Leaders of the BRICS nations – Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa – were due to open a summit in Johannesburg on Tuesday (22) where they will weigh expanding membership as some members push to forge the bloc into a counterweight to the West.
Heightened global tensions provoked by the Ukraine war and a growing rivalry between China and the United States have added urgency to a drive to strengthen the bloc, which has at times suffered from internal divisions and a lack of coherent vision.
“An expanded BRICS will represent a diverse group of nations with different political systems that share a common desire to have a more balanced global order,” South Africa’s president, Cyril Ramaphosa, said in an address ahead of the meetings.
The theme of its 15th summit is “BRICS and Africa”, but the meeting has also underscored divisions over the war in Ukraine and the support Russia enjoys from its other BRICS partners at a time of global isolation.
South Africa, China and India have not condemned Russia’s invasion, while Brazil refused to join Western nations in sending arms to Ukraine or imposing sanctions on Moscow.
Ahead of the summit, Ramaphosa said his country would “not be drawn into a contest between global powers” and had resisted pressure to align with any influential blocs of nations.
Boosting the use of member states’ local currencies is also on the agenda.
South African summit organisers, however, said there will be no discussions of a BRICS currency, an idea floated by Brazil earlier this year as an alternative to dollar-dependence.
Ramaphosa will host Chinese president Xi Jinping, Brazil’s Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and India’s prime minister Narendra Modi from August 22 to 24.
Russia’s president Vladimir Putin, wanted under an international arrest warrant for alleged war crimes in Ukraine, will not travel to South Africa and instead join virtually.
Expansion has long been a goal of bloc heavyweight China, which hopes that broader membership will lend clout to a grouping already home to some 40 per cent of the world’s population and a quarter of global GDP.
“Today, standing at a new historical starting point, inheriting friendship, deepening cooperation, and strengthening coordination are the common aspirations of the two countries, and are also the important tasks entrusted to us by the times,” said Xi.
The leaders were due to hold a mini-retreat and dinner on Tuesday evening (as Eastern Eye went to press) where they are likely to discuss a framework and criteria for admitting new countries.
But expansion has become a point of contention.
Russia is keen to bring in new members to counter its diplomatic isolation over its invasion of Ukraine. South Africa has also voiced support.
India, which is wary of Chinese dominance and has warned against rushing expansion, has “positive intent and an open mind”, foreign secretary Vinay Kwatra said on Monday (21).
Brazil, meanwhile, is concerned that growing BRICS will dilute its influence.
While a potential BRICS enlargement remains up in the air, the bloc’s pledge to become a champion of the developing “Global South” and offer an alternative to a world order dominated by wealthy Western nations is already finding resonance.
More than 40 countries have expressed interest in joining BRICS, said South African officials. Of them, nearly two dozen have formally asked to be admitted.
The BRICS operate on consensus and the “China-India rivalry is probably the major challenge that BRICS will eventually be confronted with” said Jakkie Cilliers, founder of the Pretoria-based Institute for Security Studies (ISS) think tank.