The BRICS countries held their 15th summit in Johannesburg, South Africa on 22-24 August, under the glare of Western public opinion. With Russian President Vladimir Putin joining the meeting virtually, leaders and representatives of the five nations agreed on 24 August to invite Argentina, Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, to join the BRICS by January next year.
Argentina aside, the rest are countries in the Middle East and Africa. The expansion of the BRICS from five to 11 with many countries still on the waiting list takes place amid geopolitical tensions from the Russia-Ukraine war and governance issues in the US and some Western countries. As a result, more developing countries are seeking alternatives to the Western-led international order. China is a frontrunner in this respect, and is seeing its influence rising.
Compromise a part of the game
However, the fact that 22 countries “knocked on the door” — formally asked to be admitted — but only six countries were included shows that compromises had been made within the group. For example, while Iran, with troubled relations with the US, was allowed to join, Venezuela, which also has strained relations with the West, was rejected.
In addition to the fact that Venezuela may not be bringing a distinctive value to the table, it may also have been left out because some members did not want hostilities with the US or a return to Cold War-era polarisation. Thus, a rough balance was maintained in the inclusion of new members.
As for economic-crisis-hit Argentina, which is battling an inflation rate that has soared past 100% over the past year, Brazil probably had a hand in its admission. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is believed not to favour having too many Muslim countries in the BRICS. Although Indonesian President Joko Widodo was also invited to the summit, Indonesia did not gain admission in the end.
... India’s failure to block BRICS expansion shows that this is an unstoppable trend.
Prior to this, India and Brazil have always had reservations about expanding the BRICS. Quoting local officials, Reuters reported that Modi had suddenly introduced new admission criteria on 23 August, which required members not be the target of international sanctions — clearly ruling out potential candidates Iran and Venezuela — and a minimum per capita GDP requirement. Some officials privately described India as “becoming a little bit of a spoiler”.
However, India’s failure to block BRICS expansion shows that this is an unstoppable trend.
Evolution of the BRICS
The BRICS began life in 2001 as the BRIC, an acronym coined by Goldman Sachs economist Jim O’Neill for Brazil, Russia, India, and China — countries that he had identified as rising economic powers. Chinese media cleverly referred to the BRIC as jin zhuan (金砖, lit. ‘gold bricks’). Following the admission of South Africa in 2010, the BRIC became the BRICS.
In 2009, the first summit of the BRIC saw the emergence of a mechanism for international cooperation that gave political meaning to BRIC cooperation. But a question mark has always remained over how much of a role this loosely organised club can play in international affairs. With Brazil and Russia losing their development momentum after 2010, internal differences have also made it difficult for BRICS to make a difference. A few years ago, O’Neill said it all in his article titled “Will the BRICS Ever Grow Up?”
It would be a mistake to think that the soon-to-be 11-member BRICS would unite to become a formidable coordinating force at the international level.
However, no BRICS leader has missed the annual summits over the past 14 years, and even during the pandemic, summits were held virtually. In 2014, the five countries established the Shanghai-based New Development Bank (NDB), which has so far loaned US$33 billion to developing countries, offering them some measure of financial support.
Today, accounting for a significantly larger share of the global economy, the BRICS has indeed “grown up”. But internal differences and conflicts of interest are bound to intensify with the expansion, and existing conflicts among new members, as well as the tension between Iran and the US, will all be brought to the BRICS mechanism, making it more difficult to reach a consensus and act in unison. It would be a mistake to think that the soon-to-be 11-member BRICS would unite to become a formidable coordinating force at the international level.
The greater role that the BRICS can play is to create momentum, increase opportunities for business cooperation, raise the international status and reputation of its members, and offer an insurance policy against international isolation if countries offend the US. In many ways, the BRICS is a symbol of an alternative to the West. All of these objectives may have been achieved, but there are still concerns over how this momentum can be maintained.
For example, Putin had to attend the summit virtually because South African President Cyril Ramaphosa could not guarantee that he would not use the International Criminal Court’s international arrest warrant against him. When the other four leaders all raised their hands in a group photo, Putin could only show his upper body through the screen, making the scene awkward.
As a major BRICS country, the stability of Russia’s domestic politics has a direct impact on the overall development of the BRICS.
Meanwhile, Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin, who had staged an attempted coup against Putin two months ago, died in a plane crash north of Moscow on 23 August. While this may help to consolidate Putin’s power, everything from Prigozhin’s defection to the unexplained plane crash reveals a power struggle among the upper echelons in Russia. As a major BRICS country, the stability of Russia’s domestic politics has a direct impact on the overall development of the BRICS.
The fact that Chinese President Xi Jinping did not personally attend the BRICS Business Forum on 22 August but instead sent Chinese Commerce Minister Wang Wentao to speak on his behalf also attracted a lot of international media attention. Chinese media did not report this detail or give an explanation for Xi’s absence as well. However, Xi joined a dinner with BRICS leaders a few hours later and also attended the summit on 23 and 24 August, participating in several bilateral meetings along the way. News footage showed him relaxed, smiling and in good spirits.
Academics speculated that the Chinese head of state could have asked his commerce minister to attend a forum on his behalf due to his tight schedule, long hours of activity and physical exhaustion. While China’s push for BRICS expansion yielded positive results, intensifying China-US rivalry and China’s severe economic situation will keep China’s higher-ups on their toes, adding yet another load on their shoulders.
This article was first published in Lianhe Zaobao as “金砖灿烂的造势与隐忧”.
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