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The recent BRICS summit displayed the leadership of Chinese president Xi Jinping in ensuring that BRICS partners strengthen their leadership at home and globally. This is important because, as Xi realizes, BRICS can seize the opportunity created by the vacuum in global leadership under the Trump administration. 

Xiamen, a city in the south-east of China, possesses one of the world’s natural harbours and as result has become one of China’s most strategic locations in regards to trade with the outside world. During the nineteen-eighties, with the ‘opening-up’ of China, under Deng Xiaoping, Xiamen was made one of the four special economic zones. Yet the city also has a rich history and culture permeates its streets. A decade ago it was voted China’s second most suitable city for living while in 2011 it was voted China’s most romantic leisure city. Most of Xiamen’s recent success can be attributed to the man who leads China today, Xi Jinping.

Xiamen was chosen this year to host the ninth BRICS summit. China had hosted the summit before in Sanya but the dynamics this year were a bit different. The only leader at that third summit still in office today is President Jacob Zuma. All the other countries were led by leaders that have since been replaced. Brazil’s Rousseff was replaced by Temer, a sensistive move even in BRICS’ circles, Russian’s Medvedev was replaced by Putin, India’s Singh was succeeded by Modi while China’s Hu was succeeded by Xi. Next year when South Africa hosts the summit in Johannesburg, the Chinese and Russian leaders may well be replaced again. Though the chances of that happening are slim, as further terms allow them to stay in office.

With China’s first hosting of a summit in 2011 and South Africa’s first as a full member, President Hu had as the theme: ‘Broad Vision, Shared Prosperity’.  It was only the third BRICS summit and as a result, as the theme suggested, items were broad and shared. Instead, what we saw this year was a much more specific approach to specific issues, as the world was a very different place than it was just six years ago.

Xiamen has a fond spot in the heart of Chinese President Xi Jinping, as he had served as deputy-mayor in the late eighties in the city, and therefore the city served as a personal showcase for this his first summit as host. Being aware that the BRICS ship was now treading in waters that was threatening the other global ships, Xi chose the theme of unity, both within each member state and among the BRICS states themselves, in highlighting: ‘Stronger Partnership for a Brighter Future’. It would seem that the Chinese leader is acutely aware of the threats, both domestic and internationally, that this bloc of countries would have already faced and will need to continue to negotiate going into the future.

Non-interference has always been at the heart of Chinese foreign policy. One doubts whether this will change much, given the large Sino influence on BRICS. However, China would have watched closely the replacing of Dilma Rousseff and the heralding of Michel Temer into the Brazilian leadership. A move that certainly had a knock-on effect throughout the Latin American region. 

Here in South Africa, BRICS partners, China and Russia in particular, would have noted the attempts to get President Jacob Zuma out of office. Zuma, as mentioned earlier, being regarded as the most senior leader among them. As with Brazil, who plays a strategic regional role, South Africa would be a target for those international powers threatened by the BRICS’ developments and given its role on the continent. South Africa, and who leads her, would therefore have certainly come under the spotlight.

Many, certainly within BRICS, would have feared the cooling of the government of Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi, towards BRICS. One of Modi’s first international visits was to the United States and the United Kingdom. Even recently, under Donald Trump, Modi spent much of his time trying to cajole to the West in order to outplay China. Modi would have argued, at home especially, that a strategic alliance with China was not in India’s best interest given China’s close relationship with arch rival Pakistan and Chinese action on India’s northern borders.

Yet Xi took the Indian attitude seriously, especially after India had boycotted the launching of Xi’s legacy project One Belt, One Road. As recent Bloomberg reports noted, China is aware that India will soon follow its example by yielding the demographic dividend made during the eighties and nineties when China had a young population. The Chinese population is much older now, whereas the Indian one is younger with nearly three-quarters of the Indian population being under the age of forty. A skilled, young workforce means rapid development.

Doklam, or Donglang in Chinese, like Xiamen, is another strategic location for the Chinese. In the past the plateau was important for trade, today some suggest it is important for military reasons. Yet the military stand-off between China and India, on a road building exercise by the Chinese in the territory, further complicated the frosty relations between these BRICS allies. India was coming in to assist its ally Bhutan, who like China, lays claim to Doklam but the ten-week impasse was certainly compounded by other factors. China’s close relations with Pakistan being one of them.
By the time Modi arrived in Xiamen, the situation in Doklam had reached calm. Yet Modi was decisive in his resolve to ensure that China, through Xi, had to choose: BRICS or Pakistan. In the end, the Xiamen Declaration historically came out in defence of security and the condemnation of state sponsors of terrorism. The Declaration was welcomed by one Indian diplomat as a “very important development’ for BRICS. Needless to say, the ultimate diplomat was Xi himself.

President Xi must be commended for hosting a successful BRICS summit. Successful not only because he was able to send a message to BRICS countries that their partnership needs to be strong but also to indicate to each member state that with the United States being led by a man such as Donald Trump, now was the time for international multilateralism and partnerships. Where Trump cuts ties with traditional allies such as NATO, Xi ensures unity in BRICS. Whereas Trump puts America first, Xi hinted to India that it is better to work with BRICS than to turn back to the West of yesteryear.

What this all means for South Africa is that we need to strengthen our own leadership internally. The ANC will continue to govern South Africa into the near future and therefore the current internal fights not only paralyse the state in service delivery but it also compromises our international security. We must ensure that we remain firmly committed to building a strong and lasting partnership as a new hegemonic bloc. As a consequence, not since the days of Jan Smuts, has South Africa being part of such an international force. Xiamen is therefore as historically important to South Africa as it is to President Xi Jinping.         

Wesley Seale teaches Politics at Rhodes University located in South Africa  

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