The BRICS Summit in Johannesburg: A Watershed Moment in Modern History – China Committed to Modernization in Africa

By: William Jones and Hussein Askary

The recently concluded BRICS Summit in Johannesburg, South Africa, August 22-24, represents a watershed moment in the course of modern history. At Johannesburg, major representatives of the Global South laid out the guidelines for how mankind must move forward. At the summit it was decided that the five BRICS countries, Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa will now expand with the addition of Iran, Ethiopia, Saudia Arabia, the UAE, Argentina and Egypt. With this addition, starting in January 2024, the BRICS Group will represent 27% of world GDP and 47% of the world population. It will also include more than 60 % of the oil and gas reserves in the world, the largest exporters and importers of petroleum, which means that the potential for new mechanisms of trade in these commodities will be possible, such as long-term purchasing contracts at stable levels of volumes and prices, using local currencies. This would put an end to the manipulation of the oil and gas prices by speculators in commodity stock exchanges in Britain and the U.S. The age of petrodollar inaugurated in the early 1970s will end here. The large sovereign wealth funds of Saudi Arabia and the UAE (jointly amounting to US$ 2 trillion) could become a major boost for the BRICS New Development Bank’s capital. In addition, there are numerous other countries interested in joining the BRICS group and with the BRICS Plus vision, recommended by Chinese President Xi Jinping, many of these countries have already been brought under the BRICS umbrella. This means that the BRICS has now become the major voice of the Global South, which represents in terms of population, the Global Majority.

Their message was clear and was the diametrical opposite of the outright war-mongering one that the world heard coming from the Western nations at their recent NATO Summit in Vilnius. The importance of the Johannesburg summit was underlined by Chinese President Xi Jinping in a speech he gave there on August 23: “We gather at a time when the world has entered a new period of turbulence and transformation. It is undergoing major shifts, division and regrouping, leading to more uncertain, unstable and unpredictable developments. BRICS is an important force in shaping the international landscape,” he said. “We choose our development paths independently, jointly defend our right to development, and march in tandem toward modernization. This represents the direction of the advancement of human society, and will profoundly impact the development process of the world.” With the creation of BRICS, the developing world, the Global South, now has a seat at the table. Traditional political “small group” associations like the G7 no longer have the major say in determining the course of history.

The postwar world order has been largely dominated by the countries of the West. While there was a serious intent on the part of U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt to use the opportunity of the victory over fascism to promote economic development in the poor regions of the world, his early death in April 1945 placed the decision-making in the hands of people with a different agenda. While the end of World War II led to formal decolonization, the former colonies were still under the “economic yoke” of their colonial masters. With the demise of the Bretton Woods system in 1971 when Nixon took the dollar off the gold standard, the U.S. ability to simply print up dollars transformed the dollar into a reserve currency, and provided the U.S. with an ideal mechanism to control decision-making in financial matters. A new era of “dollar diplomacy” had begun, where the dollar became a weapon used to undermine rivals and subjugate nations into submission to American and Western political dictates through sanctions.

The countries of the developing world had often attempted to correct what was an unjust system. In 1976, Fred Wills, the foreign minister of Guyana, took the floor at the UN General Assembly on behalf of the developing world calling for the creation of an International Development Bank, proposed by economist and statesman Lyndon LaRouche, and for a “new and just economic order.” This plea was ignored by the Western countries and the movement behind it suppressed. The developing countries did not have the clout to make their demands heard. With the development of BRICS, they are in a different situation.

The major shift in the balance of forces has been the rise of China, from conditions of great poverty to becoming a major industrial producer and the main engine of global economic growth. The absolute success of China’s poverty alleviation program has also created a tremendous ferment in the developing world, which was beginning to believe that poverty was a permanent condition which mankind had to live with.  The launch of China’s Belt and Road Initiative in 2013 was China’s way of providing a means for the other members of the developing world to begin moving along the same path that China had so successfully traversed.

Particularly in Africa, with which China has had close relations since it built its first railroad in the 1970s connecting Tanzania to Zambia, China is seen as an all-weather friend, which is providing a major lift out of poverty and underdevelopment. At the BRICS Summit, President Xi proposed three major new initiatives to help Africa’s modernization. (See below!)

This more than anything has aroused the anger of the international financial elites in the West toward China, and the accusations that China intends to change the way the system operates. But a system that has entrenched dire poverty in certain parts of the world, not considered capable of development, is a system that has no moral right to survive. The changes that China has proposed have won great support from the countries of the Global South, in particular, its demand that the right to development is a universal human right, and applies to all countries regardless of their system, their culture or their political orientation. This is quite different from the policies of “development” contingent on the notorious “IMF Conditionalities” and the imposition of “unilateral sanctions.”

That the BRICS are fully committed to systemic change has been particularly underlined by their discussions on abandoning the dollar as a reserve currency, and as the primary currency in international transactions. The fact that the dollar has been used as an economic “weapon” has been experienced by most developing countries at various times in their history, and the unmitigated use of this mechanism presently in an attempt to bring down Russia and to weaken China, has made the issue one of heated debate. The calls for “de-dollarization” has set off a furor in the financial markets of London and New York – and in the Biden Administration. While there was much speculation that the Johannesburg meeting would possibly make major moves in the direction of creating an alternative to the dollar, there was great pressure placed on some of the countries, particularly India, not to do anything drastic. As all decisions in BRICS are made in consensus, all must agree on the matter. India, however, is also being heavily courted by the U.S. to pull them closer to the Anglo-American orbit. While the question of currency is important, what is key in the work of the BRICS is actually related to financing development through the New Development Bank, focused mainly on building large scale infrastructure to support industrialization and agricultural productivity. The issuing of loans for infrastructure projects will be in the currencies of the BRICS nations. What was decided at the meeting was that the BRICS heads of state assigned their finance ministers and central bank chiefs to investigate the use of local currencies in international financial transactions and investments.

