From BRIC to BRICS and South Africa's Military

2011-05-27

Anton Kruger, Consultant, Peace Missions Programme, ISS Pretoria Office

At the end of 2010 South Africa’s was finally invited to join the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, and China) economic community. BRIC came into existence in 2001 and quickly grew to become one of the main economic players globally. With increased economic power comes increasing military power as well, and the question that needs to be raised is why South Africa was invited to join BRIC in the first place and will this place any extra military responsibilities on South Africa?

When South Africa was envited to join the BRIC countries, it was unclear to many commentators why it would allow South Africa in, rather than countries like South Korea, Mexico or Turkey with much bigger economies. However, even though the main objectives of the BRIC’s were initially economic development and cooperation, these have changed into a more geopolitical role.

Looking beyond the size of South Africa’s economy, it becomes clear why South Africa, from a geopolitical viewpoint, was invited to join the BRICs.

South Africa’s geostrategic port locations and resources would allow BRIC to better compete with the G7 in global issues. South Africa is an extremely resource rich country and has a strategic location on  the 3 essential shipping routes from West to East, which includes to countries such as India, China, Japan and Russia’s far eastern regions. The other routes are through the Suez Canal or around Russia’s northern coast. The route around Cape Agulhas becomes extremely important to the BRIC countries if one considers the vulnerability of the Suez Canal to political and military instability, as well as the danger that ice flows presents around Russia - a route that is closed for nearly half of the year.

The four BRIC countries do not only have their growing economies in common, but they are all undergoing an extensive military modernization effort, aimed at preserving their strategic interests. While European nations like Britain, France, and Germany have been drastically cutting their defence budgets over the last years and the US defence budget is set to flatline in the coming years, the four BRIC countries have been willing to invest in improving their overall military capabilities.

Since 2005, Brazil’s defence budget has grown by nearly 5 percent per annum and the government approved a new defence policy in 2008 that set aside 70 billion USD for reequipping the army. It is also expected that the country’s defence expenditure will rise from the current 1.5 percent of GDP to nearly 2.2 percent of GDP by 2030.

The Russian Federation, meanwhile, also approved plans to boost its arms purchasing budget to 436 Billion USD from 2011 to 2020. Russia has introduced a comprehensive plan to restructure its military from its current over-sized force to a more rapid deployable and professional force.

India is also increasing its defence budget with nearly 11 percent this year. This follows a 34 percent increase during the 2009/2010 financial year. China’s defence budget will officially climb by 12.7 percent this year following a 7.5 percent increase last year. Many experts believe that China is in actual terms spending a lot more on its defence budget than what it is willing to admit.

In comparison, South Africa’s is spending on defence can be considered trivial. South Africa is currently spending only 1.2 percent of GDP on defence which is the lowest of all five of the BRICS countries. In late 2010 a commission of enquiry appointed by the South African government after soldiers took part in an labour action the previous year, found that the South African government should raise defence spending to 2 percent of GDP. This was after evaluating living conditions within the South African military and investigating whether the military is able to conduct its mission as outlined by the government’s own defence policies. Combat readiness is also suffering because of a high operational tempo, while having a very low budget to conduct operations.

While South Africa is not perceived to be a global military force, it can be considered as a regional military power in the context of southern Africa. It has major international commitments to Africa in the form of peace support operations most notably in Darfur and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and has also recently began military operations to support Mozambique in fighting piracy off its coast. Internally, the South African Army and Air Force has redeployed back to country’s borders after a long time of neglect.  The South African military is however too poorly equipped and funded to execute their tasks to the level that they would desire and welcome accelerated investment in the military.

Also, considering South Africa’s unique maritime position within the BRICS group, The South African government would have to expand the military’s naval and air capabilities to improve its maritime security - something it has been largely overseeing up to now.

True, South Africa does have a much smaller economy than the rest of the BRICS countries and it cannot be expected to spend as much on defence as the rest. It is however, a well known fact that South Africa has been underspending on defence and the South African Government should insure the country’s military is adequately funded to conduct the tasks given to it. South Africa will also have to step up to the plate if it wants to remain on par with the military capabilities that are expected of it as a member of BRICS.

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