Emerging powers

There is no single agreed definition of ‘emerging power’, in part because the term has only recently come into common use. However, it is generally agreed that a key characteristic of an emerging power is a growing economy, which gives a state the potential to be an important global actor.

There might be no emerging powers without globalisation. The growing volume of international trade requires the management of trading relations through international organisations, which brings states into closer contact with each other, providing opportunities to exert influence economically and politically.

A number of states are recognised as emerging powers. As well as the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa), there are Argentina, Australia, Indonesia, Iran, Mexico, Nigeria, Poland, Saudi Arabia, South Korea and Turkey. The Group of 20, seen by many as the forum through which these countries can exert influence, is arguably more important than the Group of 7.

Although initially thought of purely in terms of the size of their economies, BRICS countries have become an important political force in the global trading system and heavily influenced the World Trade Organization (WTO), and are also known to have significant influence on regional affairs. All are also members of G20. The BRICS Forum, an independent international organisation encouraging commercial, political and cultural cooperation between the BRICS nations, was formed in 2011. Several other countries have expressed interest in joining the BRICS grouping.

The grouping has held annual summits since 2009, with member countries taking turns to host. Prior to South Africa's admission, two BRIC summits were held, in 2009 and 2010. The first five-member BRICS summit was held in 2011. The most recent BRICS summit took place in Brazil from 13 to 14 November 2019.

Jim O’Neill, the former chairman of Goldman Sachs Asset Management, coined the term ‘BRICS’ as shorthand for the five major emerging economies of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. The BRICS have met annually since 2009, taking turns to host the event in a different location in the same 5-year cycle, starting with Russia and ending with South Africa. The latter first attended in 2010 as a guest, and first hosted as a full member in 2013.

The initial BRIC country grouping was controversial, with some of the countries in the group more developed than others, particularly economically. It was also controversial that the group did not initially include any African countries, especially considering that it was supposed to represent newly emerging global powers, and therefore intended to contest the traditional global power hierarchies. This is one of the main reasons behind South Africa’s admission. Nigeria, another African country with dramatic potential for growth, has since been added to the MINT countries, also a term O’Neill coined. The MINT countries represent a similar but more recent grouping to the BRICS, and comprise Mexico, Indonesia, Nigeria and Turkey.

The rise of the BRICS and MINT countries demonstrates the way in which the landscape of international politics is changing. In recent history, the Global North has dominated economic development. However, the twenty-first century may see economic and with it political influence shifting from West to East. The Group of Twenty (G20), unlike the Group of Seven (G7), represents developing as well as developed nations and is increasing in global influence. In 2015, China established the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), providing a rival centre of economic structural power to the Western-dominated World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF). By around 2020, China is expected to have the largest economy in the world.