The best example of a shift in the international order is not the outbreak of an improbable war in the heartland of Europe, but the rapid expansion of BRICS from a clutch of five nations (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) in 2010 to a grouping of 11 in August 2023. This is despite the fact that one of its members, Russia, is involved in that war.
The inclusion of six more countries – Argentina, Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) – means that BRICS has more than doubled in size in just over a decade, out-stripping the pace of growth of any other international grouping.
What to make of this surge of interest in BRICS? Related to this, as it grows and evolves, what challenges will this motley group of nations face?
Origin-wise it began as “BRIC” – a catchy term coined in 2001 by a Goldman Sachs economist to draw investors’ attention to the growth potential of Brazil, Russia, India and China. In 2009, the group held its first leaders’ summit, and a year later, a new letter was appended to the acronym with the entry of South Africa to the club.
BRICS’ enlargement is a reflection of the interest of Global South nations in jointly carving out a new path in a world less in the grip of Western domination. A key concern is the global economy’s risky reliance on the American dollar.
As Brazil’s President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva remarked in a speech earlier in 2023: “Every night I ask myself why all countries have to base their trade on the dollar.” For many analysts, too, the freezing of Russian central bank reserves by the United States in 2022 in response to the conflict in Ukraine was a chilling demonstration of unchecked American power.
While concerns about the West are a shared concern, some critics such as The Financial Times have argued that BRICS is basically a “fan club” for Beijing, and other BRICS nations risk becoming satellites of China.
That assertion is misleading. New members Saudi Arabia and UAE are American allies. Brazil and India have both been forging closer ties with the West.
Furthermore, in spite of their common call for multipolarity, China and Russia do not necessarily share the same world views.
Russia, nostalgic for past glories, sees itself as a victim of the international order and resents it. China, on the other hand, has been the largest beneficiary of globalisation and embraces it more than anyone else.
China, in the Russo Ukrainian war, like most Global South countries, has adopted a position of studied neutrality. Likewise, in the ever intensifying China US competition, the response of the middle and small powers in BRICS is not to pick sides.
Some others have compared an expanding BRICS to the Non Aligned Movement (NAM). Such a parallel is also not accurate. The strength of NAM is its moral high ground, not its economic clout.
Even before the expansion, the BRICS that comprised Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa accounted for 40 per cent of the world’s population and a quarter of global gross domestic product. In 2020, it surpassed the Group of Seven nations in terms of purchasing power parity. The six carefully chosen newcomers, which represent the most important countries in different regions in the Global South, will add to the grouping’s heft and Global standing.
There is, however, one similarity with NAM, which stood out for its neutrality in the days when the two superpowers, the US and the Soviet Union, were at loggerheads. Fast forward to current times, BRICS members would not want to pick sides in any disagreement between the US and China – even though China considers itself a Global South nation and a developing country.
That said, China looms large in BRICS’ future. China’s share of the BRICS economic output in 2022 was 70 per cent. It is also the largest shareholder of BRICS’ New Development Bank (NDB). Therefore, Beijing can contribute more than any other BRICS member with its market, investments and financial support, not to mention invaluable developmental lessons in lifting 800 million people out of poverty in the past four decades.
The addition of six new member states means the NDB will almost certainly be better positioned to push ahead with BRICS’ priority programme of investing in infrastructure and sustainable development. What is more, it can provide financing for many states searching for alternatives to the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, which notoriously stipulate political conditions – often under the guise of human rights and democracy – for their monetary support.
Looking ahead, one of BRICS’ challenges is, interestingly, how to slow down expansion for the healthy development of the group, despite its own growing appeal. It is a challenge because more than 40 countries have either applied to join the bloc or have expressed an interest in doing so.
BRICS could become larger than the European Union or NATO that have 27 and 31 members respectively, if no limits are set. But the larger it becomes, the more difficult it will be in reaching consensus in a group that comprises drastically different political systems and varying economies of different sizes.
Herding the cats is always a challenge for any organisation. Take Europe, for instance. Its efforts to forge a common policy on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have run into stumbling blocks. On this issue, Hungary is as much a thorn in the side of the EU as Turkey is in NATO.
One possible model to resolve this is ASEAN, which “makes haste slowly”. ASEAN was established in 1967 with five members, but it was not until 1999 that it grew into today’s 10 member grouping. The “ASEAN way” of arriving at consensus on issues at a pace comfortable to all is not perfect, but it has allowed a group of small nations to iron out many internal difficulties and problems. Miraculously, it has also gained the support of all major and middle powers in the Asia Pacific over its role of “centrality” in regional affairs.
One can hardly resist the temptation of comparing an expanded BRICS with the Group of 20. Like BRICS, the G20 is primarily a forum focusing on international economic cooperation, although its agenda is very much dictated by the West.
The G20 already includes five BRICS members, namely Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. Could BRICS also become open to Western countries, such as inviting them as observers first and having bilateral dialogues one day? The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, for example, has been open-minded enough to have Turkey, a NATO country, as a dialogue partner.
Neither BRICS nor the G20 can address common global challenges singlehandedly. It will be sad if the two groups, working towards similar objectives, are bent on fighting with each other.
(This article was first published on The Straits Times on Sep. 12, 2023.)