Much bluster about BRICS, as countries vie to join
Traffic in Sandton will be more snarled up than usual this week because there are a lot of big machers in town. The Sandton Convention Centre is the venue for the 15th summit of BRICS, the grouping of Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa. Many leaders from the Global South – once disparagingly dubbed the “Third World” – have been invited. There will presidents and ministers, businesspeople and advisors, and advisors to the advisors.
More than 40 countries have expressed interest in joining BRICS, with half of them having made formal applications to do so. Among those are Venezuela, Iran, and the “state” of Palestine. The bloc will wrestle with the question of who to admit and when.
One of the strands holding the extremely diverse members of the BRICS together is shared antipathy towards the United States (US) and its receding but still dominant global position. They want to reform the international system to be more representative of developing countries. Or so they say. But their national interests are much more important than any altruistic desire to rebalance the globe’s power distribution more equitably.
Observers will be looking for something more than hot air, political theatre, and photo opportunities from the BRICS summit. The international calendar since COVID-19 has once again become clogged with leaders flitting across the planet. Russia, even sans Vladimir Putin, who is staying home, will no doubt use the meeting to demonstrate that it isn’t isolated in the international system, in spite of heavy Western sanctions. China, too, is flexing its diplomatic muscles as it gears up to challenge the hegemony of the US. Premier Xi Jinping is combining the summit with a state visit to South Africa, seeking to deepen ties between the two countries on every level. India will be careful not to be overshadowed by its two giant neighbours. With the re-election of “Lula” da Silva in Brazil, BRICS has found an avid supporter. For South Africa, BRICS membership validates its aspirations to be a country that matters in the world and it will want to put on a good show at the summit.
The BRICS members are reportedly divided on the question of expansion, however. China and Russia are enthusiastic supporters, seeing this as a way to project their power and influence. South Africa is also pro-expansion, with President Cyril Ramaphosa having said so in his live TV address on 20 August. India is less keen to dilute the exclusivity that BRICS offers in its current form, and Brazil is also cautious and reticent. It’s anyone’s bet which countries are the front-runners for admission.
The posture of BRICS is striking a chord among the many countries clamoring to get into this club. It isn’t entirely clear whether all or indeed any will be admitted to BRICS at this summit, as the five countries were still developing and debating admission criteria. If states like Iran join, expect the tone and tenor of BRICS to become ever more radical from a country that makes no bones about its hatred for Israel and the West. If “Palestine” is somehow admitted, this will add to its quest for recognition as a sovereign state, bypassing direct negotiations with Israel (admittedly stalled for years now).
With South Africa in the chair, expect the bloated post-summit declaration to devote more attention to the plight of the Palestinians, in greater detail and with more inflammatory language than the last two (virtual) summits hosted by India and China in 2021 and 2022. The other BRICS countries – apart from South Africa – have managed to support the Palestinians but simultaneously maintain warm ties with the high-tech and dynamic economy that Israel has become over the past 20 years. They won’t let ideology stand in the way of lucrative business ties.
This is the third time South Africa is hosting the annual pow wow of the bloc, having done so in 2013 in Durban and 2018 in Sandton as well. It will surely be relieved that the prospect of having to arrest Putin has been averted by his non-attendance.
How will BRICS interface with the new African Continental Free Trade Agreement, a framework for increased trade and investment? Will there be significant progress in moving away from the US dollar for international trade? And what might expansion of BRICS mean to older clubs in the developing world like the Non-Aligned Movement and the G77, both of which will be chaired by Uganda in 2024? Hopefully we will have clearer indications as the sun sets on this summit.
- Steven Gruzd is an analyst at the South African Institute of International Affairs in Johannesburg. He writes in his personal capacity.