Dozens of nations wish to enter the club of five nations. To challenge the global hierarchy headed by the United States, BRICS must first overcome internal divisions.
They are enormous economies with even larger populations and even loftier aspirations. The leaders of the group of nations known as the BRICS – Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa – will meet for a three-day summit beginning on Tuesday, which is anticipated to attract the attention of world capitals.
Putin will participate via video conference in order to spare South Africa the embarrassment of hosting a leader with an International Criminal Court (ICC) warrant against him in relation to Moscow’s war in Ukraine. As a member of the ICC, South Africa would have been required by international law to apprehend Putin had he visited.
Nonetheless, while the conflict in Ukraine and deepening geopolitical tensions between the United States and China serve as the backdrop for the summit, the BRICS meeting is likely to highlight the group’s growing status as a challenger to a long-dominant, Washington-led global order.
The expansion of BRICS is anticipated to be a top priority. It is a popular institution. At least forty countries, ranging from Algeria to Argentina, have expressed interest in joining the coalition.
The group’s expanding economic clout is a major factor in its allure. In terms of purchasing power parity, the combined gross domestic product (GDP) of the BRICS nations is now greater than that of the G7. The nominal GDP contribution of the BRICS countries is 26% of the global total. Despite this, they have only 15% voting authority in the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
In addition to grievances over these imbalances, there are growing concerns in the Global South that the United States may weaponize the dollar through sanctions, as it has done against Russia. Individually and collectively, BRICS nations are attempting to reduce their reliance on the US dollar while increasing bilateral trade in their own currencies.
To concur that something must be altered is one thing, but to agree on how to collaborate is another. Since May 2020, India and China have been embroiled in a tense border standoff. Similarly, India, South Africa, and Brazil desire cordial relations with the West as they do with China and Russia.
So, will the BRICS emerge as an economic and geopolitical alternative to the United States and its allies? Or could their internal differences hinder the group’s performance?
The BRICS bloc is more likely to offer fragmentary economic and diplomatic alternatives to the US-led global order than to replace it radically, according to analysts. As the group’s leaders attempt to chart an independent course in a world in upheaval, this could lead to heightened tensions with the West. To remain effective, however, the BRICS will have to manage the divergent priorities of its member nations, a challenge that will not be simple to overcome.
‘Voice’ of the Global South
In his introductory remarks at the BRICS foreign ministers meeting in South Africa on June 1, Indian Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar stated that the current concentration of economic power “leaves too many nations at the mercy of too few”
It is a sentiment that reverberates throughout the developing world, where the United Nations Security Council’s veto-holding authority remains restricted to five nations based on a 1945 agreement.
In recent years, the fractures in this U.S.-led model have grown wider. China, a global economic powerhouse and military superpower, is challenging the limits of Washington’s influence. Iran’s Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian visited Riyadh last week and met with Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman as part of China’s latest initiative to normalize relations between the traditional Middle Eastern rivals.
The full-scale invasion of Ukraine by Russia in 2022 and the subsequent strengthening of relations between Moscow and Beijing – in the face of Western condemnation – have accelerated the rift. India, Brazil, and South Africa have walked a tightrope, refusing to join Western sanctions or other actions against Russia and distancing themselves from Moscow’s justifications for the conflict.
With the West’s footprint receding in part after part of the globe – the most recent example being Niger and the Sahel – there is a growing chorus among Africa, Latin America, and emerging Asian powers such as India to overthrow the post-Cold War unipolar order.
Russia and China have presented themselves as champions of this shift away from a US-led order, whose rules – in the views of the Global South – the United States itself routinely violates.
Putin was on the charm offensive at a summit with African leaders and officials in St. Petersburg in July, quoting Nelson Mandela and mentioning anti-colonial champions such as Gamal Abdel Nasser and Patrice Lumumba.
When discussing a proposal to reform the United Nations Security Council and include African nations as permanent members, he was quoted as saying, “I think it’s time to rectify the historic wrong against the African continent”
India has also actively advocated for the African Union to be granted a position at the G20 summit, which will be hosted in New Delhi next month.
Vivek Mishra, a fellow at the Observer Research Foundation (ORF) in New Delhi, stated, “There is certainly a space for carving out a new world order” This space, he said, was the result of the convergence of two factors: the Global South finding its voice and searching for nations that can champion its interests, and Russia and China finding themselves “att odds in an unprecedented way with the West.”
Mishra emphasized, however, that these two factors do not entirely overlap, even if they serve the same interests at the present time.
He stated that India does not perceive China as a representative of the Global South. Instead, New Delhi regards China as “developed country trying to impinge on the narrative of the Global South.”
Separately, Russia’s war in Ukraine and the resultant disruption in energy and food supplies have also contributed to soaring inflation throughout the developing world, primarily harming the nations that Moscow claims to represent.
