Whose tune will an expanded BRICS dance to?

Will the inclusion of six new members in BRICS last week strengthen multipolarity or bipolarity?

On the face of it, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa was the big winner of the 15th BRICS Summit in Johannesburg last week. He evidently persuaded Russian President Vladimir Putin not to attend in person, and attracted about 60 African and global south leaders to the BRICS Outreach segment.

Above all, Ramaphosa presided over a summit where the five BRICS leaders agreed to invite six new members to join the bloc: Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Iran, Ethiopia, Egypt and Argentina.

Until the last moment it seemed BRICS leaders might only agree on the criteria and procedures for accepting additional countries, and perhaps adopt new members only as ‘BRICS partners’. But they accepted six full members and extended partnership status to 16 others who formally applied.

But if the expansion was a success for Ramaphosa, it was arguably an even greater success for Chinese President Xi Jinping, who campaigned energetically for enlarging the alliance. Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India was apparently reluctant because he suspected this would increase Xi’s global power. Brazilian President Lula da Silva reportedly harboured similar fears. Perhaps they were right.

It’s not clear what persuaded them to change their minds. But the upshot was an expanded BRICS that now accounts for 36% of global gross domestic product (GDP) in purchasing power parity (PPP) terms, and 46% of the world’s population, da Silva says.

The expansion was a success for Ramaphosa, but an even greater success for Xi Jinping

Some BRICS officials boast that the GDP of the expanded BRICS (US$60 trillion) now exceeds that of the G7 (US$49 trillion) in PPP terms. (Though in nominal terms the G7 is still ahead with US$43 trillion versus US$29 trillion.)

That is an important statistic as BRICS is effectively the informal caucus of the global south in the G20, institutionally but also more generally. While the G7 is the caucus of the north. With the addition of Saudi Arabia and Argentina, BRICS also now has seven members in the G20.

The surge of interest in joining BRICS is about developing and emerging countries challenging global north dominance, particularly in the International Monetary Fund, World Bank and World Trade Organization. BRICS members want to displace the dominance of the US dollar in international trade and finance and, in a world polarised by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, they are looking for security in numbers.

For many, BRICS is becoming the new Non-Aligned Movement – or perhaps the G77 Plus China, but more active, muscular and effective. But why would BRICS be more effective, and is it non-aligned? The answer to both questions may be that this is mainly China’s project. Xi was the eminence at the summit. South Africa granted him a state visit the night before and bestowed on him the Order of South Africa.

And China seemed to get pretty much all it wanted from the summit. Notably the expansion of membership and the inclusion of the Middle East oil powers, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, who previously tilted more to the West.

BRICS’ three democracies – South Africa, India and Brazil – will lose more ground in the expanded bloc

It’s also clear that BRICS’ three democracies – South Africa, India and Brazil – already overshadowed by China economically, will lose more ground in the expanded BRICS. Of the new members, only Argentina can be considered democratic. The bloc’s average Freedom House score for political rights and civil liberties has now dropped from 48.4% to 36.7%.

So BRICS is now firmly established as a club of autocracies. Remember IBSA (India-Brazil-South Africa)? That was the alliance of the three BRICS democracies, formed in 2004, five years before BRICS. IBSA was rendered obsolete by its member countries’ absorption into BRICS, and even more so with BRICS Plus. Officials say it still exists on paper and will meet on the margins of the United Nations (UN) General Assembly next month. But no one will notice.

And China offers its fellow BRICS members little in return. One of the key issues for Ramaphosa in his bilateral with Xi was to narrow South Africa’s large and unbalanced trade deficit with China. South Africa exports mainly commodities and imports mainly manufactured goods. Ramaphosa got some vague promises that China would import more South African value-added goods, and a concrete agreement to import South African avocados.

More importantly, Xi is unwilling to concede power to his democratic BRICS partners. Ironically the UN Security Council’s three Western permanent members, the United States, France and Britain, have publicly stated that they support Africa and other unrepresented regions getting permanent seats on an expanded Security Council. Brazil, India and South Africa to an extent, have been campaigning for such seats for decades.

But the BRICS Johannesburg II Declaration demonstrated that once again China at least, if not Russia, isn’t prepared to put its money where its mouth is. Each summit declaration contains a paragraph calling for comprehensive UN reform, including the Security Council, to make it more representative of developing countries and supporting the aspirations of Brazil, India and South Africa ‘to play a greater role in the UN.’

The Freedom House score for BRICS on political rights and civil liberties has dropped from 48.4% to 36.7%

The Johannesburg II Declaration just repeated previous declarations on this issue – with one small addition. It said BRICS supported Brazil, India and South Africa’s aspirations ‘to play a greater role in international affairs, in particular in the United Nations, including its Security Council.’

There was still no explicit commitment by China and Russia – who hold permanent Security Council positions – to support permanent seats for their fellow BRICS members. But an official nonetheless welcomed that slight change. He said it was a significant shift that was difficult to get accepted.

But shouldn’t China and Russia logically back permanent seats for their BRICS partners? BRICS is, after all, supposed to be about giving greater voice and power to the global south.

In a recent Foreign Policy article Oliver Stuenkel, Associate Professor of international relations at the Getulio Vargas Foundation in São Paulo, wrote that it would be simplistic to interpret the BRICS expansion as a sign of strength. ‘Rather, expansion should be read as a sign of China’s growing capacity to determine the bloc’s overall strategy – and may reflect the emergence not of a multipolar order, but of a bipolar one.’

A stronger BRICS could help the global south gain more influence over decisions that matter. But its members – not least the democracies – should be unceasingly vigilant that the bloc serves their wider interests, and not those of new aspirant hegemons.

Peter Fabricius, Consultant, ISS Pretoria

Image: Presidency South Africa/Twitter

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