The 15th BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) Summit 2023 took place at a time when the emerging world order is moving towards multipolarity. Members are playing an increasingly important role in the post-Cold War world order. China and Russia see this platform as an opportunity to challenge American hegemony and end Western dominance.
Many countries are looking to join this club, which shows the attraction of this organisation. The expansion of the five-nation BRICS club of emerging economies is described by Chinese President Xi Jinping as ‘historic’, but it is interesting to see how things are panning in the direction of common interest. The BRICS countries are often seen as emerging as the antidote to the Western-led world. Some scholars are of the view that although the BRICS members may not have much in common on the surface, they are trying to show fellow bloc members that they all want a common future, and nobody wants to live in a Western-dominated world. Interestingly, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called for “strong and effective multilateral institutions” at the same time that the BRICS countries were seeking to create an alternative world order.
Questions are being asked regarding the success, failure and possibilities of BRICS+. Indeed, BRICS is expanding, but can it rebalance the world order? Will BRICS nations want “de-dollarisation” really? Importantly, all speculation about the relevance of the BRICS has been put to rest due to the widespread global interest in the outcome of the 15th Summit in Johannesburg. The grouping of emerging economies opened to new members last year, with at least 22 formal applications from 40 countries from the global south showing interest in joining. Its membership grew from 5 to 11 overnight after this summit, with the inclusion of four major Middle-East countries, Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, as well as Ethiopia and Argentina from Africa and South America, respectively.
The BRICS expansion is more about complementarity than replacement. The group is not seeking to overthrow the existing order, but rather to work within it to promote its own interests. This is evident in the fact that China has not insisted on veto power for all members and that Brazil’s proposal for a common currency has been met with mixed reactions. India was seen trying to balance its friendship with America and South Africa hosted a successful meeting without any public fallout. However, Chinese President Xi Jinping has called for an expansion of the BRICS grouping of emerging economies to build a more just and equitable international order, insisting “hegemonism is not in China’s DNA”.
Importantly, a consensus will be more challenging to achieve as the number of members increases because every nation has unique interests, objectives, and connections. How many countries join could have a significant impact on how the BRICS develop. Will it develop into the anti-Western coalition that Russia and China want? Iran, for instance, would be more than delighted to advance a different order from that led by the United States, following in the footsteps of China and Russia. However, a nation like Saudi Arabia, which values its security connections with the United States despite the many issues in its relations with Washington, is probably less inclined towards such an outlook.
Indeed, the BRICS has faced many challenges in the past and is currently seen as a counter-narrative to the Western-led G-7 club on a range of issues: climate change commitments and UN reform to rejection of unilateral Western sanctions against Iran and Venezuela, but not a substitute. By creating the New Development Bank, which has funded nearly 100 projects so far, and setting up a Contingent Reserve Arrangement and other institutional mechanisms, BRICS countries have also shown their ability to work on practical initiatives. Although the group may not yet rival the wealth of the G-7, it now rivals its share of global GDP (about 30% each), and the G-7 has more equitable access to 40% of the world’s population. Countries that make up only 10%. Once the new members join, six of the 10 largest global oil suppliers will be BRICS countries, taking BRICS to new heights in the energy sector.
However, the BRICS countries continue to struggle with internal contradictions and a lack of coherence of purpose. The rivalry between India and China is a major challenge in its progress, and the inclusion of arch-rivals Iran and Saudi Arabia-UAE, despite their recent tensions, could create similar issues for progress in the future. Moreover, any overt political, anti-West stance of the BRICS would make India and other countries of the grouping, which walk a tightrope between global powers including Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Brazil, uneasy.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has also caused disquiet, and BRICS members did not vote as a bloc at the United Nations meeting, nor did any other member support Russia’s actions. If the BRICS core idea of emphasizing the strategic autonomy of its members is to be followed, any attempt by China to dominate the group either strategically or economically will get a strong response. Moreover, it is the promise of shared prosperity and a more democratic model of global governance that draws many people in the Global South to the grouping and will provide a platform for an expanded line-up of BRICS countries.
