We have entered the next stage in the evolution of the multipolar world with the Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa (BRICS)-led economic and political bloc adding some interesting new members to add further strategic weight, undermining the US-led world order.
Through human history, the geopolitical environment has been the story of disruption and multipolar rivalry between great empires and great powers.
By far, the most central characteristic of this history is the utter dominance of a small number of nations, empires or kingdoms over others, which created what is often described as a lopsided approach to the geopolitical concept of polarity, making the world a tricky environment in which to operate, particularly for middle and emerging powers.
The reality of our modern world is no different, this is despite the post-Second World War dominance of the United States over the global leavers of power, institutions, and commons.
Indeed, the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, in particular, established the world as a “multipolar” environment in spite of the widely-held belief that the United States was the undisputed global hegemon, particularly following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990, which required considered and measured diplomacy by all parties involved, particularly the global hegemon.
In recent years, the post-Second World War global order has come under assault both directly and indirectly as emerging powers like China and India, backed by established powers, including a resurgent and increasingly belligerent Russia, are all combining to begin building a parallel network of economic, political, and strategic organisations and arrangements to challenge the post-war global order.
Adding to this seemingly coordinated pushback against the US-led world order, Putin’s Russia and Xi’s China have equally sought to directly subvert and undermine the legitimacy and reputation of the United States and its multilateral international organisations that serve as the foundation of the post-war order.
Leading the charge for this new, increasingly contested multipolar world is Mao and now Xi’s China, seeking to leverage its now immense economic, political, and strategic might to right the wrongs of the past, namely the “century of humiliation” at the hands of colonial empires, with its eyes firmly set on usurping the global status quo.
In contrast for the United States, the incumbent global hegemon, the last three decades of unrivalled dominance and optimism post-Cold War have equally seen a hollowing out of the once-unrivalled US economic and industrial base, also disastrous forays in military adventurism in the Middle East and Central Asia, all the while the world’s emerging powers rapidly develop their own immense economies and strategic capabilities to reshape the world in their image.
Spearheaded by the Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa (BRICS) multilateral organisation, an economic, political and burgeoning strategic bloc giving rise to an increasingly disrupted and contested global environment that will directly impact global economic, political, and strategic security and for nations like Australia, which now finds itself at the epicentre of global competition and disruption, our prosperity, security, and stability in a new, multipolar world.
Enter a new power player
The strength of the post-Second World War order was double edged, in that the individual constituent states of the new order were industrialised, developed powers with varying degrees of regional and global influence, coupled with an aggregated economic, political, and strategic weight ensured the enduring success of this new world order.
Following the successful model established by the US-led world order, Russia and China, long seen as the driving force behind the success of BRICS, are seeking to build a parallel system to counter the primacy of the “international rules-based order”.
Leveraging the mounting individual economic weight of the individual BRICS members, driven in large part by the titanic economic potential and wealth of both China and India, the BRICS organisation is rapidly building economic mass capable of competing with, and in some cases, overmatching the individual components of the US-led world order.
Adding further momentum to this dispersed centre of economic weight, BRICS welcomed Argentina, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Egypt, Ethiopia, and the United Arab Emirates invited to formally join the multilateral organisation as full members from 1 January 2024.
The true weight of this growing organisation becomes further apparent when you account for the existing outstanding applications for membership which include Indonesia, Thailand, Bangladesh, Vietnam, and Kazakhstan, with smaller nations including Algeria, Cuba, Venezuela, Bolivia, Nigeria, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo all eagerly awaiting membership.
According to data gathered from the International Monetary Fund, World Trade Organization, and the Energy Institute’s Statistical Review of World Energy, this new multinational organisation wields truly immense power.
With the analysis revealing that when including the gross domestic product of the new members, the BRICS members making up 30 per cent of the total global GDP, concerningly, with the admission of these new members, the BRICS members represent 43 per cent of the world’s total oil production, giving this group of nations incredible power of the stability and prosperity of both the global economy, but more importantly, the US dollar-based international order.
