GMF Expert Analysis: 2023 BRICS Summit Brings Expansion
A Cacophony of Countries?
This week’s BRICS summit in Johannesburg was notable on three levels. First, the grouping gained considerable new impetus with the planned addition of six new members—Argentina, Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. The expansion moves BRICS farther from its original logic as a collection of big emerging economies and builds on the newly fashionable attention to the Global South as a potentially cohesive bloc in international affairs. But the group is also adding geographic, economic, and ideological diversity that may make it more fractious. China and Russia may see BRICS as a vehicle for pressing an alternative global vision to the transatlantic order, but India and Brazil are more interested in an updated version of nonalignment. They do not wish to take sides in a new competition with the West. With the notable exception of Iran, most of the prospective new members will have no interest in weakening their economic and security ties to key Western partners.
Second, this will not be a club of political equals. BRICS already suffers from the baggage of Russian membership. Several members are unenthusiastic about the current sanctions on Moscow. But the majority shares the broad view that the Kremlin’s aggression in Ukraine is illegal and immoral. This makes it uncomfortable for Russia. And unlike China, Moscow lacks the economic wherewithal to buy continued influence. Iran, for its part, is essentially a pariah state, and its membership will only complicate the group’s relations with the West even if it reinforces the country’s tentative engagement with fellow BRICS prospect Saudi Arabia.
Third, the Johannesburg summit underscores the new fluidity in global geopolitics. If the United States and Europe cannot do a better job of seriously considering the interests of the Global South, especially the “swing states”, others will happily claim to do so.
Bloc-Building, Chinese Style
In the context of the “anti-hegemonic” struggle that Xi Jinping now speaks about openly, BRICS plays an increasingly important role. For Beijing, this shift is not just about legitimacy and leadership in the developing world. It is in part about mobilizing a coalition that rejects Western and US leadership in the international system, both rhetorically and practically, and marshaling financial and diplomatic resources behind it. It is in part about building a global economic and security framework for Chinese interests that is resilient in the context of the conflictual set of relations with the G7 that Beijing expects.
This change in emphasis has turned BRICS summits into increasingly contentious affairs. India, among other members, does not want the institution to become a Sino-Russian-led anti-western bloc and is now engaged in diplomatic battles of a nature that we did not see even a couple of years ago. But even some of the states that are on better terms with the United States still see advantage in building a trade and financial architecture that maximizes their freedom of maneuver; many fear that they could land on the wrong side of US sanctions at some point and would like a hedge. Beijing is able to take advantage of this fear to push a still-tentative and limited version of “de-dollarization”.. Indeed, these efforts can carry even more weight with Saudi and Emirati participation, which is one of the most significant elements of the BRICS enlargement.
Beijing’s hope is that in the decades to come, the G7 will represent a shrunken share of global GDP and global power, and that it can position itself as the leader of an ascendant Global South. Yet this was also the first BRICS summit at which Xi had to persuade his audience that the Chinese economy could be expected to continue its upward trajectory. He has always been able to benefit from the perception that China’s economic rise was inexorable. The backdrop of this meeting was one of growing fear that he is presiding over a period of relative stagnation.
After the BRICS Expansion—What Next?
While BRICS summits are usually low-key affairs, the 15th summit in Johannesburg drew the world’s attention when the group announced the addition of six new members—Argentina, Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. Some 30 countries had expressed an interest in joining the group prior to the summit. What does this mean for the future of BRICS? Rather than championing the interests of the Global South, is it clear that the expansion was pushed by China and Russia in an attempt to position the group as anti-Western.
One should not overestimate the impact of this change, however. Not all BRICS members are on board with China and Russia’s plan. India and Brazil, for instance, openly opposed the accession of new members in the absence of clear criteria for entry. The summit statement now includes criteria for membership consideration. Moreover, strained India-China ties have affected any cohesion the group might have had and will continue to do so. Not all new members agree with China’s world view and some were motivated to join primarily as a hedge vis-à-vis the West. Historically, however, the BRICS group’s ability to reform global governance institutions, or to provide an alternative economic order, has been quite limited. This will, no doubt, become more difficult with the addition of new members.
While BRICS will certainly not become a more important or effective grouping, the expansion does underline the strides China has made in the Global South. It is part of a long-term strategy in the face of increasingly strained ties with the West. It will also sharpen India-China competition for influence in Africa and Asia.