This Issue Brief considers Chinese involvement in the BRICS Economic Forum within the context of the Great Rejuvenation of the Chinese Nation and Chinese international ambitions of global leadership. This piece analyses bilateral ties between China and each BRICS member state in order to assess the viability of BRICS as a united force for geopolitical change. It finds that China’s current relations with Brazil and South Africa could be very fruitful, while India’s geopolitical ambition and US allyship could pose an obstacle to BRICS unity. It also notes that Russia has displayed commitment towards friendly relations with China, but its recent international pariah status makes collaboration with the country a risky gamble for China’s global legitimacy.

At the 15th BRICS Summit in August of this year, leaders and representatives of Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa met in Johannesburg, and buzz surrounding the group exploded once again into mainstream Western news outlets, many of them touting the organization as a signal of nascent multilateralism and a challenge to the Western-oriented global balance of power. This interpretation falls notably in line with the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) ideological goal of zhongguo meng, the Chinese Dream, or, as it has also been put, the Great Rejuvenation of the Chinese Nation. While a notably vague and diversely interpreted idea—best considered in the same vein as the American Dream—it mostly refers to the downfall of China during the Century of Humiliation and a present rejuvenation, in which China can retake its rightful place in world order, out from the subjugation to the West that marked China’s experience throughout much of the last two centuries. In a speech made in October of 2013, Xi Jinping described the foreign policy aspect of the dream as fenfa youwei”, which translates to “proactive” or “striving for achievement”, in the diplomatic affairs of the world. China, in light of a shifting global balance of power from West to East, seeks to assume a more active role in international politics and promote multilateral reforms in a way that undermines the past “unipolar moment” of the Post-Cold War Era, an endeavour that will inevitably require an expansion of its international influence. The PRC’s proposed means of accomplishing this are rosy in their diction, as Chinese diplomatic strategy is said in official communiques to be centred around mutual prosperity and respect as the means of expanding influence. However, not all interpretations are as flattering, with a 2021 Pentagon report on China describing the Rejuvenation as a strategy “to match or surpass U.S. global influence and power, displace U.S. alliances and security partnerships in the Indo-Pacific region, and revise the international order to be more advantageous to Beijing’s authoritarian system and national interests.” The moral quality of the Dream is hotly debated, but, for the purposes of this piece, all that needs to be said of it is that it includes a prominent focus on increasing the global influence of China and a revision of a currently Western-oriented international balance of power.

As such, Chinese presence in BRICS, an organization made up of traditionally developing countries on the peripheries of Western influence, could be viewed as a part of this global endeavour: another attempt to elevate China’s international political participation and leadership as well as challenge the pre-existent system of global governance. The use of economic investment and international finance to extend influence is hardly new in Chinese foreign policy—one can look at China leveraging FDI in Sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America to pressure states into following the One China Policy to see this. At the 15th Summit, Xi Jinping stated that he “is willing to work together with BRICS partners to make the GSI (Global Security Initiative) translate into concrete actions and tangible results”, implying an effort to use BRICS, a fundamentally economic forum, to expand political influence and achieve Chinese interests. BRICS is, however, a multilateral institution, and as such its ability to enact policy and become a relevant actor on the world stage—potentially allowing China to fulfil its wishes of multilateralism and international prominence—is constrained by the willingness of each member state. In this context, this piece examines the bilateral relations between China and each BRICS state as they currently exist to determine the extent of willingness for cooperation within BRICS and thus the potential of the organization for contributing to China’s dream of furthering its global standing. 

Brazil: A Rising Ally

Brazil’s current situation shows notable potential for Chinese cooperation in BRICS affairs. Despite its status as a developing nation, Brazil has transitioned over recent decades from a protectionist and inwardly focused international agenda to a more vocal advocate in multilateral forums. Brazil has also held 10 Security Council terms and, of the 71 peacekeeping operations taken by the UN, Brazil participated in 46 of them. In such multilateral endeavours, their pushes for reform are largely accordant with China’s own international priorities, focusing on multilateralism, the increased representation of the developing world, and non-intervention. The re-election of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva over Jair Bolsonaro in 2022 also stands to greatly facilitate cooperation between the nations, seeing the executive policy of the nation shift from a Western-leaning Bolsonaro, a vocal supporter and imitator of Donald Trump who campaigned on a return to Western Judeo-Christian values, towards Lula’s more multilateral and leftist stance. As opposed to his predecessor, Lula is much less friendly towards the West, saying, in the context of the Western reaction to the War in Ukraine, “The United States needs to stop encouraging war and start talking about peace; and the European Union needs to start talking about peace.” Regarding the war, Brazil has taken a similarly neutral stance as China. While the initial views of politicians gave conflicting accounts of Brazil’s position—former Vice President Hamilton Manuaro stated that Brazil respects Ukraine’s territorial sovereignty and thus opposes the invasion while Bolsonaro advocated for neutrality—Brazil’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has settled to a stance of “balance, not neutrality” that echoes the ambiguity of China’s own hesitant position. Additionally, Lula’s political faction, the Brazil’s Worker’s Party (BWP), bears significant ideological similarity to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in domestic and international affairs, and a centre-left coalition in the National Congress will likely allow the BWP’s goals to become more salient in the Brazilian government.  It should be noted, however, that Brazil remains a highly politically divided country, and Bolsonaro’s supporters still make up a notable portion of Brazil’s government and electorate. In a recent poll from Datafolla, 29 per cent of those interviewed declared themselves to be supporters of Lula while 25 per cent claimed to support Bolsonaro, signalling a fragility of Lula’s current coalition government and the potential for Brazil to return to conservative, pro-Western foreign policy in the future. One needs only to look at the chaotic January 8th Congress Attacks to see that dissent for Lula is latent but still a present force in Brazilian politics.  

