What is Meant by Emerging Countries?

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Written by Richard Rousseau, Contributor

Categorizing countries has been a recurrent phenomenon since the creation of the major international organizations after 1945, in particular regarding their economic situation. The term “emerging countries” is one of the latest additions to a long list.

Beside the broad categories of developed and developing countries, the list of terms includes: industrialized and newly industrialized, least developed or least advanced countries, small and vulnerable economies or economies in transition. The expression “emerging countries” was first coined in the early 1990s as part of the widespread euphoria about the spreading of economic and financial liberalization policies in the developing world. In the words of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), “emerging markets are typically countries with low to middle per capita income that have undertaken economic development and reform programs and have begun to ‘emerge’ as significant players in the global economy.”

But, as the IMF acknowledges, “there are many ways to categories countries as emerging markets.” As one could expect then, the World Bank uses a different categorization, as do major financial actors through their various emerging market indices. From this perspective, it is quite surprising that there is still a strong overlap in the lists produced by the various organizations or actors.

Indeed, based on the IMF World Economic Outlook 2012, the World Bank Global Development Finance Report 2013, and Morgan Stanley Emerging Market Index, the following countries are listed as emerging countries by more than one of the three sources: Argentina, Brazil, Bulgaria, Chile, China, Colombia, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hong Kong, Hungary, India, Indonesia, South Korea, Latvia, Lithuania, Malaysia, Mexico, Morocco, Pakistan, Peru, Philippines, Poland, Romania, Russia, Singapore, Slovak Republic, South Africa, Taiwan, Thailand, Tunisia, Turkey, Ukraine and Vietnam.

This list raises a few big questions, however. Referring back to the major elements mentioned in the IMF definition, the first issue is the importance given to the criterion of “low to middle per capita income.” Its strict application should clearly eliminate from the list Hong Kong, South Korea, Singapore and Taiwan, as well as the Czech Republic, and arguably also Estonia, the Slovak Republic and Hungary. The next issue is about the interpretation of “significant players in the world economy.” For instance, it is hard to make a case along this line for Bulgaria, Latvia, Lithuania, and Romania, short of counting them within the EU block. It is also difficult to consider Tunisia and Morocco along this criterion. The inclusion of these two groups of countries relies evidently on the criteria of economic reforms, in particular given that these reforms are credibly locked in domestic societies through EU membership or through strong authoritarian regimes.

We are therefore left with the following countries that do seem to match all the criteria of the “market-oriented reforms,” “low to middle income,” and “significant players in the world economy”: Argentina, Brazil, Chile, China, Colombia, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Mexico, Pakistan, Peru, Philippines, Poland, Russia, South Africa, Thailand, Turkey, Ukraine and Vietnam. Given the wide disparity in the resources, population, political system and economic potential of those countries, the added value of the categorization of emerging markets is an open question. The concept may disappear as quickly as it rose to prominence.

Market participants seem already to have switched to the more catchy acronyms of BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa), or “BRIMSC” (adding Mexico) that encompass the five or six countries with the potential of not simply being significant but also dominant forces in the world economy by 2050. Today collectively dwarfed by the G7 countries, with only China being individually bigger than some of the G7 countries, the “BRICS” could, if everything goes politically and economically right, collectively overtake the G7 around 2040, with China becoming the largest economy and India the third largest.

Whereas this major power shift is still a far distant perspective, the current weight of BRICS on the world economy is significant: They rose from 11% of global GDP in 1990 to 21% in 2013 and are poised to reach 35% by 2050, represent almost 20% of global trade, possess more than 30% of foreign-exchange reserves, attract close to 20% of world FDI and account for more than 30% of world oil demand (source: World Bank).

As a consequence, BRICS countries have gained prominence in major international economic organizations. India and Brazil now play an important role in the Doha Round of negotiations at the WTO. They form with the U.S. and the EU the G4 group that replaced the old Quad (U.S., EU, Japan and Canada) as the key forum for sealing package deals. In the IMF, China obtained in 2013 an increase of its quota and hence voting rights and is now part of an informal G5 study group on global imbalances. These should be the premises of important changes in world politics in the coming decades.

Richard Rousseau is Associate Professor at the American University of Ras Al Khaimah, United Arab Emirates. His research, teaching and consulting interests include Russian politics, Eurasian geopolitics, international political economy and globalization.