Russian President Vladimir Putin joined via video link as he threatened to be arrested over alleged war crimes in Ukraine. In his remarks, he once again took aim at the Western powers, saying that their “neo-liberalism” posed a threat to traditional values in the developing world and the emergence of a multi-polar world, where no single country is in power. He was referring to the United States.
And although the United States was not at the meeting, there was much talk about the US. The White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan attempted to downplay Block’s expansion plans. He said that because of the difference in views of the BRICS countries on important issues, he does not see it “developing into some kind of geopolitical rival to the United States or anyone else”. And he may be right too. None of the six new members is seen as an anti-American country, according to Sarang Shidore, director of the Global South Program at the Quincy Institute in Washington. “I think the message is that this is a diverse group of countries, none of them close allies, formal allies of the US, two or three of them will be anti-US. But broadly speaking, these are anti-American countries. There is no group”.
Expansion of BRICS
The BRICS have received applications from more than 40 nations. The New Development Bank, established by the BRICS nations and providing funding for numerous states looking for alternatives. Aspiring members of a growing alliance of non-Western nations that seek to change the international order are looking to multilateral institutions as a traditional avenue for bringing about change and advancement in the global system. The term “minilateralism” refers to a new trend in international relations that emphasises small- and medium-sized alliances of like-minded nations. This trend, which is on the rise in the West as well, will be exacerbated by the expansion of the BRICS. One problem with multilateralism is that it threatens to further erode our means of global collective action needed to tackle the massive threats posed to humanity today.
The BRICS nations have contradictory viewpoints and the discussion over its potential extension highlights structural problems that make the creation of a single currency unlikely. Beijing has stepped up its efforts to establish itself as the head of a growing multipolar world as competition between the United States and China has increased over the past ten years. Chinese President Xi Jinping launched the Global Security Initiative last year in an effort to create a new international security system that Beijing claims is better equipped to deal with intractable peace and conflict issues than the Western-led system. Moscow is also keen on advancing a multipolar world and sees BRICS expansion as a way to undermine the liberal international order. Isolated by the West following its illegal invasion of Ukraine, Russia has looked to the Global South to help keep its economy afloat. South Africa has also been a proponent of BRICS expansion. South African President Cyril Ramaphosa said that he wants to see more African countries join and partner with the bloc.
India and Brazil have different perspectives on the emerging scenario. Brazil, which doesn’t carry as much diplomatic clout as China and Russia, fears that the expansion of BRICS will reduce its influence inside the bloc and as a leader of the Global South. India is cautious that this group may not become an open anti-Western Group. India as one of the founding countries of the Non-Aligned Movement during the Cold War carries forward the legacy of neutrality in the midst of current power confrontation. Although India is a member of the BRICS grouping and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization established by China-Russia, New Delhi’s relations with the United States have reached new heights in recent years and it is a member of the Quad along with Japan, Australia, and the US. Countering Chinese aggression and influence India needs cooperation from the United States. More than 40 countries – including Iran, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Argentina, Indonesia, Nigeria and Ethiopia known as Middle Powers are looking to BRICS offers an alternative.
Changing Global Order
Despite disagreements among the BRICS nations, there is a growing understanding that the current world order is ineffective and that a new one is needed. The leaders of BRICS were gathered in Johannesburg this week in the pivotal meeting for the bloc’s trajectory.
Russian President Vladimir Putin attended via video conferencing due to an International Criminal Court warrant. But Moscow and Beijing pushed for the group’s expansion in a bid to strengthen the bloc as an alternative to the U.S.-led liberal international order. Over 40 countries have applied to join. But there is division within the five members. India and Brazil worry that expansion may weaken their power and have an impact on their nonaligned foreign policies. On the other hand, China and Russia want to use BRICS as a counterbalance to the Group of Seven (G7) and other Western-led alliances.