While Lula remains friendly with China, his administration has expressed concern over excessive economic ties with the country. In August of this year, Lula spoke out about an apparent excess of foreign goods entering the country, voicing his concerns of “deindustrialization” and the weakening of Brazilian manufacturing due to an influx of cheap foreign goods. While this has the potential to foster hesitation regarding increased economic ties between the countries, China could ease concerns by engaging in foreign direct investment into Brazilian capital, such as the 20B USD fund established in 2015 to invest in production capacity cooperation. For the most part, Lula has made it clear that he wants to lean on Chinese investment to spur his country’s ailing industrial sector, especially as several US companies have abandoned their endeavours in the country. In summary, Brazil is both an increasingly present force in global affairs and one that stands to be very accepting of Chinese policy and influence, making the cooperation between the two countries through BRICS a highly probable reality. 

Russia: A Willing Pariah

Since the fall of the USSR and the “Unipolar Moment” of the post-Cold War era, China and Russia have often been grouped together due to their mutual distaste for the Western-dominated liberal order, with both advocating for a more multipolar world and a redistribution of power on the international stage. The two have maintained a strategic partnership that, in the last few decades, has seen their affinity grow in a polarizing world. In light of the War in Ukraine, China seems to be committing to its pre-existent strategic partnership with Russia: a joint statement from the two states drafted in February of 2022 stated that both nations opposed “further enlargements” of NATO—though not explicitly mentioning Ukraine—and said that there were “no limits” to the two countries’ further cooperation. The war has also soured relationships with China’s Western counterparts: when the conflict first broke out, China’s Assistant Foreign Minister accused the US of “fuelling the flame” of the conflict, and China’s peace plan has been emphatically rejected by the West, disheartening Chinese hopes of working through the liberal international order, thus pushing the nation closer to Russia. The war has also seen their relationship deepen economically, with China now accounting for 80 per cent of Russian oil imports and an increased Russian reliance on Chinese consumer goods and banking services. The February Joint Statement even stipulates that Russia will join the One Belt One Road Initiative, reversing its previous policy of reluctance to join the massive infrastructure project and signalling increased economic ties to come.

However, China has also been careful to keep some distance from Russia. Beijing’s proposed peace plan, for instance, advocates respect for both Moscow’s “legitimate security demands” and Ukraine’s “sovereignty and territorial demands”. During the UN General Assembly vote on the condemnation of Russia’s military action, China abstained instead of voting against the resolution with Russia. China additionally seems to have largely complied with Western sanctions and refused to sell weapons or high-tech material to Russia, in keeping with an attempted diplomatic stance of neutrality. It seems that, although China recognizes that Russia is a useful ally in geopolitics, they still keep their western neighbour at a healthy distance.

Russia’s newly worsened status as a rogue state also create problems within BRICS. It is, as Tilak Doshi of Forbes points out, unusual for an international conference of nation heads of state to include a leader with an arrest warrant from the International Criminal Court. If China leans heavily on BRICS in the future, it will inevitably come with the implicit support of Russia. Given the global unpopularity of the War in Ukraine evidenced by the near-unanimous UN General Assembly condemnation of the conflict, such support could be interpreted as a contradiction of the claimed benevolence of China’s rise to prominence. 

India: Kautilya’s Mandala Revisited

In the endeavour to utilize BRICS towards advancing Chinese interests, India will be the thorn in the side of the Chinese Dream. The two nations have long struggled with a tense relationship, one that, in recent years, seems to be headed from hesitant caution towards open apprehension. Since the Chinese shift towards more ambitious global goals in 2008, New Delhi has increasingly looked at Chinese influence in the region as a threat to their own national interests. China has sought to establish influence and a regional community of cooperation in Asia, which, unfortunately, coincides almost exactly with Prime Minister Modi’s “Neighbourhood First” policy, creating a competition for hegemony and trade advantages in the region. This parallel in policy has not been received well in either country and has caused the two to view each other as rivals, with China seeing India’s nationalism as a precursor to aggression while India views Chinese influence as an imperialistic threat. The worsening inferiority of India’s military compared to China’s, especially in the context of ongoing territorial disputes and military buildup in the Himalayan region, also serves to increase Indian apprehension towards China.

