Wall Street Journal Asia
Look to Brasilia, Not Beijing.
The rising challenge to China’s great power aspirations.
By Bruce Gilley
7 April 2009
Threats to the global liberal order are usually identified with illiberal states. That’s why China, with its repressive domestic regime and its see-no-evil (unless related to the United States) foreign policy attracts so much attention these days.
But a more compelling challenge to the current world order may be emerging from an unlikely trio of countries that boast both impeccable democratic credentials and serious global throw weight. They are India, Brazil and South Africa and their little-noticed experiment in foreign policy coordination since 2003 to promote subtle but potentially far-reaching changes to the international system has the potential to leave fears of a rising China in the dustbin of history.
The quasi-alliance of these three powers has serious implications for the international system, and its major underwriter, the U.S., depending on how the challenge is handled. But an equally important, and quite unintended implication, is the sabotage of China’s great power ambitions. By robbing China of its claims to represent developing countries, this new cooperative trio could sideline China from the major debates in international affairs. That may be good news for domestic reform in China, which has long been stunted by the country’s great power ambitions.
The origins of the India-Brazil-South Africa Dialogue Forum (IBSA) lie in South Africa’s quest for a new allies more consonant with its interests and ideas following the end of apartheid in 1994. The immediate impetus came from Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who floated a formal cooperation scheme in early 2003. In June of that year, the foreign ministers of the three countries inaugurated the group in Brasilia, calling for a strengthening of international institutions to address the concerns of developing countries in areas like poverty, the environment and technology. Since then, according to Sarah-Lea John de Sousa of Madrid’s FRIDE think tank, the trio has been gaining support as "spokesmen for developing countries at the global level."
IBSA announced its presence by convincing a group of 21 developing countries to block agreement at the World Trade Organization’s Cancún summit that year over the issue of rich country agricultural subsidies. It also successfully lobbied for changes to WTO rules covering the production of generic versions of AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis drugs. Yet it quickly moved beyond trade to take stands on issues of international security and institutional reforms. In addition to trade, energy and development projects, IBSA has staked out joint positions on everything from U.N. Security Council reform to the International Criminal Court’s prosecution of Sudanese President Omar Hassan Al-Bashir. They have also papered over differences on humanitarian intervention, human rights and nuclear nonproliferation to speak with a common voice. "Though conceived as a dialogue forum, IBSA is rapidly moving into becoming a strategic partnership," wrote Arvind Gupta of India’s Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses in a September 2008 report.
China reluctantly joined the Cancún coalition. But since then it has remained on the outside of IBSA, looking in. For three main reasons, it is likely to stay there.
First, China is a U.N. Security Council permanent member which sets it on a collision course with the IBSA aspirations to expand that body to reflect the views of the world’s poor countries. Brazil and India are explicit in wanting permanent seats while South Africa, which is barred by its African Union obligations from seeking a permanent seat, nonetheless sought and won a nonpermanent seat for the first time in 2007. China, torn between its rhetoric calling for the democratization of international affairs and the reality that it would be a loser from this process, has decided to steer the self-interested course, to the detriment of its claims to represent the world’s vast unwashed.
China is also on the wrong side of IBSA in terms of its views of globalization. The Brasilia Declaration warned that "large parts of the world have not benefited from globalization" and demanded changes to keep more economic and regulatory power in the hands of states. Yet Beijing’s leaders see themselves as beneficiaries of globalization and are loathe to embrace left-wing tantrums against "neoliberalism." Critiques of the market are a touchy subject in China, where a neo-Maoist movement is using them to attack the ruling regime. Still, China could soften its views on U.N. Security Council reform and globalization in the interests of developing country solidarity (and its interests in leading that movement).
The third reason it stands outside IBSA is one that it cannot change: It is not a democracy. IBSA members note that they are "vibrant democracies" and Daniel Flemes of Hamburg-based German Institute for Global and Area Studies noted in a 2007 paper that "IBSA’s common identity is based on values such as democracy, personal freedoms and human rights." Human rights, civil society, social empowerment and "gender mainstreaming" are central to their moral capital.
Indian newspapers have reported that Iran and Egypt expressed interest in joining the group but were rebuffed, possibly because IBSA leaders are aware how much their group’s international legitimacy depends upon its democratic credentials. The most logical candidate for admission, if the group expands, is Indonesia, another poor, populous and democratic country. Coupled with a Japan that is renewing its role in international affairs, this would also rob China of claims to represent Asia.
Democracy is not just about IBSA’s membership requirements; it bears on the very purposes of IBSA. IBSA is not a security alliance — Brazil and South Africa, after all, are harsh critics of India’s nuclear program. What it is, rather, is an alliance that seeks to use democratic ideals to effectively reshape the U.N. and other international institutions to serve poor countries better. In a strange way, IBSA is a community of democracies from hell — a group of countries with impeccable democratic credentials who are using that common identity to challenge rather than advance U.S. interests. International relations scholars call this "soft balancing" because rather than confronting the U.S., they are simply trying to restrain and reorient it. The reason this may work is that, as democracies, these countries have the moral stature in the international system to achieve those goals. Indian and Brazilian diplomats in particular, already among the world’s best, can advance the IBSA agenda because they share common ideals.
Where does that leave China? Probably wondering why yet another century mooted to be its century has passed it by. That may be good news for domestic reformers in China who can point to democracy as a precondition for international respectability. IBSA leaders are due to meet again in Brazil in October. Those tracking shifts in world affairs should cancel their trips to Beijing and make arrangements to be in Brazil.
Mr. Gilley is assistant professor of political science in the Mark O. Hatfield School of Government at Portland State University and co-editor with Larry Diamond of "Political Change in China: Comparisons With Taiwan" (Lynne Rienner, 2008).