Detailing this, Andrew Small – a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund – for The Washington Post, stating, “[This year has seen] the most open and explicit push from Xi Jinping to turn the BRICS into a kind of ‘anti-hegemonic’ vehicle.”
Unpacking the long-term ambition and vision of China further, Small adds, “It’s part of the long-term bet China has made. They think relations with the West are going to deteriorate and the future of relations with the world will be rooted in the developing world, so they want to find ways to institutionalise and entrench resilient systems.”
Highlighting this, Danny Bradlow, a professor with the Centre for the Advancement of Scholarship at the University of Pretoria, explained to Al Jazeera, “The grouping now represents a larger share of the world’s population and economy. However, this only means that the group is potentially a powerful voice for reform of the arrangements for global governance and a powerful actor in these arrangements … Whether it actually becomes such a voice will depend on whether the expanded group is more effective than the BRICS have been in forging agreements on how the arrangements for global governance should be reformed and how they can more effectively serve the interests of the whole Global South.”
Massive implications for Australia
The rapid expansion of the BRICS organisation, along with the individual growth of developing nations, particularly in our immediate region, presents significant challenges, yet equal opportunities for Australia in the coming decades.
Perhaps unique among the community of nations, contemporary Australia is far removed from the economic, political, and strategic hardships that characterised the relationships and subsequent policy reactions of most nations for much of recorded history, let alone the disastrous devastation wrought during the 20th century.
Even more recently, Australia effectively managed to avoid much of the economic fallout of the Global Financial Crisis, and to a lesser extent, the economic and societal impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic compared to other comparable nations, yet we haven’t fully escaped the devastating impacts of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) and quantitative easing (QE), fancy ways of rapidly and vastly expanding the monetary supply to rapidly propel inflation.
Yet, now the chickens are coming home to roost, as both Australia and the global economic headwinds and their impact on the world’s two superpowers, the United States and the People’s Republic of China, each having a disproportionate impact on the economic prosperity, stability, and security of the nation at both a micro and macro level, respectively.
This double-edged sword of uncertainty only serves to heighten global and regional concerns over long-term economic and strategic security, as any significant diminishment in the US economy would only serve to hasten the collapse of the post-Second World War, US dollar-dominated economic and strategic order (watch out Taiwan), undermining the global guarantees of peace, prosperity, and security that have reigned supreme since 1945.
Furthermore, any significant decline in the economic stability, prosperity, and opportunity in China would only serve to embolden Xi Jinping and his regime to make potentially disastrous geostrategic moves as a means of distracting the domestic populace from the very real and concerning structural economic realities at home.
For Australia, either or both of these outcomes would spell disaster for the Australian economy, our standard of living and quality of life as resource revenues plummet, our major strategic benefactor is humbled both militarily and economically, while our major trading partner is hobbled, all combining for one of two disastrous outcomes: a true recession or a devastating global conflict.
In this era of renewed competition between autarchy and democracy, this is a conversation that needs to be had in the open with the Australian people, as ultimately, they will be called upon to help implement it, to consent to the direction, and to defend it should diplomacy fail.
Dr Ross Babbage of the Centre for Strategic Budgetary Assessments told Defence Connect, “I think what we’ve got to show what’s the vision for Australia, you know, what can we achieve and what you know if we go on the trajectory we are on at the moment. I’ll tell you what, you know, a lot of people, a lot more people in a decade’s time are likely to be either in really dumb jobs or maybe not have jobs at all, and in the society be a lot weaker and will be a lot less prosperous.
“So what we want to say is, look, there’s plenty of scope for doing more and smarter things, encouraging investment to do that, and then there will be some very, very interesting additional jobs and opportunities, a lot of high tech, and so on, I can tell you that, you know, talking to foreign investors, they’re quite keen on principle to work here, and do a lot more here and provide a lot more good jobs for Australians,” he explained.
This requires a greater degree of transparency and a culture of collaboration between the nation’s strategic policymakers and elected officials and the constituents they represent and serve – equally, this approach will need to entice the Australian public to once again invest in and believe in the future direction of the nation.