Yet, the West’s response to Russia’s war in Ukraine – effectively isolating Russia from the global financial system via severe sanctions – has also alarmed emerging economies, which are concerned that the United States could potentially exercise this power over them as well.
Follow the money
An alternative financial system is central to the BRICS’ allure.
The New Development Bank (NDB), formerly known as the BRICS Development Bank, was established in 2015 with headquarters in Shanghai to give BRICS members greater control over development financing and to provide an alternative to US-led institutions such as the IMF and the World Bank, which were established in the aftermath of World War II.
It was a move that, according to Sanusha Naidu, a senior research fellow at the Institute for Global Dialogue, a South African think tank that focuses on China and Africa, demonstrated genuine intent and demonstrated to the Global South that it is possible to challenge the global financial institutional architecture.
BRICS nations have also been developing “BRICS pay” – a payment system for transactions between BRICS nations that does not require the conversion of local currency into dollars. Yet, eight years after its establishment, the NDB relies heavily on dollars and has struggled to secure this currency due to sanctions against Russia, a founding member. Globally, sixty percent of central bank foreign exchange reserves are held in US dollars.
In recent months, talk of a BRICS currency has gained momentum, but South Africa has made it plain that it will not be discussed at this summit. Gustavo de Carvalho, a senior researcher on Russia-Africa relations at the South African Institute of International Affairs in Johannesburg, stated that the de-dollarization initiatives of the BRICS as a group are not intended to replace the dollar, but rather to facilitate bilateral trade in local currencies.
The concept and assurance to those who wish to join or partner with the BRICS is straightforward. In addition to the prospect of US sanctions, an excessive reliance on the US dollar for trade or debt repayment is costly when the dollar’s value rises, as it almost always does during global crises such as the one the world has experienced since 2020.
De Carvalho stated that there is an additional reason to reduce dollar reliance. It can increase the leverage of developing nations, serving as a “complementary tool” when making “big decisions around development financing and the role of institutions such as the IMF.”
To see the “common views” of the BRICS members, he said, one must scroll down their joint communiques to the sections that always contain references to the members’ influence, or lack thereof, within the World Bank and IMF.
These passages from previous BRICS declarations illustrate the “significant frustration that despite being very sizeable and influential economies, they perceive their influence to be “limited,” he said.
One potential means of rendering the bloc unavoidable? Transform a select club of five into a large team.
The Power of Numbers
In July, Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune stated that his nation desired to join the BRICS and had set aside $1.5 billion to contribute to the group’s New Development Bank – essentially to buy its way into the group. Egypt also requested admission in June. And over the past year, Argentina, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates have emerged as potential candidates to join the bloc, joining Indonesia, the fourth most populous country in the world, and Nigeria, the largest economy in Africa.
China, confident in its position at the head of the table, has expressed a willingness to investigate the idea. And Russia, in need of international allies, has expressed its willingness to accept new club members.
However, not all members agree that a larger BRICS necessarily translates to a stronger BRICS.
Brazil has resisted expansion out of concern that its influence will be diminished. “An expansion could transform the bloc into something else,” a Brazilian government official told Reuters in early August.
India, according to Naidu, is uneasy about the issue of expansion, but it is unlikely to veto any initiative. Instead, New Delhi is urging the group to devise rules and criteria for prospective new members.
India, according to Naidu, believes the group must first organize its own affairs before considering new memberships. This includes, among other things, the three-year impasse between India and China involving thousands of soldiers stationed along their disputed eastern Ladakh border. India’s foreign minister, Jaishankar, has repeatedly stated that relations between the Asian superpowers are “not normal.”
However, Mishra also stated that China had shown signs of softening prior to the BRICS summit, with military commanders from both parties recently pledging to “maintain peace and tranquility along the border.”
It is unknown if Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India and President Xi Jinping of China will meet on the margins of the summit. How the two largest economies of BRICS manage their relationship could determine the bloc’s success or failure.
Not an ‘either-or’
Ultimately, a critical strength of the BRICS, which its members frequently cite, is that, in contrast to the West, it does not expect other nations to choose firm alliances.
De Carvalho stated that trading within BRICS in local currencies or trading with the United States in dollars need not be a “either-or” scenario. For many nations, it is merely a mechanism that can serve their interests in certain circumstances better.
Instead of actively attempting to dismantle the U.S.-led model, BRICS seeks to provide alternative economic and diplomatic options to other nations. At a time when “global politics is so divided,” he said, this concept may be difficult for some to comprehend, particularly in the West.
However, BRICS is not unfamiliar with being misconstrued.
De Carvalho recalled how Western diplomats who witnessed the first BRICS summit in 2009 reacted with “dismissiveness” to the group’s formation.
Since then, Western rhetoric has shifted to suggest that the BRICS is merely a bloc kowtowing to China and propelled by an anti-Western agenda. Analysts believe they may have been incorrect both times.
Soon, it may be time to listen and acknowledge that the BRICS merely represent a growing global sentiment: others also desire a position at the table.