The BRICS group is considering expanding its membership and de-dollarizing its currency. China and Russia are the main proponents of these two initiatives, but they face challenges from other BRICS members. The de-dollarization of BRICS’ currency would mean moving away from the US dollar as the main medium of exchange between the group’s members. This would reduce the influence of the US dollar in the global economy and make it more difficult for the US to impose sanctions on BRICS countries. However, it would also be a major undertaking and would require the cooperation of all BRICS members. Despite not being on the summit’s official agenda, “de-dollarization” was a priority issue for many BRICS countries and the dozens of other countries in attendance. To reduce reliance on the U.S. dollar, some have proposed that the BRICS create its own currency; however, most experts believe that this is not feasible. It is more likely that the BRICS nations and other trading partners will keep up the practice of exchanging goods and services for local currency rather than the US dollar. The BRICS bank said it would lend in South African and Brazilian currencies in addition to the Chinese yuan, which it already does.
There are several challenges to the expansion and de-dollarization of BRICS. First, the group’s members have different political and economic interests. For example, India and China are strategic rivals, and Brazil is concerned about alienating the US. Second, the BRICS countries have different levels of development and financial strength. This could make it difficult to agree on a common currency or financial system. Despite these challenges, the expansion and de-dollarization of BRICS could have a significant impact on the global economy. It would reduce the influence of the US dollar and give emerging economies more power in the global financial system. However, it is too early to say whether these initiatives will be successful.
United States Still Matters
The United States is closely following BRICS developments. While the United States’ rivalry with China is a major part of its foreign policy, it is equally important to understand the relative growth in influence and potential friction points created by other major countries. Despite the apparently strong ties with Russia, it is important to develop strong ties with allies such as India and South Africa. Such alliances can act as checks and balances, ensuring that the BRICS country grouping does not turn anti-Western. However, this should not tempt Washington to excessively favour minilateral diplomacy at the expense of multilateral initiatives. In order to jointly combat the big problems of the time, it is necessary to engage with the rivals on the big platforms.
The BRICS summit was held amid extremely turbulent times in world affairs. The growing rivalry between the United States and China and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have intensified geopolitical tensions. If there is anything Washington wants to learn from this, it should be that many nations, even longtime allies, are increasingly dissatisfied with the liberal international order and post-Cold War unipolarity. One of the longest-lasting eras of peace and prosperity in modern history resulted from the post-World War II system that the United States created and oversaw. To address these issues and concerns, the United States should seriously consider revising the current multilateral system, working with friends and partners to address the most pressing problems of the day.
Many around the world have their eyes on the BRICS summit in Johannesburg, in part because, together, the BRICS nations encompass a population of 3.5 billion, accounting for a substantial segment of global emerging markets. The advanced economies of the G7 (Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom, and the United States) are on the opposing side. Although Brazil has taken issue with this anti-West frame, much of the attention paid to the BRICS around the world has helped China and Russia’s rhetorical campaign to pit the “West” against the “rest”. With the battle over Russia’s illegal aggression in Ukraine and rising tensions between China and the United States, countries are being asked to take sides in one camp or the other. However, this is not a replay of the Cold War. The so-called “middle powers” account for much of the overall global influence in today’s international politics. BRICS is seen as a prime location for such powers, especially for non-Western states in the Global South. And it is expected that the West will attract the attention of capitals around the world.
Finally, the expansion of BRICS would bring in new members from Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America. This would give the group a wider geographic reach and more diverse economic interests. However, it would also make it more difficult for the group to reach consensus on important issues. Besides, the challenges mentioned above, there are also concerns about the impact of BRICS expansion on the group’s coherence and effectiveness. A larger group would be more difficult to manage and could make it more difficult to reach consensus on important issues. Additionally, the addition of new members with different political and economic interests could make the group more complex. Overall, the expansion and de-dollarization of the BRICS are complex and challenging initiatives. There are both potential benefits and risks associated with these proposals. Whether the BRICS countries will be able to overcome the challenges and achieve a new world order, popularly defined as multipolarity, remains to be seen.