Emerging Powers

Since the late fifteenth century, the West has maintained a global hegemony the likes of which the world has never seen before. And following the end of the Cold War, the United States of America has remained the world's major global superpower, a nation with enough military and cultural might to dominate international affairs. However, with the rise of China and India and the resurgence of an expansionist Russia, the world is undergoing a shift as momentous as any seen in the last 500 years. New superpowers are emerging to share, or even challenge, the United States' role on the world stage. What does power look like from a global political standpoint, and what challenges are these emerging powers facing? Let's find out. 

Emerging Powers Emerging Powers

Create learning materials about Emerging Powers with our free learning app!

  • Instand access to millions of learning materials
  • Flashcards, notes, mock-exams and more
  • Everything you need to ace your exams
Create a free account
Table of contents

    Emerging Superpower Countries

    What, exactly, is a superpower? No, no, not the special abilities that Superman has! In the context of geography, a superpower is a nation that has economic, cultural, and military power several times greater than other nations. A superpower typically has the ability to project its influence on a global scale.

    Historical superpowers have included the Babylonian Empire, the Egyptian Empire, the Greek Macedonian Empire, the Mongol Empire, the British Empire, and the Roman Empire (more on them later). Today, while many countries exert great influence on a local scale (and have some sway on international politics), many geographers consider the United States of America to be the sole true existing superpower. The United States has the largest economy in the world and a military budget that exceeds the next 10 countries combined.

    However, the United States may have to share the title soon. Even though China's gross domestic product is still about £5 trillion behind the United States, it's catching up fast, as is India. Similarly, China, India, and Russia are also increasing their military expenditures and are actively attempting to leverage their military power abroad.

    Countries like China, Russia, and India are classified as emerging superpowers: countries that, if they maintain their current trajectory, have the potential to become superpowers in the near future.

    Military power is classified as hard power, that is, influence through force. Cultural power is classified as soft power, that is, influence without force. Soft power can include forms of entertainment (TV shows, video games, novels, movies) or political, philosophical, and religious ideologies.

    Emerging country definition in geography

    When we say a country is 'emerging,' it does not necessarily have to mean that a country is becoming a superpower. An emerging country, in reference to a country's power, can be limited to the regional stage. The term 'emerging' can signify the rapid growth of any combination of military power, economic power, and cultural influence.

    For example, Japan emerged as a major global economic and cultural power after the 1960s, but not as a military power. Mexico has emerged as a major regional cultural and economic power and a minor military player, but it has a very limited global reach, and it does not seek global status in these respects. Nigeria is an emerging global economic and cultural power, though it is still in its early stages; however, it remains a regional powerhouse at the military level.

    In 1947, as part of its surrender to the Allies in World War II, Japan was forbidden from forming a military and from using military power to resolve its international conflicts. Instead of a military, the Japanese government maintains self-defence forces. Japan has the third-largest economy in the world and great international cultural influence, but its lack of military prevents it from being classified as either a superpower or an emerging superpower.

    The hegemonic power of the West

    You may have seen or heard 'the West' used in political or geographic rhetoric. What exactly is the West?

    From a simple geographic perspective, the West refers to the European continent in relation to the Asian continent. However, from an ideological perspective, 'the West' refers to the forebears and inheritors of ancient Greek and Roman culture. This includes most of Europe but also includes Australia, New Zealand, the United States, and Canada, which may have nothing to do with anything 'west' in a geographic sense.

    Sometimes, Latin America and Russia are included as part of the West as well.

    Emerging Superpowers Map showing Western countries StudySmarterFig. 1 - Map showing the countries seen as 'Western countries'.

    In the long course of human history, global power has been concentrated in the West for a relatively little amount of time. For example, before the rise of Rome, global power was largely concentrated in Persia; after the Western Roman Empire fell, global power shifted to the Middle East and North Africa.

    However, with the adoption of new technologies and a drive for global exploration and conquest, the collective West has held hegemonic power since the late 15th centuryon a magnitude of power unseen before.

    Hegemony is a nation or group of nations that are dominant over others.

    Western hegemony, and especially the US as a superpower within Western hegemony, has faced and continues to face global disapproval. The West has faced criticism for the general vast reach and scope of military activities, even in the face of a 'New Cold War' with Russia and a growing stand-off with China. Demonstrations of hard power in the form of the Western military drive to reshape the Middle East have led many non-aligned countries to challenge Western dominance in the international order and call for a 'multipolar world' (a world where hegemony does not exist).

    Internal Western conflicts, such as the European Union versus the United Kingdom in Brexit, have not been celebrated as a sign of strength by the international community. What is more, many Western countries are highly energy-dependent on Russia and the Middle East, vastly weakening the West's position. Therefore, the deterioration of the hegemonic positions of the West gives room for a group called BRICS to take on more power under the power transition theory. BRICS have been increasingly exerting their power to negotiate on a world stage, such as in the breakdown of negotiations for the World Trade Organisation's Doha Development Agenda in 2008. Brazil and India, in particular, felt that their needs were not being met, and BRICS evolved out of this breakdown.

