Russia can count on the BRICs… to say nothing.

The crisis in Ukraine, if it escalates further, could spell trouble for the BRICs*.

Brazil is home to some 500,000 Ukrainians (the third largest Ukrainian diaspora in the world) and the two countries have committed to a long-term partnership in space technology development (rockets and satellites). India, similarly, has established long-term defense contracts and cooperation agreements (in areas such as nuclear safety) with Ukraine. Indo-Ukranian ties, it is true, pale in comparison to Russia’s long term political and military relation with India; but they are not negligible.

In contrast, China has very little to lose (China’s investment in Ukraine has been hugely exaggerated, based on unconfirmed figures and details of aid and investment that have likely not come to fruition, as is the case with most Chinese OFDI). But China is not sympathetic to Russia’s support for irredentist movements in East and, especially, Central Asia, and staunchly opposed to the redrawing of state borders on the bases of ethnic ties (if Putin wanted Chinese support he should’ve couched his actions in terms of historical rights and strategic value).

Neither of these countries is likely to speak out publicly against Russia. As I have argued before in several places, the BRICS are experts in avoiding elephants in the room. BRICS summits, like the one to take place later this year in Fortaleza (Brazil), are a forum for talking about pie in the sky ideas, not solving actual problems of global order or disputes between the member countries. Probably the only thing the BRICS agree on is that it hurts their cause to air their grievances in public (though they don’t agree on what that cause is).

But neither are they likely to come out in support of Russia. In 2008, when Russia crashed China’s party and fought with Georgia over South Ossetia in the middle of the Beijing Olympics, China withheld support and pressured the other members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization to do the same. China has and will likely continue to hedge and distance itself from the present crisis.

India kept remarkably quiet during the 2008 war despite having no discernible stake in Georgia (it had just very recently signed a nuclear deal with the US), so it is even more and will likely to do so now. The Russian press will trumpet the recent declaration by National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon that Russia has “legitimate interests” in Ukraine (which is true but meaningless), but India’s position will likely be one of favoring peaceful negotiation and multilateral dialogue.

Brazil was also absolutely silent during the Russo-Georgian war. In 2008, Brazilian foreign policy was arguably at the peak of its activeness and visibility. President Luis Inácio Lula da Silva was treated as an international rockstar and David Rothkopf even went so far as to anoint foreign minister Celso Amorim as the “world’s best foreign minister” (whatever that means). The situation today is very different. Not only does Brazil have much more of a stake in Ukraine than in Georgia (where it had no real interests), but Brazil no longer has the international presence it had years ago. President Dilma Roussef has pulled Brazil back from the international spotlight, and Brazil today gets more international press for its domestic unrest than for its foreign actions. Brazil has been especially cautious in engaging with issues of international security in the past few years, abstaining in the UN Security Council vote on Libya in 2011 and distancing itself from the crisis in Syria. The inaction on Libya, which many observers in the US viewed as a bold stance was actually tame and passive if compared to Brazil’s mediation efforts and “no” vote on sanctions against Iran a year earlier. So far Brazilian officials have issued no statement regarding the situation in Ukraine–the Foreign Ministry’s Twitter account is probably the only one in the whole world not bursting with tweets about Ukraine. We can expect them to remain largely quiet until after the crisis is over, and only retroactively support whatever mutual understanding is arrived at.

At the end of the day, this crisis will not be the death of the BRICs but it will make many people stop caring about whether it’s alive.

*Yes, I’m ignoring South Africa here, and usually do when discussing the BRICs. I’m still waiting to be convinced that I shouldn’t…

Russian revisionism and the status security dilemma

Steven Ward has smart things to say about this whole Ukraine thing. He argues that Putin is acting out of distress over continued Western denial of Russia’s place in the sun.

Though he doesn’t make it explicit, his article puts into question claims about the “open, inclusive and flexible” character of the “American liberal order” that is supposed to allow for the peaceful accommodation of rising challengers. It’s pretty clear that this now-standard liberal trope downplays the very real limitations to status and power mobility within the liberal order or, at the very least, the existence of such perceptions in key countries like Russia, China, Brazil, etc. Whether these perceptions have a basis in fact or not, they are deeply consequential.

