The 15th BRICS Summit held from 22-24 August, chaired by South Africa, was a success. Despite speculations from certain Western news agencies, not without a degree of malicious pleasure, suggesting that the summit might struggle to reach a consensus on new member admissions, the event proved them wrong. Overall, South Africa carried out its presidential duties remarkably well throughout the summit.
The theme of the summit, “BRICS and Africa: Partnership for Mutually Accelerated Growth, Sustainable Development, and Inclusive Multilateralism,” sums up South Africa’s focus. The summit hosted more than 40 states and prominent leaders like UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, African Union President Azali Assoumani, and New Development Bank (NDB) President Dilma Rousseff.
Voice of the Global South
The summit’s declaration, consisting of 94 paragraphs and 9,257 words, makes it clear that BRICS wants to reshape the current international system dominated by the United States. The decision to admit six new members highlights the group’s aspiration to become the voice of the Global South, advocating for reforms in institutions such as the United Nations Security Council, the IMF, and the World Bank to reflect the transformation since the end of World War II, including decolonization.
On the “conflict in and over Ukraine,” the BRICS declaration said, “We note with appreciation relevant proposals of mediation and good offices aimed at peaceful resolution of the conflict through dialogue and diplomacy, including the African Leaders Peace Mission and the proposed path for peace.”
This language, a study in diplomatic wordsmithery, underscores the deep divide between the West and BRICS on the critical issue, which has adverse consequences for the Global South, including increased food prices and supply chain disruptions.
The growing geopolitical significance of BRICS is evident through the interest shown by over 40 countries in joining, with 23 formally seeking membership. With due discretion, South Africa has refrained from making the list of the 23 nations public. Of the candidates, only six were admitted: Argentina, Ethiopia, Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE.
The new member states have their own interests in joining BRICS as they look for options beyond the US-dominated institutions.
Argentina, the third-largest economy in Latin America after Brazil and Mexico, battles hyperinflation of around 100%. It could potentially benefit from NDB loans.
Ethiopia, the second most populous nation in Africa with 126 million people, and the host of the African Union, obviously qualified. It is negotiating with the IMF for financial support to rebuild Tigray, destroyed during the civil war. It hopes to get assistance from the NDB.
Egypt holds a strategic position as it controls the Suez Canal. It receives significant military assistance from the US but is looking for other options. Both Russia and China are keen to reduce Egypt’s dependence on the US.
Iran’s inclusion has surprised many in the West, as it has been subject to US sanctions since 1979 following the takeover of the US Embassy in Tehran, lifted only for a few years by President Barack Obama, but reimposed by President Donald Trump. While Iran was obviously keen to join BRICS, Russia and China were equally keen to admit it, signifying an emerging Russia-China-Iran axis.
With the addition of Saudi Arabia and UAE, BRICS gets added heft in the energy sector. Both are getting disenchanted with the US, which has historically assured regional security. The entry of the two oil-rich nations can add to the assets of the NDB.
Algeria had also shown interest but failed to make it to the list. In July, Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune said his country wanted to join BRICS and had even set aside a kitty of $1.5bn to contribute to the group’s New Development Bank.
Similarly, Indonesia, the country with the largest Muslim population, too showed interest. Indonesian President Joko Widodo attended the BRICS summit as part of BRICS-Africa Outreach and BRICS Plus Dialogue and declared that the country would consider joining BRICS but did not want to “rush into it”.
Despite a long list of countries showing interest, the BRICS Five – Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa – decided to limit the expansion to new members this time. The chair, South Africa, clarified that this was only the first phase of the expansion.
The divide within BRICS
It is important to note the difference in approach to the US among the five. Russia and China want to project BRICS as a counterweight to the current international order where Washington behaves as ‘the hegemon’. In contrast, India, Brazil, and South Africa seek reforms without taking an overtly anti-American stance.
This divide was evident when Russia’s move for a discussion on the feasibility of a common BRICS currency, backed by China, was torpedoed by South Africa, with support from India and Brazil. The item was not even listed on the agenda.
The rather convoluted language about sanctions imposed by the US and its allies on Iran and Russia again denotes the divide. “We express concern about the use of unilateral coercive measures, which are incompatible with the principles of the Charter of the UN and produce negative effects notably in the developing world. We reiterate our commitment to enhancing and improving global governance by promoting a more agile, effective, efficient, representative, democratic and accountable international and multilateral system.”
Given the freezing of the Russian Central Bank’s $300 billion assets by Western banks, one might have expected stronger language. Perhaps, Russia and China tried for a stronger formulation but the other three prevailed.
As new members join by 1 January 2024, BRICS might reconsider its name. We do not know whether any thought has been given to this matter. All told, BRICS as a non-Western grouping of the Global South is destined to acquire more clout soon. How long the huge, combined influence of China and Russia within BRICS will last is a different question. We should not be surprised if their clout starts going down in the coming years. This is more likely to happen if the current woes of China’s economy prove to be serious.
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