    Power Transition Theory: The challenger is a new power that starts to compete with the dominant great power and becomes more successful as there are fewer differences between the two’s power dynamics. As the gap in power decreases, the challenger begins to take over, and as a result, conflict increases.

    The rise of BRICS

    The term 'BRICS' comes from Jim O’Neill, a global economic analyst at Goldman Sachs investment bank who studied the development of key emerging market economies.

    BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) are countries that fit under the category of emerging economic powers, and as we've mentioned, Russia, India, and China are also major military power players that can be considered emerging superpowers. BRICS are evolving from their former status as regional powers with developing economies to powers with global reach. Russia retains hard power characteristics from the USSR and a blend of developing and developed economic characteristics.

    'BRIC' are the four largest economies outside the developed economies of the Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD)the US, Japan, UK, Germany, Italy, Canada, and France. South Africa is farther down the list, at number 36 globally in 2022. As a result, BRICS countries have reduced reliance on foreign aid. Indeed, China, India, and Brazil have become aid donors in their own right, which is a sign of an emerging power: to exert influence on other countries. Their importance on the global stage is further heightened by their G20 (Group of 20) membership, allowing them a voice in major international economic issues.

    BRIC countries have been holding an annual summit since 2009. South Africa joined in 2010. With South Africa joining, BRIC, the original four countries, nicknamed the 'Big Four,' became BRICS.

    MINT and other emerging powers

    A second-tier groupMexico, Indonesia, Nigeria, and Turkey, the MINT countriesis undergoing rapid economic development and increasing political and cultural influence. The development of these powers signifies a diffusion of power from BRICS.

    Additional emerging regional powers with substantial military might and economies in the top 40 globally include oil-rich Saudi Arabia, Iran, the United Arab Emirates, and South Korea. Discussion of these powers in the context of the global economy changes quickly. They are all politically volatile and/or are located in 'dangerous neighbourhoods,' which can be a strength or a weakness impacting their development into global powers, depending on the nature of geopolitical shifts occurring now.

    Emerging powers are not necessarily the same as emerging economies. Emerging economies are developing countries with rapidly growing GDPs that are coming out of poverty. This does not apply to Russia and vice versa; many countries with emerging economies do not seek or are unable to project hard or soft power beyond their own borders.

    Brazil and South Africa as emerging powers

    Brazil is home to the largest tropical rainforest and vast natural resources. South Africa has a thriving industrial base and an enviable position along world trade routes. China’s development has given both countries many opportunities to secure export deals which have elevated their soft power in South America and Africa, respectively. Brazil's position as South America's largest oil producer and South Africa's global preeminence in precious metals has improved their negotiating position on the world stage.

    Brazil's continued reliance on its role as a primary producer for export rather than expansion to the secondary sector (manufacturing) casts doubts on what will happen to its economy when resources become scarce. There is also the looming threat of Amazonian deforestation and its environmental impact. For South Africa, global climate change and sociopolitical chaos pose significant risks.

    Structural economic problems in both countries include high levels of corruption, while national development is hampered by sky-high social violence and rapid changes between politically polarised governments. Street protests against corruption have attracted millions. Brazil and South Africa have lacked political stability in recent decades and, as a result, have developed little military or hard power. This is reflected in their low military spending: Brazil spends just 2% of GDP and South Africa slightly more than 1%, much less than the other BRICS. The slowdown in Chinese growth further reduces demand for their commodities. Corruption scandals and political unrest mean that law enforcement numbers have been reduced, and environmental and social disruption continue to rise.

    Emerging Superpowers Brazilian favela StudySmarterFig. 2 - A Brazilian favela

    Emerging Superpowers in Asia

    The true centre of the emerging challenge to Western hegemony is in the ever-strengthening 'Eurasian' alliance of China and Russia, with an array of satellite countries that are either allies or are neutral in the growing conflict between East and West. These include both India and Pakistan, regional rivals but joined in their increasingly independent stances vis-a-vis Western and particularly US agendas. In the Asia-Pacific region, only Japan, Australia, and New Zealand remain firmly within the US orbit.

    Russia as an emerging superpower

    Russia is rich in natural resources, especially oil and natural gas. Its economy depends largely on the export to western Europe, just as Europe is largely dependent on Russia in this respect. Oil and gas are globally-traded commodities subject to fluctuations that produce uncertainties about Russia's economic and political position. Russia's power is also demonstrated through its role as the world’s largest arms exporter, linked to conflicts in Syria and central Africa. This growth has allowed Russia's attempted resurgence as a major power following the collapse of the USSR. A demonstration of its new soft power was seen at the World Cup in 2018, but Russia still lacks major global cultural reach on the level of countries such as the US.

