain in popularity. Strategically, as countries begin to understand that the U.S. is a growing power and to appreciate that China’s growth model has lost some of its luster, the U.S. may regain some of the diplomatic ground it lost during the period of alleged American decline. As U.S. economic growth returns and as awareness of the impact of its energy revolution takes hold, the contrast between American dynamism and the slowing of the BRICs may begin to reshape the international debate.
If so, we can put to rest some unhelpful ideas and turn our attention back to the world as it really is. Narratives of American decline are always exaggerated; the BRICs’ ascent is no sure thing; and, while they are united in some respects, they are also divided in many others. Time to dispense with unhelpful “BRICs vs. the West” narratives.
What we cannot dispense with is China. Even a slowing and troubled China will play a major role in the global economy and the strategic landscape. The global balance may not be shifting as fast as has been assumed: India is (probably) a rising power and is (probably) tilting West, and the U.S. remains far more powerful than the others, has better allies, and lives in a better neighborhood. But none of that means the U.S. won’t be troubled by China in Asia, or Russia in its own neighborhood.
The BRICs bubble is bursting. It’s time to move past the old mythos and focus on the strategic realities that confront us.