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Within BRICS, it is China that is most often seen as Africa’s saviour. Here, a Chinese contractor, foreground, points to a spot on a railway track for a labourer to work on in Lagos. (Sunday Alamba/AP)
Within BRICS, it is China that is most often seen as Africa’s saviour. Here, a Chinese contractor, foreground, points to a spot on a railway track for a labourer to work on in Lagos. (Sunday Alamba/AP)

China leader's first trip highlights growing clout of BRICS nations Add to ...

For a glimpse of a potential new world order, take a look at the carefully chosen plans for the first overseas trip by China’s new President.

Fresh from his triumph in China’s leadership transition this month, Xi Jinping won’t be paying his respects in Washington or Europe on his debut foreign tour. Instead, on Friday, he flies to Russia – and then onward to three resource-rich African countries, in a trip laden with symbolic and political meaning.

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The centrepiece of Mr. Xi’s nine-day “diplomatic blitzkrieg,” as some in the African media are calling it, is the annual summit of the BRICS group of nations, to be held in the South African coastal city of Durban next week. The BRICS themselves are evolving into a political entity, offering China a chance to lead the group and campaign for a multipolar world where the West is less dominant.

Originally an economic bloc, BRICS – now comprising Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa – is venturing further into politics and security. The summit will feature an unexpectedly heavy agenda of global issues, from the Syrian war to the planned creation of a development bank to compete with the World Bank, with $50-billion in seed money.

In a sign of the group’s expanding diplomatic role, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad this week asked the BRICS nations to intervene in Syria “to stop the violence.”

The BRICS nations have insisted that they don’t see their bloc as a military alliance or a rival to Western-led organizations such as the G8 or NATO. But as the Syrian request shows, BRICS is moving into security issues in a bigger way. Its summit in Durban will include a defence seminar and an exhibition of military products. National-security advisers from the BRICS nations have begun holding their own summits, most recently in New Delhi in January, to discuss hot subjects such as Iran and cybersecurity.

BRICS began a dozen years ago as a clever catchphrase from the imagination of a Goldman Sachs economist. Today, under China’s unofficial leadership, it is evolving into a global force and even a political competitor to the Western-dominated G8 bloc. Beijing says the “peace and security” and “governance” of Africa will be among China’s priorities at the summit.

While it claims to have no political ambitions, BRICS is already a powerful economic bloc. Its leaders boast that it represents 45 per cent of the world’s population, 30 per cent of the world’s territory, 30 per cent of global output and 17 per cent of world trade. And despite a recent slowdown, it has been responsible for 50 per cent of global economic growth over the past decade, making it a key source of hope for Africa, where the BRICS nations have dramatically increased their trade and investment in recent years.

As the BRICS architecture expands into Africa, other regions are clamouring to join. Egypt made a plea for membership this week, and countries such as Indonesia and Turkey are seen as possible future members.

The summit – the first on African soil – is being hailed in South Africa as a historic event: a kind of World Cup of geopolitics, with the West conspicuously absent. To celebrate the occasion, South Africa is orchestrating a publicity blitz, including “roadshows” to promote BRICS in every province and even a “BRICS Beach Festival” in Durban. South Africa’s national airline is offering discounted flights to Durban for the summit.

With their mineral and oil wealth, African nations have long been courted by Beijing. The tour by Mr. Xi will focus on three nations with vast mineral resources: Tanzania, South Africa and the Republic of Congo (Brazzaville). But many other African leaders will get a chance to meet the BRICS leaders at the Durban summit, where they have been invited as special guests of an “Africa Outreach” session.

Martyn Davies, an emerging-markets investment adviser in Johannesburg, compares the BRICS summit to “the realignment and geopolitical shock” of the Berlin Wall’s collapse in 1989 and the global recession in 2008. “The deck chairs are being rearranged,” he told a Johannesburg business audience. “BRICS best represents this geo-economic new world.”

South African diplomats have declared that BRICS is a step toward a “new equitable world order” and “a stronger force to counter international forums largely dominated by the developed world.” The BRICS nations have helped Africa to “escape the clutches of neo-colonial dependence on foreign aid,” South African Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande told a BRICS academic forum this month.

Within BRICS, it is China that is most often seen as Africa’s saviour. “China has risen and Africa is rising,” South African International Relations Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane told the BRICS academic forum. She quoted favourably the Pan-Africanist leader W.E.B. DuBois, who visited China in 1959 and said: “Africa, arise, face the rising sun! China is flesh of your flesh and blood of your blood.”

Amid the soaring rhetoric, some skeptical notes have been sounded. Analysts have noted that Africa’s trade with China is still dominated by the export of raw materials, similar to the trade patterns of the colonial era.

China is “a significant contributor to Africa’s de-industrialization and underdevelopment,” Nigerian central bank governor Lamido Sanusi wrote this month.

“China takes our primary goods and sells us manufactured ones. This was also the essence of colonialism.”

It was an accusation that Beijing immediately and hotly denied. But it highlighted the reasons why Mr. Xi is eager to meet and reassure African leaders on his first overseas tour.

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