Written by Li Xing.
The BRICS phenomenon in which the rise of emerging powers is coupled with a global financial crisis has caught global attention. Research and academic communities are writing widely that the world order is experiencing a rebalancing of power and reordering. After almost a decade since the birth of the “BRICS” acronym, what is the situation today? The situation in Brazil is particularly discouraging. The Brazilian economy is heavily reliant on commodity exports, and it went into recession. South Africa is in a similar situation. The Russian economy has for many years pulled back and suffered from collapsing oil prices; the Ukraine crisis turned Russia-West relations back to the Cold War era. Due to a devaluation in currency and western sanctions restricting its trade, Russia is experiencing its worst recession in six years. India’s economic growth is far from robust, and the country has a relatively high level of unemployment, as well as suffering from comprehensive poverty and backward infrastructure.
Despite the fact that China also experienced its slowest pace of economic growth (6-7 percent) in recent years, the country is the world’s second largest economy, and it is becoming the biggest stabiliser of the BRICS’ existence. China is seemingly dominating all the new institutions in which the BRICS interest is claimed to be presented. But, the Chinese state-led and investment-driven growth model also intensified economic imbalance and wasteful spending. In addition, since 2006 many of China’s production sectors have been facing the problem of overcapacity, and Beijing’s ‘One Belt One Road Initiative’ aims precisely to transfer overproduction and overcapacity to new markets in neighbouring countries and regions.
Most emerging powers in general and China in particular have followed a very opportunist foreign policy in order to find a balance between defending their “national interest” and resisting the hegemons of the existing order.
The world is witnessing neither the repeat of history manifested by the world wars (apart from some signs of great power rivalry) between the rising and the existing powers nor the harmonious integration and accommodation of the late-comers into the established system. So, a different but interesting question is: what is the nature of the relationship between the BRICS/emerging powers and the existing world order? To rephrase: Is the nexus between the US-led/Western-dominated existing world order and the emerging world reorder brought about by the rise of the BRICS/emerging powers more intertwined than conflictual?
From “Hegemony” to “Interdependent Hegemony”
Since the global financial crisis in 2008 with the decline of the hegemonic dominance of the US-led world order, the rise of the emerging powers has successfully penetrated into some power areas in terms of economic competition, capital accumulation, political and economic influence as well as technical and material capacities. China in particular is performing outstandingly in terms of its global share of high-tech manufacturing commodities, financial competitiveness as well as international aid and overseas investment. It is argued that the world order is entering into an era of interdependent hegemony, implying that the sources to feed and maintain the areas of structural power and monopoly are no longer dominated exclusively by the US/West, and to a large extent they are dependent on the inputs from emerging powers.
Notwithstanding that the concept of “hegemony” is an important tool for understanding and analysing politics and international relations, “interdependent hegemony” is a better concept in describing, understanding and analysing the world order in transformation. The concept of “interdependent hegemony” implies a dialectic process of mutual challenge, mutual constraint, mutual need, and mutual accommodation. It symbolises a dynamic situation in which the existing system’s defenders and the new emerging powers are intertwined in a constant interactive process of shaping and reshaping the world order, whereby nation states, global governance, transnational actors, civil societies and interest groups are incorporated into the dominant project of transnational capitalism.
First of all, “interdependent hegemony” is understood as a primarily interactive and dynamic relationship between emerging powers and the existing constellation of the international order: emerging powers were invited to join in the integration and globalisation processes by the established powers, while their economic success is a challenge to the existing order. Such an unintended consequence is well observed by Chris Patten, the last British Governor of Hong Kong, who described the rise of China as “the first example of a country which has done astonishingly well in this international system, but challenges its basic foundations”. China’s success is achieved from its integration in the international system, while at the same time it contradicts or challenges some of the order’s basic norms — two sides of the same coin.
Secondly, interdependent hegemony also explains the fact that globalisation and global capitalism is entering into a stage of “varieties of capitalism” in which “capitalist classes” are not the only private economic actors but states are actors as well – such as Chinese state-owned enterprises. The effective integration of state interests and capital accumulation is helping some emerging powers, particularly China, to win a “war of position” by redefining the systems of alliances and reshaping the terrain and parameters of global social, economic, and political relations.
Thirdly, interdependent hegemony is leading the world into a post-hegemony era in which there will be no hegemonic norms and values defined by one single country (the US) or by a core cultural civilization (the West). China’s economic success and the “Chinese model” demonstrate that there are multiple factors and explanations regarding the mechanisms that cause nations to grow, the set of mutually dependent relationships between property rights and economic growth, between the rule of law and a market economy, between a free currency flow and economic order, and, most importantly, and between democracy and development. These norms and values should not be defined by the existing powers alone, and they are becoming “interdependent” – open, less rigid, and non-universal.
Fourthly, interdependent hegemony depicts new anti-hegemonic alliances among emerging powers, but these alliances are issue-based rather than norm-based. They will not be turned into a new alternative hegemony, but will constitute a counterbalance, so as to enhance multilateralism or avoid unilateral hegemony. Most emerging powers in general and China in particular have followed a very opportunist foreign policy in order to find a balance between defending their “national interest” and resisting the hegemons of the existing order. Beijing has no specific unified global strategy grounded on norms and principles; rather, it has different tactics and policy approaches to different global political, economic, and security problems on a case-by-case basis.
Fifthly, interdependent hegemony can offer emerging powers a good opportunity to develop a collective “positioning” strategy and “balancing” tactics. However, interdependent hegemony also illustrates the fact that emerging powers are not yet able to form an independent “historical bloc” and to substitute for an organic and homogenous hegemony. This is because emerging powers have different relationships with the existing powers and have different global influence. Some emerging powers, like China and India, still have unresolved political and historical problems among themselves.
Sixthly, interdependent hegemony implies a new type of hegemony grounded in the enlargement of “room for manoeuvre” and the increase of “upward mobility” of emerging powers to counterbalance the power of the US (and the EU), while at the same time, creating interdependence in the global order. The economic and political relationship between the established and emerging powers does not demonstrate a repetition of the traditional North-South dependent affiliation, rather, it exhibits an interdependent/intertwined relationship between them.
In closing, it is therefore necessary to adopt a dialectic approach to understanding the current world system in which patterns of relationship among states are shaped by the historical evolution of the hegemonic structure and with which emerging powers are politically and economically integrated and embedded. The challenges posed by emerging powers and resulting from the structural barriers can be conceptualised through the discussion of “interdependent hegemony” in the capitalist world system. That is to say, the emerging power phenomenon together with the limit of its ability to shape an alternative hegemony, is a dialectic interaction that demonstrates, on the one hand, the dynamic and inclusive nature of the capitalist world system and, on the other hand, the contradictions embedded in the system in the process of integrating national economies.
Li Xing is Professor and Director, Research Centre on Development and International Relations, Department of Culture and Global Studies at Aalborg University in Denmark. He is also Editor in Chief of the Journal of China and International Relations. He can be reached at: email@example.com. Image credit: CC by Wikimedia Commons.