Regional Superpowers on the World Stage Part I

This is the first of two articles on the regional powers China, India, Brazil and South Africa.

Regional powers in Asia, Africa and Latin America are playing an increasing role in the global arena. This applies in particular in connection with international trade issues, but also elsewhere in the UN context and to an increasing extent also in security policy. The fact that the world’s two sovereign most populous states belong to the category of regional superpowers also makes it relevant to take a closer look at their global role. This and the following issue of HHD, which is based on an article in the journal International Politics, asks four main questions:

  • To what extent do the regional powers China, India, Brazil and South Africa play a global political role?
  • To what extent do they have common interests and profile?
  • What do they stand for in global politics?
  • How do they face American unilateralism?

2: Some premises for their global political role

  • The United States dominates the world militarily, economically, politically and culturally. The United States is increasing its military superiority, but pursuing policies that undermine its economic and cultural hegemony. The United States has the power to define the global political agenda, but prefers to do so in other ways than through multilateral cooperation and binding treaties. The country wants to decide its global policy on its own.
  • Many European countries – large and small – play an active role in global politics. They have the EUas a forum for formulating common political positions, although this is not easy with 25 members. The EU has great influence over global trade and development policy, but in crisis management the United States Western Europe and the United States no longer need each other to withstand a threat from the East, and the United States is increasingly oriented towards the emerging economies of Asia. The EU is playing an increasing role in European politics, while NATO’s role has diminished. The antagonisms between Western Europe and the United States have expanded the room for maneuver of other great powers, which may play on transatlantic disagreements.
  • Russia’s role was significantly reduced in the first years after the end of the Cold War, but has increased again under Vladimir Putin. The Russians – unlike the Chinese – have not been able to create a viable capitalist economy. Nevertheless, it is worth remembering that Russia still:
  1. is a permanent member of the UN Security Council,
    2. has the world’s second largest arsenal of strategic nuclear weapons,
    3. exports significant quantities of weapons, not least to China and India,
    4. is a strategic player in the global oil and gas market .

The latter has contributed to an economic recovery for Russia in recent years.

  • Even after a decade of economic stagnation, Japan will still have the world’s second largest gross national income for a few more years. The country is now experiencing new economic growth, and Japan is Asia’s strongest military power, with a highly developed technology. But Japanese cultural and political influence is far less than many expect from a power with such potential. Japan’s attempts to play a more prominent role have not been very successful, either globally or regionally. Japanese foreign policy is still dominated by those who want to preserve and strengthen the alliance with the United States to resist China’s growing power.
  • The power relations in today’s world are reflected as much in the composition of the G8 as in the Security Council. Only one of the G8 countries (Japan, a country located in Asia according to does not belong to the European cultural sphere. Neither China, Brazil, India nor South Africa are involved, and only one of them – China – is a permanent member of the UN Security Council.
  • China and India (like Russia) have strong reasons to support the US fight against Islamist terrorism and see this in the context of their own fight against Islamist groups in Xinjiang, Kashmir (and the Caucasus). South Africa and Brazil have greater problems with violent crime than with religiously motivated terrorism.
  • Energy policy has again – as during the oil crises in 1973 and 1979 – become central to trade policy and security policy assessments. As a result of increasing dependence on oil imports, China, India and South Africa have the same fundamental interest as Japan, the United States and the Western European powers in securing access to oil and gas at low and stable prices. All these great powers thus have a common interest in ensuring stability in Saudi Arabia and other countries in the Middle East. Brazil stands out by being almost self-sufficient in oil.
  • US policy under President George W. Bush has jeopardized the stability of the world economy by creating a colossal deficit in the US trade balance and in the US state budget, overturning power relations and increasing insecurity in the Middle East, bringing NATO into crisis, stimulating anti-Americanism in many countries and slow down international cooperation (cf. climate issues, etc.). This has posed a global political dilemma to the rest of the world: How to combine binding multilateral cooperation, both regionally and globally, with a close and good relationship with the United States?


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