That said, though I clearly sympathize with the argument (and made it myself here before), it begs the age-old question of whether Russian revisionist behavior is a product of status obstruction and spiral dynamics or motivated by something else entirely and just exacerbated by these dynamics. In the latter case, more accommodationist policies could potentially be dangerous as well. You can call it the status security dilemma if you want. I don’t have the answer to what are the underlying motives any more than Ward does, but this is a central piece of the theoretical and policy puzzle that essentially determines everything else. Just saying that “Putin isn’t Hitler or Tojo” isn’t terribly informative.

Moreover, part of the problem with this argument is that status, security and economic goals are all hard to disentangle here (and usually elsewhere), such that it might not be possible to concede more status to Russia without making concrete policy concessions that carry real security and economic implications for Europe and for the US. Token concessions meant to stroke Russia’s ego (like G8 membership) are just not enough anymore. This is the exact same problem the US is facing with China, in that all possible cheap concessions have been made, and now any further adjustments to the international political (and institutional) order require the US (and Europe) to give up some influence and autonomy over real policy issues. As we know, however, power and influence can be reallyreally hard to part with. Grand bargains that reshape the field are not easy to accomplish, and usually involve some bloodshed (see also here and here).

Is China paranoid (again)?

Dan Drezner has picked up on Wang Jisi and Kenneth Lieberthal’s new report on US-China strategic distrust, and worries that Wang’s descriptions of Chinese thinking about US efforts at undermining it verges on the paranoid.

My problem with the report is that it to presents an oddly cohesive picture of foreign policy ideas among China’s elites. Such a consensus isn’t impossible, but does stand starkly at odds with other recent assessments that offer a more diverse picture (by “outsiders” like David Shambaugh, Daniel Lynch, Kissinger, and Aaron Friedberg but also by other influential insiders such as Hu Angang). These other pictures of competing ideas about foreign affairs are not only reasonably documented, but also seem immediately more plausible if one looks at the considerable internal divisions (if not open debate) on other issue areas such as financial liberalization, political reform, and the right path to economic rebalancing (i.e., China’s leadership is much less certain about what exactly constitutes the China model than policy wonks seem to think).

Mistrust of the US really is pervasive and embedded in a national narrative that resonates with most Chinese, and with good reason – both historical and rhetorical, with several US scholars, pundits and officials talking openly of the need to contain China (although these calls haven’t been heeded in any serious way). And it is to be expected that China’s misgivings about the US and readiness to act on them would be exacerbated by the perceived narrowing of the power gap between the two countries (even if the actual gap is still pretty big).

However, I’d contend that after a couple of years of overreaching and succumbing to too-familiar “myths of empire” (“states will bandwagon with us”, “the US is a paper tiger and its decline is inevitable”, “we’re being unjustly targeted”, and so on), China’s leadership has learned from the backlash and successfully retrenched into a less agressive stance (Taylor Fravel has a nice piece about this at FA this week). Contra Wang, this speaks to the existence of another set of ideas beside fear of US sabotage and, specifically, to the resilience of the strategic concept introduced by Deng Xiaoping, whose main purpose is to avoid provoking balancing behavior in the region and unwanted attention from the US. Much like Gorbachev’s new thinking, Deng’s admonishments for keeping a low profile and Hu’s “peaceful rise/development” are predicated on the realization that their own behavior might be seen as threatening by others and thus contribute to their strategic predicaments (Booth and Wheeler have termed this self-awareness “security dilemma sensibility”).

