Skip to main content Skip to navigation

'The Big View', September 2012

Are Regional Powers Exercising their Regional Leadership?

Dr. Cintia Quiliconi & Dr. Marcelo Saguier

Senior Researchers

Department of International Relations

Latin American School of Social Sciences



Emerging economies are redefining the global political scene, posing new challenges for the European Union foreign relations. The subject was addressed at the latest GR:EEN Workshop “Analyzing the Role of Regional Leaders” hosted by FLACSO-Argentina in May 2012. Participants’ contributions aimed at understanding the consequences of the rise of regional leaders for their respective regional orders and for the global order as a whole. This article contains some incipient research findings of that meeting.

The growing economic gravitation of Brazil, India, China and South Africa does not always translate into greater political influence or leadership on the global stage. There are mixed outcomes. Surely, changes in global governance institutions are related to such greater influence and the structural transformations of the global economy. Following the global financial crisis, emerging countries successfully prompted a reform agenda in the IMF that made the board more representative of their interests. Brazil moved from being a borrower to becoming a lender of the Fund. The remarkable activism of the South-South coalitions like BRICS and IBSA is also indicative of a new correlation of international political forces.

But these developments coexist with continuities in the global power structures which translate into the difficulties that emerging countries face in achieving their leadership aspirations. A more assertive role of China meets the anxiety of leading industrial countries, as seen in the efforts of the US to condition the Chinese engagement in the East Asia regionalization process. Likewise, the growing influence of BRICS in the World Bank does contest the hegemony of western industrial countries in this institution, but the leverage wielded by traditional donors remains strong and firm. New proposals such as the creation of an IBSA bank, or a region-wide South American development bank shape the decisions regarding the future of the Bank. Indeed, its future depends on how these political relations are managed – whether the Bank will be renewed and become more representative or replaced by the alternative institutional solutions that are being proposed. Thus, even if emerging power configurations indicate different avenues to explore new possibilities for international leadership, it cannot be said that there is a radical shift in global power structures. Nor it can be said that nothing has really changed.

Regional leadership becomes a condition for greater political influence on the global stage. However, here again the recognition of a regional power does not equate leadership. One approach to determine if growing power results into regional leadership is to find out whether such countries satisfy three basic conditions: willingness to act as regional leaders, capacity to do so and acceptance of such a leading role by followers.

A general overview of emerging countries’ attitude towards regional leadership suggests that they all share a strong willingness to take a leading role in their respective regions. This does not imply that this is an agreed political goal in each of these countries. In fact, it is often the case that some political and economic actors challenge their government’s aspirations to become regional leaders. Part of the private sector in Brazil, for instance, is reluctant to cope with the costs of developing integrated regional production chains. Likewise, the national debate is tense in South Africa on whether the country should bear the burdens of the problems associated with African integration, or if regional engagement should be strictly focused on the Southern African region rather than on the whole continent. Indeed, some call for the SACU to be disbanded, arguing that it is financially too onerous. On the other hand, the aspirations of the Chinese international leadership are dominated by powerful domestic constraints which, among other factors, set limits as to what this country can do on a regional scale. Still, despite the particular restrictions operating in each national and regional context, the governments of emerging countries appear willing to act as regional leaders.

Their capacity to exercise leadership is nevertheless more difficult to ascertain. Capacity is issue-specific, it takes place in many ways and thus cannot be aggregated into an all-encompassing attribute of state international power. Brazilian leadership’s capacity in South America includes the provision of technical cooperation, commitment to a collective defence policy, mobilization of financial resources for regional infrastructure and fair mediation. Indeed, Brazil also had a crucial role in creating the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR). However, it has been reluctant to downplay the tensions deriving from the obligation to grant its MERCOSUR partners access to its domestic market, and has often flaunted indifference towards MERCOSUR rules. Moreover, Chile, Colombia and Peru in South America have chosen to integrate their economies with western countries signing bilateral trade agreements with the EU and the US among others, opposing Brazilian intent to avoid locking in neoliberal policies. As regards South Africa, its capacity to exert regional leadership relates to its commitment to the provision of public goods in the context of the SACU, where it acts as guarantor of revenue compensation for Swaziland and Lesotho.

Acceptance of the regional leadership by smaller neighboring countries is related to the extent to which leadership is seen to legitimately represent regional aspirations and not the regional power’s narrowly-defined national interests. In this respect, Brazil and South Africa sometimes are regarded as using BRICS and IBSA as leveraging venues for global leadership without the constraints and the burdens of having to represent their region’s interests. Moreover, infrastructure integration initiatives promoted by Brazil, mainly in the hydro-electrical energy sector, suggest some limits to the acceptance of this country’s role in the region. Brazilian companies are the main beneficiaries of infrastructure, while the projects are a source of conflicts among local communities that are affected by the socio-environmental problems caused by them, and by the asymmetrical distribution of material and environmental costs and benefits in favor of Brazil and its companies. Furthermore, Brazil’s leadership in the region finds limitations caused by the lack of support of MERCOSUR to Brazil’s choice to candidate as chair of the WTO and by Argentina’s reluctance to back the Brazilian aspiration to join the UN Security Council – support that Brazil has instead obtained from China. Acceptance of Chinese leadership is likewise difficult to define in East Asia. Following the Asian Financial Crisis in 1997, regionalism in this area witnessed a rare equilibrium of multi-actor leadership that has been increasingly shaped by the strategic competition between China and Japan for competing liberalization. It is not clear yet who the regional leader is eventually going to be.

A global economic rebalancing is taking place. It does not imply an irreversible decline of the West and an overhaul of the current global economic status quo. Yet, the prospects of emerging countries acquiring a more substantive leadership role in the global stage are linked to their ability to exercise endurable regional leaderships. Regional politics and the provision of regional public goods by regional powers hold the key to future scenarios. More than ever this reality is also a pressing challenge to the EU.