    Russia's sphere of influence decreased since the collapse of the USSR as many Eastern European countries joined NATO and the EU. Also, some ex-Soviet republics, such as Ukraine, moved increasingly westward in outlook and economic orientation. After a regime unfavourable to Russia came into power in Ukraine in 2014, Russia rapidly annexed Crimea using hard power, supported the ethnic Russian separatists in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine, and invaded Ukraine in early 2022. From the Western point of view, the moves are due to the increasingly paranoid, unbalanced, and autocratic leadership under Vladimir Putin. From the Russian point of view, which has many sympathisers worldwide, any move from Ukraine to join NATO signals too much Western presence in its sphere of influence after decades of shrinking power. Russia's main motivations have been to protect its warm-water ports on the Black Sea, prevent a first strike by the West on Russia itself, and defend Russian populations living in ex-Soviet republics (this is called irredentism).

    Russia's de facto alliance with China, with which it shares a land border, presents the West with a formidable Eurasian challenge through the combination of cutting-edge military technology in both countries, vast natural resources in Russia, and the world's second-largest economy.

    China as an emerging superpower

    China is now the second largest economy in the world, but its wealth is unevenly distributed among the population of over 1.4 billion people. Similar to India, this means huge disparities between rich and poor. This is exacerbated by the move away from the traditional communist ideology, which kept income levels low but stable, to a hyper-capitalist competitive market that encourages private enterprise but led to an increasing gap between the haves and the have-nots.

    Militarily, China has risen to regional superpower status. It has focused on developing a blue-water navy (which aids its claims to territory in the South China Sea), potential reunification with Taiwan, and rapid expansion in the Pacific.

    A blue-water navy is a navy capable of global maritime projection. In other words, a blue-water navy is capable of long and distant naval travel and warfare upon the high seas.

    In contrast, a green-water navy is usually limited close to national shores and a brown-water navy is designed to operate on small and/or internal waterways like rivers, ocean coasts, and lakes.

    China's government and society are increasingly totalitarian, and controlled by the Chinese Communist Party (CPC or CCP). The CPC oversees a surveillance system and 'Great Firewall' that monitors everyone's movements, economic activity, and political opinions and restricts communications between its people and the rest of the world. Integration into a Western-centric, globalised world emphasising democratic ideals such as human rights and freedom of expression is difficult under these conditions.

    In China, state-owned enterprises have extensive power. The preeminence of the CPC has allowed the rapid introduction of economic initiatives to drive development, for example, through Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs). China’s cheap cost of manufacturing is fuelled by its large population operating on meagre wages, and thus it is termed the ‘workshop of the world’. There are concerns that as China develops and wages increase, TNCs will simply move to other low-cost Asian locations with younger workforces. This problem is concerning because the population is rapidly ageing, with the fertility level much lower than the replacement rate: the demographic resource of cheap labour cannot be relied on for much longer.

    China's rapid growth since the 1980s has produced rapid and severe pollution problems that have caused health issues and contributed to global warming. China still burns a lot of coal, a highly polluting non-renewable energy source, which has produced heavy fumes, increasing cases of asthma and other respiratory diseases.

    Despite China’s problems and significant differences in economy and government from the West, it is the closest of the BRICS to become a true challenger to the United States. The United States has responded to the challenge by attempting to reduce its reliance on Chinese products but is moving most rapidly in the military sphere, countering China by strengthening ties with China's traditional rivals, particularly Japan and Australia. Meanwhile, China seeks to expand its global influence and economic position through strategies such as The One Belt One Road Project, a growing alliance with Russia, and investment in the China-Africa relationship.

    Emerging Superpowers Shanghai skyline StudySmarterFig. 3 - Shanghai, China, skyline

    India as an emerging superpower

    India’s strength lies in its tertiary service sector and its huge population, soon to surpass that of China. India is the world's largest democracy, the second-largest English-speaking nation after the United States, and many global TNCs outsource their services in IT to India as a result. Such services are staffed by a well-educated young population. It is the only BRICS country without an ageing problem and overtook China in terms of the largest workforce in 2020. The growing economy suggests that capital flight is less likely to occur. Furthermore, the country is politically stable and ranked the fourth largest military power based on its arsenal and weaponry.

    Capital flight is the departure of high-earning, well-educated professionals as economic migrants to other countries with improved financial prospects.

    India's official position is that its nuclear weapons are only to deter Pakistan. Though Pakistan itself is not an emerging superpower, its own nuclear arsenal boosts its status as a competitor to India in regional emerging power terms. In the early 2020s, India also engaged in a violent border dispute conflict with China along their heavily militarised Himalayan border, but it has remained neutral in the conflict between Russia and Ukraine.