This ability to retrench in the face of a countervailing coalition, however, might not hold for long. As Jack Snyder has argued, this type of strategic learning and course correction is much easier in established democracies and centralized political systems, and hindered in cartelized polities, where special interest groups have a bigger influence on policy-making. Nowadays special interest groups, powerful bureaucracies and factional disputes might play a more conspicuous role in the making of Chinese foreign policy than they did a decade ago, but core leadership cohesion and their ability to dictate policy – especially when dealing with high-priority issues – is still much closer to Snyder’s unitary model than his cartelized model. But the trend is worrying indeed. The worst-case scenario is not an emboldened Chinese leadership that agrees on its distrust of the US and its willingness to promote a “Beijing Consensus” abroad, but the prospect of the breakdown of elite cohesion within China, the increased cartelization of Chinese politics and economic activity and the space this opens for expansionist log-rolling coalitions and hyper-nationalism. The big problem here, is that this outcome could come about not only a result of political crisis stemming from economic hardship, but also from pressures generated by the growing inequality that is fruit of continued economic “success”. The best way to avoid this sort of outcome, as Mansfield and Snyder have cogently argued, is a well-engineered “democratization from above”, where political rights are devolved gradually after institutions have been put in place to control violent nationalism. What we have seen in the past 4 years, however, is the exact opposite: an increasingly insecure and repressive Communist Party and stagnation – if not reversal – in political reforms at the central level.

China-Brazil Relations and Dilma’s China Trip

I have an article on China-Brazil relations in the latest edition of Harvard Asia Quarterly, which you’ll be able to check out here later at some point. Meanwhile, here’s a long quote that sums up the spirit of the article:

China-Brazil relations have attracted a great deal of interest in recent years. This is due to significant changes in the intensity of bilateral relations in the last decade – with China becoming Brazil’s largest trade partner in 2009 – and China’s growing presence in Latin America. It is also due to the hype surrounding so-called “emerging countries”. I argue that while China’s economic presence in Brazil is unmistakably increasing, this should be interpreted neither as a consequence of close political ties nor as a development that invariably contributes to this end. In fact, the intricacies of managing the complex and asymmetric interdependence that results from this increase, especially its domestic political reverberations, have actually worked against Brazil-China political relations.

Some of the similarities that were supposed to bring them together, such as their partial rejection of “liberal” norms and principles and the adoption of more state-centered, nationalistic and mercantilist development models, actually create friction and push them apart. The global financial crisis amplified and cast a light on these ambivalences and paradoxes that were already present in the Brazil-China relationship.

The increased competition Brazil faces from China in its domestic and third markets has sparked fears of “de-industrialization” or “primarization”. Even if this anxiety is largely unfounded, it has empowered already strong protectionist voices and fueled resistance to China, making it harder to sustain a strategy of non-confrontation, mainly where trade and currency issues are concerned.

A particularly useful illustration of this strained relationship is the controversy surrounding Chinese investments in Brazil. Lauded by many as a sign of new times, the surge of Chinese investment last year didn’t assuage Brazilian grievances regarding bilateral trade, but instead reflected the general anti-China feeling predominant in Brazil.

[When Chinese investments finally began to arrive in Brazil in 2010,] enthusiasm gave way to deep suspicion of Chinese intentions and the prospect of Chinese companies holding a relevant stake in Brazilian natural resources and critical industries. The anti-China lobby, which used to complain about the lack of Chinese investment in Brazil, started to vocally denounce these investments as attempts by the Chinese government to buy up Brazilian land and resources, distort markets and destroy Brazilian industry “from within”. Sinophobia has also played a part in recent legislation approved by the Brazilian Congress limiting land purchases by all foreign companies and individuals. These actors argue that Chinese FDI is qualitatively different from that of traditional sources because of the controlled nature of the Chinese economy, China’s selectivity in allowing inbound FDI, and the close association between the investing companies and the Chinese state.

Apart from the contentious issues of bilateral trade and investment, Brazil and China are finding themselves pressed to abandon grandstanding rhetoric and abstract notions of “multipolarization” and South-South cooperation in favor of a more pragmatic discussion of the issues at hand, such as the rules of international trade, currency, nuclear non-proliferation, UN Security Council reform, climate change and human rights, where interest clearly don’t respect an imaginary “North/South” divide. Furthermore, both countries’ growing capabilities and interests abroad could also create new frictions. Some Brazilian officials are wary of China’s growing economic presence in South America, a region that Brazil has come to consider as its own sphere of influence, and in Africa, where Brazilian companies are falling behind the Chinese in the rush for resources, business deals, and markets.

These problems are unlikely to dissipate or be resolved, and in fact seem poised to worsen in coming years. China’s continued growth and persisting domestic imbalances will make sure that its demand for commodities, exports of industrial goods, and outward expansion of capital maintain a rising trajectory.

