Few international analysts have fully recognized the landmark status of the BRICS grouping in Beijing’s global strategy. Instead, they quickly dismiss China’s expressions of enthusiasm about engaging with Brazil, Russia, India, and South Africa as diplomatic oratory. 

In some ways, this skepticism seems appropriate. Analysts correctly observe that the benefits China can glean from cooperation with the BRICS are rather limited. They reasonably conclude that, in terms of material power, Beijing needs the group less than the other members do because of China’s relative economic weight. Some predict that this imbalance will spur China to eventually leave the group. 

But Beijing’s enthusiasm about the BRICS is not just talk. Indeed, this group is important to China because it is the rising power’s first successful effort to build its own global network with powerful non-Western countries.

Pang Xun
Pang Xun is a resident scholar at the Carnegie–Tsinghua Center for Global Policy, where she is part of the China and the Developing World Program.
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There is much evidence to suggest that Beijing’s interest in the association is genuine. The BRICS grouping is highlighted as one of the four pillars of Chinese multilateral diplomacy in the report presented at the 18th Party Congress in November 2012, one of the most important official documents in China (the other three pillars are the UN, the G20, and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization). This report serves as the authoritative policy guideline for the decade to follow. 

In addition, Chinese political leaders, including President Xi Jinping and other high-ranking politicians, frequently praise the BRICS grouping as a new global force and extol its unstructured organization as a creative pattern of intergovernmental cooperation. There are also numerous research institutes for “BRICS studies” sponsored and financed by the Chinese government. Chinese scholars and policy analysts rush to and from BRICS-themed conferences and workshops while simultaneously producing numerous reports and research papers on the grouping.

It is often suggested that China’s goals concerning the BRICS include internationalizing the renminbi, increasing Beijing’s voting power in international financial institutions, improving bilateral relationships with the other BRICS countries, and maintaining China’s identity as a developing country. Yet none of those goals justifies Beijing’s excitement about the BRICS—not to mention the fact that whether these potential gains can be realized remains highly uncertain. 

So why is China so enamored of the BRICS? What does Beijing really seek to gain through the group? 

The gains offered by membership in the BRICS group are not strategic and do not concern China’s core national interests, but China’s participation in the organization does highlight Beijing’s preoccupation with relational interests. China’s ultimate goal is to increase its global social power through networking with other prominent countries. 

Social power is distinct from the traditional concept of power. International relations scholars conventionally understand and measure power in terms of material capabilities, such as military force and economic size. However, in the era of globalization this traditional understanding of power is seriously outdated. Joseph Nye, a political scientist who thinks creatively about power, differentiates between immaterial “relational power”—understood as “the ability to alter others’ behavior to produce preferred outcomes”—and material “resource power,” or the possession of resources that can produce preferred outcomes. 

Social power is related to Nye’s concept of relational power, but ultimately it is the power to access material and immaterial resources through connectivity. According to sociologist David Knoke, social power is measured by “prominence in networks where valued information and scarce resources are transferred from one actor to another.” It is not the power to realize specific desired outcomes but rather the power to maintain, expand, and create a set of possibilities and options.

Anne-Marie Slaughter, currently at the New American Foundation, claims that “America’s edge” in the globalized, networked world should be measured in terms of connectedness. She argues that it is therefore wrong to claim the decline of American hegemony because the central player in a networked world is the one that is most connected. 

In terms of connectedness, China is far from a serious or even qualified rival of the United States. According to the traditional perception of power as material capabilities, however, China is regarded as the second-most-powerful country in the world and is predicted to overtake America in the foreseeable future. 

In the current institutional structure of global governance, almost all global political, military, and economic organizations were created under the leadership of the United States. In those networks, Washington enjoys incomparable centrality and connectedness. In contrast, China is at the periphery of most existing global networks. More importantly, Beijing feels that those networks do more to impose constraints on China than to provide it with opportunities. 

“Only the connected will survive,” declared Don Tapscott and Anthony Williams, authors of Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything. This is especially true in the twenty-first century, when the world is densely and complicatedly connected. China’s current prosperity and international status can be largely attributed to its deep and active engagement in globalization, making the country’s success a prime example of this statement. 

However, China’s goal is more than mere survival. Beijing has a dream of becoming a great power, and it is eager to turn this dream into reality. Doing so will require much more than just being connected. China will have to move to the center of the connected networks in order to realize its aspiration.

Beijing knows that it is far behind the United States in terms of social power, and it has adopted a networking strategy in an effort to ascend the global power hierarchy. Initially, China implemented this approach mainly by participating in international organizations and agreements. In recent years, however, Beijing has been more actively creating its own networks, both bilaterally and multilaterally. 

Since the 1990s, China has been increasingly active in developing bilateral relationships by establishing what it calls “partnerships.” There is a hierarchy of these partnerships, ranging from China’s “comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination” with Russia to its “strategic cooperative partnership” with more than 20 countries to its “important cooperative partnership” with Fiji. These various partnerships—which are, by definition, bilateral—form a network connecting China to other countries and international organizations. 

The BRICS grouping, by contrast, is not based on bilateral connections. Rather, it is China’s multilateral effort to build networks and increase its social power. The BRICS grouping thus has great strategic importance as an international network for China, a fact that is reflected by several landmark features of the organization. 

Most notably, the BRICS grouping is the first global network of which China is a member that consists of only emerging powers. Beijing holds a central position in this network and is comfortable presenting initiatives, setting the agenda, and shaping decisionmaking procedures. And unlike the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, with its unambiguously regional focus, the BRICS grouping is global and has the potential to attract any country that members think is worthy of being included in the network. 

In contrast to the G20, there are no Western powers (especially the United States) in the BRICS network, and the group’s agenda is not defined by global economic governance as it is in the G20. This feature allows the BRICS to focus on more than just economic or political dimensions, which is why Chinese leaders esteem the “flexibility” of BRICS cooperation. 

China’s connectedness to the current and future BRICS member states provides Beijing with undefined but also unlimited options and opportunities. The BRICS grouping underscores China’s identity as a developing country, which is crucial for Beijing to maintain its connections with more than 100 states.

Beijing does not need to know exactly what benefits it can reap from the BRICS network. What is important is the network itself. Networking is a smart strategy for China’s ascendance to global great-power status, and the BRICS, as the first effective attempt to implement this strategy, will loom large in the future of Beijing’s diplomacy and international politics. 

This article was published as part of the Window into China series