Beijing has voiced its desire to expand BRICS in an attempt to compete with the West’s G7 – the latest move in Chinese President Xi Jinping’s efforts to counter what he sees as Western unipolarity.
Leaders from the BRICS economic bloc – so named after its constituent countries Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa – are holding three days of meetings in Johannesburg this week in what is expected to be a summit tinged with anti-Western rhetoric.
Xi is set to attend the summit along with dozens of leaders from developing countries, while Russian President Vladimir Putin will appear on a video link to avoid being arrested and tried for war crimes over Ukraine.
Both want to expand BRICS to include more countries – thereby boosting the bloc’s share of world GDP and key natural resources, and creating a vehicle to challenge the West’s political dominance.
A Chinese official speaking on condition of anonymity told the FT: ‘If we expand BRIS to account for a similar portion of world GDP as the G7, then our collective voice in the world will grow stronger.’
But the Chinese president’s effort to build BRICS into an anti-Western powerhouse has caused tensions with India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has a close economic and technological partnership with the US and believes BRICS should remain a non-aligned organisation.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, left, and Chinese President Xi Jinping have different visions for the future of BRICS
From left to right, South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa, China’s President Xi Jinping, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin at the BRICS emerging economies at the Itamaraty palace in Brasilia, Brazil, Thursday, Nov. 14, 2019
President of the Republic of South Africa Cyril Ramaphosa, left, and Russian President Vladimir Putin shake hands before an official ceremony to welcome the leaders of delegations to the Russia Africa Summit in St. Petersburg, Russia, Thursday, July 27, 2023
The BRICS bloc was formed in 2009 by the emerging market countries of Brazil, Russia, India and China, and added South Africa the following year.
Now many other countries in the Global South have voiced intrigue – Saudi Arabia is one of more than 20 countries to have formally applied to join BRICS in another possible expansion, South African officials say.
Any move toward the inclusion of the world’s second-biggest oil producer in an economic bloc with Russia and China would undoubtedly prove alarming for the United States and its allies – particularly amid today’s frosty geopolitical climate.
‘If Saudi Arabia were to enter BRICS, it will bring extraordinary importance to this grouping,’ said Talmiz Ahmad, India’s former ambassador to Saudi Arabia.
Even an agreement on the principle of expanding BRICS, which already consists of a large chunk of the developing world’s biggest economies, is a moral victory for the Russian and Chinese vision for the bloc as a counterbalance to the G7, analysts say.
It comes as the world’s largest economic superpowers, the US and China, are spiralling into an ever more intense economic and military competition, with Beijing’s soaring investment in Central Asia, the Middle East, Africa and South America, expansionist tendencies in the South China Sea and aggressive rhetoric in relation to Taiwan proving cause for grave concern in the White House.
At the same time the US and the European Union are facing off with Russia as a result of Putin’s war in Ukraine. The Western allies may not have deployed troops, blasted Russian MiGs out of the sky or sunk Putin’s warships, but in every other sense they are effectively at war with Moscow.
But India, Brazil and South Africa appear less keen on expansion, with no desire to see their influence in the bloc diluted.
The five countries are yet to agree on the criteria new members need to meet, meaning that Modi is still in a position to restrain BRICS’ rapid expansion and the subsequent transformation of the bloc into a political counterweight to the West.
Nevertheless, Chinese officials are keen to push that rhetoric.
‘BRICS expansion has become the top trending issue at the moment,’ said Chen Xiaodong, China’s ambassador to South Africa.
‘Expansion is key to enhancing (the) BRICS mechanism’s vitality. I believe that this year’s summit will witness a new and solid step on this front.’
Nations ranging from Argentina to Algeria, Egypt, Iran, Indonesia and United Arab Emirates have all formally applied to join BRICS alongside the Saudis, and are also possible new members.
If a number of them are brought in, ‘then you end up with a bigger economic bloc, and from that a sense of power,’ said Prof. Alexis Habiyaremye of the College of Business and Economics at the University of Johannesburg.
A person walks past the Sandton Convention Centre, which will host the upcoming BRICS Summit, in Johannesburg, South Africa August 19, 2023
Brazil’s President Lula da Silva
Chinese President Xi Jinping, right, with South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, left, at the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation in Beijing. China Sept. 3, 2018
Meanwhile, the US has stressed its bilateral ties with South Africa, Brazil and India in an attempt to offset any outsized Russian and Chinese influence emanating from BRICS.
In the buildup to the summit, the State Department said that the US was ‘deeply engaged with many of the leading members of the BRICS association.’
The European Union also will closely follow happenings in Johannesburg, but with almost sole focus on the war in Ukraine and the bloc’s continued effort to draw united condemnation for Russia’s invasion from the developing world – something which has largely failed so far.
With China, Brazil and South Africa coming together, European Commission spokesman Peter Stano said the EU was calling on them to use the moment to uphold international law with respect to Putin’s status as a wanted man over war crimes in Ukraine
But there is very little chance that the Russian president will face pressure from his allies.
At a BRICS foreign ministers meeting in Cape Town in June – the precursor to this week’s summit – there was no public criticism of Putin or Russia over the conflict in Ukraine whatsoever.
If anything, Russia might see the summit as an opportunity to leverage some favour.
Having halted a deal allowing the passage of grain out of Ukraine last month, Putin might use the BRICS gathering to announce more free Russian grain shipments to developing countries, as he has already done for several African nations, said Maria Snegovaya, senior fellow at the Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.
It would allow Putin to demonstrate ‘goodwill’ to the developing world, Snegovaya said, while cutting Ukraine out of the process.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Putin would have ‘full fledged participation’ in the summit despite appearing on a video link and would make a speech.
Chinese President Xi Jinping gestures as he meets with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, on June 19, 2023
Russian President Vladimir Putin shakes hands with South African President Cyril Ramaphosa during their meeting following the Russia-Africa summit in Saint Petersburg, Russia, July 29, 2023
What’s also likely to be aired regularly over the three days in Johannesburg is the developing world’s gripes over current global financial systems.
That has streamlined in the months and weeks leading up to the summit into a criticism of the dominance of the US dollar as the world’s currency for international trade.
BRICS experts are generally united in pointing out the difficulties the bloc has in implementing policy due to the five countries’ differing economic and political priorities, and the tensions and rivalry between China and India.
But a focus on more trade in local currencies is something all of them can get behind, said Cobus van Staden, an analyst at the China Global South Project, which tracks Chinese engagement across the developing world.
He sees BRICS pushing a move away from the dollar in regional trade in some parts of the world in the same way he sees this summit as a whole.
‘None of this is the big sword that’s going to slay the dollar. That’s not the play,’ said van Staden.
‘It’s not one big sword wound, it’s a lot of paper cuts. It won’t kill the dollar, but it’s definitely making the world a more complicated place.’
‘They don’t need to defeat the dollar… and they don’t need to defeat the G7. All they particularly want to do is raise an alternative to it. It’s this much longer play.’