Internal political dynamics, including the coming leadership succession, will probably make China less prone to compromise and more nationalistic. Brazil’s own economic and political environment also seem to be moving in ever more nationalistic and protectionist directions. President Dilma Rousseff and most of her new staff are generally more hawkish on China than their predecessors and have declared rethinking relations with China a top priority.

At first glance, this contrarian view of Brazil-China relations seems very gloomy but what it suggests is actually not extraordinary. What it means is that there are very real opportunities for cooperation and mutual benefit in trade, bilateral investment, and cooperation in various fields; yet before they can seize these opportunities, there are daunting challenges that need to be addressed and legitimate disagreements with which both countries will just have to learn to live. Their success or failure in doing so will have an important impact on political and economic relations in Latin America and, to some extent, in the world.

The article actually discusses at some length the controversy surrounding Chinese investment in Brazil, but for that  you’ll have to read the whole piece.

I’m still mulling over Dilma’s recent China trip and how it relates to all of this, but overall I think the results from that fit my argument quite nicely (though I admit that there may be some confirmation bias at work here). Despite all the talk about recasting relations with China, there were no surprises or major advances. The two most important topics on the political agenda – Brazil’s bid for a permanent UNSC seat and China’s demand for market-economy status recognition – got a lot of attention but didn’t get any closer to being settled. Some other treaties and agreements were signed, but most of them were just fillers.

On the business side of the trip, important announcements were made and two relevant disputes were settled, kinda: Embraer gets to stay in China, sell some US$ 1.4 bn worth of regional jets over the next few years and eventually start assembling its luxury jets there, but that doesn’t really solve their problems with intellectual property protection and procurement biases; also, China will finally start to buy pork products from Brazil, but only from 3 of the 13 suppliers that applied for licenses last year.

Some very interesting investment projects were disclosed, and many Chinese companies made their interest in Brazil very clear. But as with other announcements over the past year – not to mention years before – some of these investments will take a while, if they happen at all. One of the most widely cited items to come from the trip was Foxconn’s declared intent to invest around US$12 bn to assemble iPads in a new plant in São Paulo and perhaps start producing some components in the near future, employing dozens of thousands of engineers and about 100 thousand workers in total. While this makes for a great headline, experts suggest that these figures are substantially inflated and that despite the impression of finality given by Brazilian officials, this is still a vaguely defined plan that will have to be negotiated with other parties involved (like Apple).

Overall, Dilma’s trip provided an opportune occasion to seal certain deals, and may even have been necessary for a couple of them, but trade and investment flows will keep trending up regardless of presidential visits,and one would be remiss to expect any significant change in the structure of bilateral trade or in the investment strategies of Chinese companies. That is, the “imbalances” that so worry Brazil will not be corrected overnight (assuming there’s even something to be corrected) by any number of deals.

The unusual length of the trip (almost a week) is certainly a positive factor that suggests real political will on the part of Brasilia, but the sloppy, last-minute, work that was done in preparation for the trip and the severely flawed analysis that informs some of the premises that guided the Brazilian team reveal that Brazil is not quite ready to engage China more actively.

Many analysts were positively surprised by the generally warm tone adopted by Brazilian officials during the trip, but why should they? Bilateral exchanges and BRIC summits are hardly the venues for serious criticism or real problem solving, and the resulting speeches and communiqués notoriously paper over disagreements and tensions and exaggerate the prospects for cooperation. As I suggest in the article mentioned above – and in more detail in a forthcoming chapter here -, it’s crucial to look beyond diplomatic doublespeak and take into account the distributional effects of bilateral economic relations and how the relevant interest groups and bureaucratic actors in Brazil mobilize to affect policy and set the – mostly negative – tone of public discourse with regard to China.

In sum, the trip was as productive as one could realistically expect it to be, but despite calls for a “new phase” of China-Brazil relations the visit was overwhelmingly marked by continuity, not change. By overemphasizing its few significant accomplishments both parties will likely miss once again the opportunity to soberly assess what went wrong, what was missing and what has to be improved, not only in preparation for the next bilateral exchange but also in the development of a more solid and coherent engagement strategy with a strong institutional framework.