Because of the serious nature of the BRICS threat to US hegemony, there will be more “sticks” and maybe a few “carrots” from the Western powers to help prevent any major change in the present “rules of the road.” But the die has been cast, and the Global Majority has now received a voice. The key issue is for the BRICS countries to remain strong. President Xi in his comments made this very clear in his speech to the BRICS Summit: “We do not barter away principles, succumb to external pressure, or act as vassals of others. We BRICS countries share extensive consensus and common goals. No matter how the international situation changes, our commitment to cooperation since the very beginning and our common aspiration will not change.”

China’s commitment to modernization in Africa

Speaking at the China-Africa Leaders’ Dialogue on Aug. 24, which followed the Aug. 22-24 BRICS Summit in Johannesburg, South Africa, China’s President Xi Jinping gave an overview and details of upcoming activities and commitments, under the title, “Joining Hands To Advance Modernization and Create a Great Future for China and Africa.” He co-moderated the Leaders’ Dialogue with South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, whose office reports that China initiated the idea for such a roundtable. A joint statement was issued by Presidents Ramaphosa and Xi (Joint Statement -China-Africa Leaders Roundtable – PDF).

Xi expressed his great joy at returning to Africa (his 10th visit), after five years. He praised Africa’s strides on the path of independence, noting that it now was “becoming an important pole with great influence.” It was in Johannesburg in 2015 that President Xi made his famous statement about overcoming the “three bottlenecks of development” in Africa which are the lack of credit, lack of infrastructure, and shortage of skilled labour. Sine then China provided more than 120 US$ billion in credits for infrastructure projects and built thousands of kilometres of roads, railways, a dozen ports, and many power plants. China has also surpassed both the U.S. and Britain in the number of African students studying abroad that it hosts.

While China was moving toward its Second Centenary Goal of building a modern socialist country in all respects, Africa was moving toward the bright prospects envisioned in the African Union’s Agenda 2063. “China and Africa must work together to create a sound environment for realizing our respective development visions,” Xi said in the recent summit. The many institutions he named, through collaboration will progress, are the Belt and Road, the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC), and many African agencies, including the African Union, the AfCFTA Secretariat, the Pan-African Payment and Settlement System, and the African Union of Broadcasting.

President Xi declared: “To chart the course for our practical cooperation in the next stage and help Africa bring its integration and modernization into a fast track, I wish to make the following three proposals:

“—China will launch the Initiative on Supporting Africa’s Industrialization. China will better harness its resources for cooperation with Africa and the initiative of businesses to support Africa in growing its manufacturing sector and realizing industrialization and economic diversification. In implementing the nine programs under the FOCAC framework, China will channel more resources of assistance, investment and financing toward programs for industrialization.

“—China will launch the Plan for China Supporting Africa’s Agricultural Modernization. China will help Africa expand grain plantation, encourage Chinese companies to increase agricultural investment in Africa, and enhance cooperation with Africa on seed and other areas of agro-technology to support Africa in transforming and upgrading its agricultural sector. China will host the second Forum on China-Africa Cooperation in Agriculture in Hainan this November.

“To help Africa tackle the current food crisis, China will provide additional emergency food assistance to African countries in need. More importantly, China has confidence that Africa will attain food self-sufficiency through its own efforts.

“—China will launch the Plan for China-Africa Cooperation on Talent Development. China plans to train 500 principals and high-calibre teachers of vocational colleges every year, and 10,000 technical personnel with both Chinese language and vocational skills for Africa. China will invite 20,000 government officials and technicians of African countries to participate in workshops and seminars. To support Africa in strengthening education and innovation, we will launch the China-Africa Universities 100 Cooperation Plan and 10 pilot exchange programs of China-Africa partner institutes.”

President Xi said that China-Africa collaboration involves “working together to promote a just and equitable international order,” opposing “vestiges of colonialism and hegemonism in all forms.” The two sides should also “work together to safeguard a peaceful and secure global environment…. Africa is working unremittingly for the goal of silencing the guns,” he said, referring to Africa’s proposals for peace negotiations between Russia and Ukraine. Thirdly, the two sides should be “working together to build an open and inclusive world economy.”

He went on: “The world today is undergoing transformation and turmoil, and changes unseen in a century are unfolding at a faster pace. At this point of history, we all face the tasks of how to address the deficit in development, overcome security challenges and enhance mutual learning between civilizations. In view of this, I have put forward the Global Development Initiative, the Global Security Initiative and the Global Civilization Initiative, called for peace, development, cooperation and mutual benefit, and advocated building a community with a shared future for mankind. These proposals have received the extensive support of African countries. China and Africa, through our creative explorations for modernization, are giving our answers to the questions of our times and making joint efforts to advance the great endeavours of win-win cooperation, harmonious coexistence and shared prosperity of civilizations.”

The African leaders spoke highly of the China-Africa Leaders’ Dialogue and thanked China for supporting African integration and assisting African countries in times of need. They commended China’s new initiatives and expressed support for the Belt and Road Initiative, the Global Development Initiative, the Global Security Initiative and the Global Civilization Initiative put forward by President Xi. In his concluding comments, African President Cyril Ramaphosa underlined “Sustained engagement with China as one of the supporters of strategic development projects is critical. … We have acknowledged the importance of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation as a means of deepening collaboration in the cause of development.”

The next meeting of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation will take place in 2024 in China.

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