Another notable tension-causing factor for the two states is how they have changed their diplomatic stances with the United States and Pakistan. Previously, the US kept a fraught relationship with India in large part due to its policy of treating India and Pakistan on equal diplomatic footing, a decision motivated by the latter’s vital role in stabilizing post-Soviet Afghanistan. India’s refusal to accord with the Non-Nuclear Proliferation Treaty and purchase of Russian weapons for its military also drove a wedge between the two. However, this situation has changed in the last few years: with the US withdraw from Afghanistan, the need for Pakistani cooperation has diminished, and a US-India relationship has been allowed to flourish.  With China’s rise to global prominence, the US has demonstrated an increased willingness towards enhanced ties in the Asia-Pacific region, per Obama’s “Rebalance” strategy, as well as the commitment of the Trump and Biden administrations in strengthening the Quad against Chinese assertive action in the region. In light of the recent G20 Summit in India, the improvement in Indo-American ties can be seen through the subsequent Joint Statement from India and the United States, in which both nations formally expressed support for the Quad, India’s permanent UNSC membership (which China has continually denied due to India’s non-signatory status of the NPT), and a strengthening of the India-US Major Defence Partnership through strategic collaboration. With ongoing tension between the US and China, this development seemingly puts India on the American side of this global power struggle.

The US withdrawal from Afghanistan also saw China place increased emphasis on its relationship with Pakistan, largely due to its interest in stabilizing the region in order to quell potential Islamist insurgency in its Xinjiang region. China has engaged in significant efforts to cement a positive relationship with Pakistan through initiatives like the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor and its role in facilitating negotiations between Pakistan and the Taliban. This increase has been met with harsh criticism from Indian officials, who view these actions as an expansion of Beijing’s influence into India’s area of interest.

For these reasons, India and China currently stand at geopolitical odds with each other. If BRICS is to work towards China’s goals, this worsening rivalry between the two states will serve as a constraint and an obstacle for the organization’s achievements. 

South Africa: An Economic Dependant

South Africa, like Brazil, shows notable signs of willingness to support Chinese foreign policy. The two nations already have substantial commercial ties, with Chinese firms like Huawei, Hisense, and CRRC Dalian as well as several Chinese state-owned banks having established extensive facilities in the nation, causing China to emerge as South Africa’s biggest trade partner while South Africa serves as China’s top investment hub in Africa. These economic ties are matched by South Africa’s accordant foreign policy. China and South Africa are both united in their self-perceived roles as vanguards of the global south, seeking to reorient international political and economic capital towards the developing world. The election of the Zuma administration in particular saw a foreign policy paradigm shift from North to South, with increased emphasis placed on BRICS and Chinese cooperation. It should be noted, however, that this shift came with some severe criticism toward Zuma regarding issues such as the visa denial to the Dalai Lama and South African support of Zimbabwe, and the current Ramaphosa administration has demonstrated a desire to break away from what it sees as a foreign policy that has diminished the country’s reputation. Nonetheless, the administration still prioritizes multilateralism as a means of reestablishing reputation, meaning that BRICS involvement and support is still very much prioritized by the South African government. Accordingly, South African Ambassador to China Siyabong Cyprian Cwele has praised the CCP for its “strong leadership” and ability to “put the people’s needs first.” He described BRICS as an institution built with the purpose of “pushing for inclusiveness, reform of global governance and financial institutions, fairer multilateral systems and strengthening multilateral governance under the UN system” in an interview with  the Global Times, clearly signalling an accordance with Chinese ambitions of shifting the global power balance. His predecessor, Ambassador Msingmang, also endorsed Xi Jinping’s efforts to build an international community with a focus on multipolarity as an endeavour that “promises us a bright future.”

South Africa’s international ambitions are, however, tempered by its economic distress and subsequent international economic dependency. Since the nation depends heavily on international capital, it is largely incapable of achieving significant substantive hegemonic status over its neighbours, meaning that South African allyship has limited potential in influencing geopolitics. Economic dependence and sensitivity are exacerbated by the country’s current economic crisis: modern South Africa faces an unemployment rate of 32.6 per cent in the second quarter of 2023 and a disappointing expected economic growth rate of 0.5 per cent this year. With an ongoing energy crisis caused by the ineptitude of its state-owned energy infrastructure, South Africa is a state that quite literally cannot keep the lights on, and with economic downturn worsened by a passive financial sector, the country has become increasingly dependent on an influx of  Chinese foreign investment. While this likely makes South Africa a weak international actor, it also means that the Sino-South African relations are likely not subject to the same conflict of ambition that currently plagues the Sino-Indian relationship. 


As shown by this brief, several Sino-BRICS bilateral ties are quite strong, with Brazil and South Africa currently posing to be ready allies to several of China’s foreign policy ambitions. However, the increasingly opposed geopolitical stances between India and China could prevent the organization from working as a single bloc, while Russia’s worsened status as a global pariah may create hesitancy from the CCP to lean heavily on the organization. In short, while BRICS framework could help to solidify Chinese interests in some member states and is itself a sign of China’s willingness to reach out to the global south, its internal divisions mean that the group is far from acting as a unified force in geopolitics.  


Kian Donovan is an American Undergraduate Student at King’s College London. He is currently in the War Studies BA Program while studying Mandarin Chinese. His research focuses on East Asian international politics and security.

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