Seeking new recruits: the leaders of Brazil, China, South Africa and India together with Russia's foreign minister at the BRICS summit on 23 August 2023. Image: Government of India / GODL
While it is too early to declare the end of the US-led liberal international system and the rise of a BRICS-led counterweight, the Johannesburg summit highlights that the West is increasingly confronted by a multipolar world in which its position and the idea of a single global order are being overtly challenged.
This week’s BRICS summit in Johannesburg – bringing together Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa for the first in-person gathering since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic – has seen the usual denunciations of the US and the liberal order which have characterised most of the organisation’s previous gatherings. Russian President Vladimir Putin, attending virtually as he faces an international arrest warrant for war crimes, was quick to blame Western countries for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, stating that ‘it was the desire to maintain their hegemony in the world, the desire of some countries to maintain this hegemony that led to the severe crisis in Ukraine’.
Challenging the US and ‘the West’ has been par for the course for BRICS gatherings in recent years. Originally conceived by Goldman Sachs as a way to capture the economic rise of a diverse group of countries (the BRICS together represent about 40% of the world’s population and a quarter of global GDP), the BRIC acquired a geopolitical significance when Russia took the initiative to convene the four initial member countries in 2009, with South Africa joining in 2011 (adding the S in BRICS).
Since the fanfare around its creation, the BRICS has often seemed more to be muddling along than mounting a systemic challenge to the Western-led international order. While China’s meteoric rise has underpinned the BRICS’s growing share of the world economy, the countries in the group have experienced wide disparities in economic performance. At times, there have also been significant tensions between its members, notably in 2020–21 when China and India were involved in fierce border skirmishes. Amid numerous declarations over the past decade and a half, the bloc’s only tangible accomplishment has been the launching of an international development finance arm, headquartered in Shanghai.
This week’s annual summit produced much of the rhetoric that has led many observers to accuse the BRICS of being merely a talking shop, but the meeting also highlighted how Russia’s war against Ukraine and the growing confrontation between the US and China are injecting a new political impulse into the organisation. Rising geopolitical tensions have brought to the fore the question of how the rest of the world – notably the countries of Asia, Africa and Latin America – is aligning with existing and emerging world powers. The BRICS countries, prompted by China and Russia, are now looking to seize this moment to expand the grouping of non-Western states and to fashion it as an alternative to the US-led political and economic institutions.
Challenging the Mighty Dollar
Amid the increased competition for influence and access in the ‘Global South’, ahead of the summit there was talk of promoting global ‘de-dollarisation’, and earlier this year Brazil even floated the idea of a BRICS currency. Dethroning the dollar’s dominance is seen as a key element of building a new global economic order, not least since a number of BRICS countries have been vulnerable to Western economic sanctions.
Expansion is viewed in Beijing and Moscow as necessary in order to give the grouping a harder geopolitical edge and to challenge what they characterise as the US-led, unipolar world
While such ideas currently appear overly ambitious and were not formally on the summit agenda, the BRICS group nevertheless reaffirmed its commitment to expand options for using local currencies for trade between bloc members. Since launching its war against Ukraine, Russia has shifted much of its trade to the renminbi, which now accounts for 16% of its export payments. The BRICS bank recently issued its first rand bond in South Africa, and it is planning to issue its first Indian rupee bond by October. President Lula da Silva of Brazil recently asked: ‘Why does Brazil need the dollar to trade with China or Argentina? We can trade in our currency’, and he has suggested that the BRICS bank is a more just economic institution than US-led institutions such as the International Monetary Fund.
The Rise of the Pluriverse?
While the Johannesburg summit will provide further momentum to economic coordination among the BRICS, headlines before and after the summit were dominated by efforts led by China and Russia to promote expansion of the bloc’s membership. This is viewed in Beijing and Moscow as necessary in order to give the grouping a harder geopolitical edge, as a means to challenge what they characterise as the US-led, unipolar world.
For China, an expanding BRICS would present a vehicle for its more ‘inclusive’ worldview, and building up the organisation is viewed as providing a counterweight to the G7 and G20. The Johannesburg summit has been presented by the Chinese state media as building a ‘pluriversal’ world – ‘a world that is more multipolar, more inclusive, just, equitable, a world that respects the potential and contributions of all countries to human progress’. This suggests that China may be complementing its approach of trying to outcompete the US within existing international institutions by forging something new and more Sino-centric.
