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G7, BRICS and the G20
27 May 2016

Influence and economic prowess are steadily moving eastward. Yesterday, the G7 group of industrialised countries (France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom, the United States and Canada, as well as the president of the European Union) started their summit meeting in Japan, having last met in Germany.

In September, the G20 group will meet in China (their previous meeting was in Turkey). And finally, in October, the BRICS summit (of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) will be hosted by India (the previous host was Russia). Global clubs are all the rage. Although not by design, that all three of these key meetings will occur in Asia during 2016 tells an important story of the global dispersion of economic weight, political influence and military power characteristic of the 21st century.

In a previous ISS today, I argued that the G7 and BRICS are best understood as two important ideological sub-groups within the larger G20. The G20 grouping consistently accounts for roughly 80% of the world’s economy and population (and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future). Within the G20, the relative contribution of the G7 countries is steadily declining on almost all measurements bar individual wealth – while that of the BRICS is increasing.

China has made it clear that the G20 is to steer away from what it terms ‘political’ issues
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Dominated by China and India, the relative contribution of the BRICS group to the global economy should, in about 15 years’ time, overtake the share of the G7. The BRICS countries already have more than four times the population of the G7, and their total defence expenditure will overtake that of the G7 in about five years’ time. Nothing is assured, of course, and events in China or the European Union may readily upset our best attempts at foretelling the future.

But instead of global influence shifting from one subgroup to another, i.e. from the G7 to the BRICS, it does seem more likely that the G20 will emerge as the most empowered and influential. And, instead of contributing to greater fragmentation and discord, the apparent shift of influence to the BRICS will not occur at the direct expense of the G7, but effectively lead to a more even distribution of power among G20 members. In addition, an emerging global consensus on a range of development and sustainability issues is underpinning all groupings and creating unexpected synergies.

Last year was particularly important. The Third International Conference on Financing for Development, which concluded in July in Addis Ababa, provided the foundation for the United Nations (UN) General Assembly to adopt the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (SDGs) on 25 September 2015. The binding agreement at the UN climate negotiations in Paris in December to reduce global carbon emissions (adopted by 195 countries) was another key milestone that has, collectively, set a comprehensive global development agenda.

The impact of these agreements will be reflected during all three summit meetings taking place in Asia between now and October. In the process, we are seeing the emergence of an inchoate network of commitments and modes of interaction. Within this arrangement countries will still be competing for influence, market and access, but they are also coming together to set common targets and action plans in an increasingly dense web of goal-orientated interaction that promises to guide global coordination and collaboration for years to come.

Global collaboration is emerging at various levels and along various axes
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Thus, according to the official website, the main agenda items for the G7 Summit include building on the outcomes of the Paris agreement; implementing the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development; exploring how the G7 can contribute to closing the estimated US$1 trillion global demand-supply gap in infrastructure; and strengthening the response to public health emergencies by learning from previous outbreaks, such as Ebola.

The same agenda items are evident for the G20 Summit, which is set to take place in Hangzhou. This will be first G20 summit to be hosted by China – and Germany, the incoming chair of the G20, is already deeply engaged with Beijing to ensure the continuity of the Chinese focus on the SDGs when it assumes the chair.

The G20 has set itself an ambitious goal of leading the global economy towards ‘strong, sustainable and balanced growth’. But whereas the G7 summit under Japan’s chairing will deal with various political and security issues – such as Russia, Ukraine’s conflict and the threat posed by North Korea’s nuclear ambitions – China has made it clear that the G20 is to steer away from what it terms ‘political’ issues. These will be relegated to the BRICS meeting later in the year, which, like the G7, will pronounce on its areas of ideological concern.

In the agenda of these summits, we can see how global collaboration is emerging at various levels and along various axes. Large differences remain, of course – such as the lack of space for independent civil society and business within the most important members of the BRICS, and the threat of populist nationalism in the developed world. But in general it is important to balance the overblown concerns about terrorism, refugees and instability with appreciation for the extent to which a more crowded world is also likely a more collaborative one.

This evolution is important for Africa, which remains relatively marginal in economic, military and diplomatic terms. The welcome reality of Africa’s rise will, over the coming decades, undo some of the damage done during the 1970s and ’80s, when the continent largely went backward. That said, the road ahead is perhaps longer than most Africans wish to acknowledge.

The road ahead is perhaps longer than most Africans wish to acknowledge
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Perception and reality diverge in this emerging ‘global order’. As the world steadily becomes more connected, and as we witness the emergence of the common development understandings discussed here, the general perception is that of danger, fracture and instability. These views often confuse rapid evolution and change with instability, instead of recognising that perhaps it was the sterile stability of the Cold War that was the aberration.

The remarkable progress that has been made towards levels of human development and stability during the 20th and 21st century remains historically unprecedented. Indeed, new clouds are forming on the horizon – including the rise of populist nationalism in developed countries, and the extent to which formal institutions of global governance (the UN system in particular) are under strain and may fall into neglect in favour of club- or issue-based governance.

Inevitably, a world with more people sees more violence, but conflict intensity (measured as the risk per million people) is coming down generation after generation. We could, in this generation, see the elimination of extreme poverty globally. There is therefore much to celebrate – as evident by the agendas of the meetings of the G7, BRICS and G20.

Jakkie Cilliers, Head, African Futures and Innovation Section, Institute for Security Studies

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