    Despite a growing and extremely wealthy ‘1%’ and a flourishing middle class, poverty is still rampant in India. Millions live in slums or 'shanty towns' where sanitation is poor and informal carbon-emitting industries, and factories are not environmentally regulated. The caste system, while increasingly unpopular, still restricts progressive employment opportunities and marriages. For example, the 200-million-strong Dalit class (‘Untouchables’) is largely limited to undesirable, low-income jobs. This exacerbates religious conflicts, especially between Hindus and Muslims, and destabilises the government as well.

    Will Emerging Powers Become Superpowers by 2050?

    In modern history, many emerging countries have been suggested as candidates for superpower status, so BRICS do not necessarily represent a novel development1. However, the idea that the US has shown itself to be the only 20th-century superpower able to maintain its superpower status is now being challenged.

    Are emerging powers a genuine threat to the United States?

    Rumours of the demise of BRICS were definitely exaggerated, as the world saw in the post-COVID pandemic 2020s with Russia's invasion of Ukraine sparking what many called a 'New Cold War' and China's rapid military growth and anti-Western posturing.

    The refusal of the rest of BRICS to stand with the West against Russia may be a sign that BRICS, and its many regional allies, are part of a global shift away from Western dominance. Given incredible global instability, including nuclear posturing between East and West, in the early 2020s, it is impossible for any analysts to know where the situation is headed, but it is certainly the case that the rise of BRICS was a major part of the move away from Western dominance and the rejection of the USA as sole superpower, toward some sort of multipolar world. It is worth considering that an arc of neutral and anti-Western countries now extends as an unbroken belt from North Korea and China westward across Asia to Iran and Syria in the Middle East and Belarus in Europe. Meanwhile, countries in Latin America and Africa are as likely to align themselves with BRICS economies and military objectives as with the US and its allies, where these are at odds.

    Emerging Superpowers - Key Takeaways

    • An emerging superpower is a country with the potential to become a superpower with global economic and political reach.

    • BRICS is a group of emerging powers comprised of Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa.

    • Brazil and South Africa will continue as regional powers but will not achieve superpower status.

    • Russia is a resurgent power, seeking superpower status that is strengthened by its alliance with other countries, particularly China (which is becoming a superpower in its own right).

    • India is an emerging superpower not strongly aligned with other powers and with substantial advantages in terms of government, economic growth, and demographic potential.


    1. Andrew Hurrell, Chapter 5. Rising powers and the emerging global order, The Globalization of World Politics: An Introduction to International Relations (8th ed), p. 84
    Frequently Asked Questions about Emerging Powers

    What is an emerging superpower?

    An emerging superpower is a country increasing in power over recent years, potentially becoming a superpower and having a major impact on the future global economy.

    Which countries are newly emerging economies?

    Emerging countries should not be confused with emerging superpowers. Emerging superpowers are BRICS countries with the 5 largest economies outside the OECD. Emerging economies are developing countries that are coming out of poverty with rapidly growing GDPs.

    Which countries are emerging superpowers?

    Emerging powers are also known as BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa).

    Is India a superpower?

    India has the potential to be a superpower but faces many social problems that stand in its way from beating the United States. India is, therefore, an emerging superpower.

    Is Pakistan a superpower?

    Pakistan has nuclear weapons, which is a factor of military power, but its reasoning is a defence against India. Pakistan is a competing emerging power to India.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Which one of the following is NOT an oil-rich, emerging country?

    Who is the 2nd largest economy in the world?

    Which country is the workshop of the world?

    About StudySmarter

    StudySmarter is a globally recognized educational technology company, offering a holistic learning platform designed for students of all ages and educational levels. Our platform provides learning support for a wide range of subjects, including STEM, Social Sciences, and Languages and also helps students to successfully master various tests and exams worldwide, such as GCSE, A Level, SAT, ACT, Abitur, and more. We offer an extensive library of learning materials, including interactive flashcards, comprehensive textbook solutions, and detailed explanations. The cutting-edge technology and tools we provide help students create their own learning materials. StudySmarter’s content is not only expert-verified but also regularly updated to ensure accuracy and relevance.

    Learn more
    StudySmarter Editorial Team

    Team Emerging Powers Teachers

    • 19 minutes reading time
    • Checked by StudySmarter Editorial Team
    Save Explanation

    Study anywhere. Anytime.Across all devices.

    Sign-up for free

    Sign up to highlight and take notes. It’s 100% free.

    Join over 22 million students in learning with our StudySmarter App

    The first learning app that truly has everything you need to ace your exams in one place

    • Flashcards & Quizzes
    • AI Study Assistant
    • Study Planner
    • Mock-Exams
    • Smart Note-Taking
    Join over 22 million students in learning with our StudySmarter App