South Africa, the summit host, supports expansion and invited representatives of dozens of other countries to attend the Johannesburg meeting. Speaking ahead of the summit, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa declared: ‘An expanded BRICS will represent a diverse group of nations with different political systems that share a common desire to have a more balanced global order’. Concluding the summit, Ramaphosa announced that in a first wave of expansion, six countries had been invited to join the bloc as full members from 1 January 2024: Argentina, Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
The announcement marked an important victory for China and Russia since India and Brazil had previously expressed caution over expanding the bloc. India is wary of China’s potential dominance and of adopting measures that give Beijing a larger international platform for pursuing its ambitions. Brazil is keen to ensure that its influence is not diluted and that it does not find itself being forced to choose sides in the struggle between the US and China and Russia. Ultimately, both were persuaded to support the expansion policy by the inclusion of their ‘strategic partners’ – Argentina for Brazil and the countries of the Gulf for India – in the list of countries invited to join, and an agreement that future expansion would be based on consensus.
Speaking following the conclusion of the summit, China’s President Xi Jinping stated that ‘This membership expansion is historic’, while Putin observed that ‘The adoption of the guiding principles in the expansion of BRICS will ensure that the role and importance of BRICS in the world will continue to grow’. Putin announced that the next summit would be hosted by Russia in Kazan, and that he would promote a broadening of the grouping’s agenda to include transport, healthcare, science, and cultural issues.
While expansion will further the BRICS’ diversity, it will also import more bilateral tensions into the grouping, such as the difficult relationship between Iran and the Gulf states
The decision on expansion and further progress on advancing the role of the members’ currencies were significant steps forward for the BRICS countries. Expansion is being presented as a major geopolitical step forward, bringing in key countries in the Middle East, Africa and Latin America. For Russia and China, the inclusion of the fiercely anti-Western Iran is seen as a major victory in their efforts to forge a more coherent anti-West grouping to rival the US-led alliance system.
Evolution Rather than Revolution in Johannesburg
The war in Ukraine has brought into stark relief the competition for influence and support around the world, and there is strong interest among the BRICS countries in positioning themselves as the champions of ‘the Global South’. The opportunity to join the BRICS will be viewed positively by many states, especially given the access it will provide to China and to major emerging economies.
In a world of intensifying competition, there is also a desire in many countries to use new opportunities in the international system, such as the BRICS, to hedge against the West and enhance their bargaining power. South Africa said that more than 40 countries have expressed interest in joining the BRICS and 22 have formally requested to be admitted. The upbeat assessment of the expansion of the grouping and its broadening ambitions clouds, however, the major challenges that this agenda will bring to the organisation.
Even as a group of five states, the BRICS represents a diverse set of countries more united by what they don’t like – not being able to sit at the international top table – than by a coherent view of their position in the global order or what an alternative global order should look like. The BRICS began as a grouping to limit the ‘unipolar’ moment of US pre-eminence and to promote multipolarity, and there is little appetite in Delhi and Brasilia to transform the organisation into a vehicle of bipolar confrontation with the West. While expansion will further the BRICS’ diversity, it will also import more bilateral tensions into the grouping, such as the difficult relationship between Iran and the Gulf states.
To date, the BRICS has provided a useful platform for emerging states to rail against the injustice of a world order that they felt did not properly include their interests and voices. Expansion is attractive as it will bring in more countries that feel short-changed or excluded by the existing order and strengthen the BRICS as a non-aligned forum. But China and Russia – and now Iran – have bigger ambitions to transform the grouping into a bloc as part of a counter-West project. This will involve moving beyond rhetoric and creating an organisation that can actually deliver an alternative order, tackle major economic problems of development in just ways, and create consensus among states that have deep-seated bilateral disputes with each other.
This is a tall order, and the reality is that while many countries will welcome being part of a grouping that offers an alternative to US-led institutions, few are keen to join an anti-Western geopolitical bloc led by Russia and China. The Johannesburg summit is likely to be remembered as an important moment that reinforced trends toward multipolarity and increased pressure to reform the existing international order’s key institutions. Further expansion of the BRICS is likely to strengthen these trends, but the BRICS still looks far away from becoming the nucleus of a counter-West political movement.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
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Dr Neil Melvin
Director, International Security