What is the future of the BRICS?
ON AUGUST 22ND the 15th annual summit of the BRICSa group comprising Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africatakes place in Johannesburg. For the first time one of the blocs leaders will be absent. As host, South Africas president, Cyril Ramaphosa, felt he had a responsibility to welcome his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin. But as a signatory to the Rome Statute, the treaty that established the International Criminal Court, his duty was to detain Mr Putin under the courts arrest warrant and send him to the Hague to stand trial for war crimes. Russias leader has said he will stay away. But Mr Ramaphosas dilemma is part of a wider struggle between BRICS members over how to make the group geopolitically relevant. What unites the BRICS, and how much does the group matter? Alliances usually grow out of their members common interests. Not so with the BRICS. The acronym was coined in 2001 by Goldman Sachs, a bank, as a marketing tool to attract investment into four of the worlds largest, fast-growing middle-income countries (South Africa was not originally part of the club). In 2006 the bank opened an equity fund for investors in the BRICs. The groups members differ profoundly. Brazil, India and South Africa are democracies. Russia and China are not. Russia, China and India have nuclear weapons. Brazil and South Africa do not. Brazil and Russia export commodities. China imports them. Chinas economy is larger than the others combined. It has a long-running border dispute with India, which flared up in 2020, killing 24 soldiers. In 2015 Goldman closed its BRIC fund. Three years later The Economist asked: Does anyone still care about the BRICS? Its leaders certainly do. For Brazil, India and South Africa, the outfit is a way of getting privileged access to China, which they might not have at, say, the G20 (the group of 20 largest economies). For Russia, the club is a defence against pariah status. China was well suited to a club of large, non-aligned developing countries, at least until Xi Jinping, its president, made its foreign policy more openly confrontational and anti-American. All five think a multipolar world, less dominated by America, is desirable. In 2009 the leaders held their first summit. In 2014, they set up a multilateral lending institution called the New Development Bank (NDB), based in Shanghai. Though modest (it had $25bn in assets in 2022, less than a tenth of the World Banks total) the NDB is part of an attempt to challenge the dollars global dominance; it aims to provide 30% of its loans in the currencies of its borrowers. In 2020 the BRICS overtook the Group of Seven (G7) largest industrial countries in economic size when measured in purchasing-power parities. All this has piqued the interest of other countries. According to South Africas ambassador to the organisation, dozens are applying or thinking about joining. An adviser to Irans president calls membership of the BRICS the next step in his countrys foreign policy. Argentina, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkey and Venezuela are also said to be in the queue. Bangladesh, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates have already joined the NDB (which is formally separate). If all these countries joined, the bigger BRICS would account for half the worlds population. The BRICS founders are divided on the prospect of expansion. China and Russia want new members. The criteria and procedures for expansion were on the agenda of last years summit. New members, especially stridently anti-American candidates such as Iran, would increase Chinas influence and make the BRICS more of an anti-American accord. Mr Putin sees a bigger BRICS as a way of offsetting the Western alliance against Russia. But for the same reasons, expansion is less palatable to Brazil and India. They do not want the club to be more China-centric, nor do they want it to become an overt rival to the West, with which they have better relations than do China or Russia. The summit in Johannesburg can hardly avoid debating expansion. Which view prevails will determine the future shape of the bloc.