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NIAS China Reader
BRICS Summit poised as the Champion of Global South

  Femy Francis

What Happened? 
On 22 August, the BRICS leaders arrived in Johannesburg, South Africa, for the 15th summit aiming to discuss the need for expansion, and further economic and trade cooperation between the member states. On 24 August, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, announced that BRICS member countries- Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa- agreed to the inclusion of the countries Iran, Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia, Egypt, Argentina and the United Arab Emirates to the bloc, effective from 01 January 2024.

The agenda for BRICS 2023 focused on ‘Inclusive Multilateralism.’ In the face of coercive unilateralism, the bloc aimed for diverse representation and collaboration. The joint statement also mentioned the need to commit towards a peaceful resolution to defuse conflicts. Additionally, they promoted the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals, focusing on poverty alleviation and climate change. The highlight of the summit was the inclusion of the six members into the bloc.

Statements by BRICS leaders on the summit
President Cyril Ramaphosa said: “This summit reaffirmed the importance of BRICS people-to-people exchanges and enhancing mutual understanding, friendship and cooperation.” Brazil’s President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva expressed that: “Our diversity strengthens the fight for a new international order.” Chinese President Xi Jinping's speech focused on the need for expansion, which can be highlighted through the statement: “We need to act on the BRICS spirit of openness, inclusiveness, and win-win cooperation to bring more countries into the BRICS family and,to pool our wisdom and strength to make global governance more just and equitable.” Russian President Vladimir Putin discussed the Russia- Ukraine war and accused the West of “illegal” sanctions and urged for bloc cooperation. India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi stated: “To make BRICS future-ready, we will need to make our respective societies ready for the future, and technology will play an important role.” White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan expressed that the US does not observe BRICS as their rival, and would continue to engage with the bloc members while pushing back Russia's aggression.

 What is the Background?
First, a brief on BRICS. The term ‘BRIC’ was first coined by Goldman Sachs economist Jim O’ Neill, highlighting the economic capability of Brazil, Russia, India and China. He claimed that BRIC countries would grow quicker than many advanced global economies, and in 2009 the group was formed (within a year after South Africa joined the bloc). The bloc comprises 41 per cent of the world’s population and 24 per cent of the world’s GDP, with a 16 per cent share in world trade. Additionally, the member countries formed the New Development Bank (NDB) to become an alternative option to the West-based World Bank.

Second, the idea of expansion and creating a multilateral world order. China has been the strongest proponent of the BRICS expansion with Russia in the bloc. President Xi Jinping urged for expansion, stating that it would introduce new ‘vitality’ into the bloc. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, initially sceptical of the expansion, also welcomed the initiative stating: “India fully supports the expansion of BRICS and welcomes move based on consensus,” while also proposing the inclusion of the African Union into the G-20. President Vladimir Putin, attending the summit online owing to international sanctions, said: “I would like to call out for more expansion of BRICS around the world. We will also establish the procedures so that BRICS continue to grow.” President Xi Jinping explicitly expressed that: “hegemonism is not in China’s DNA,” hinting at a Western alliance that follows the hegemonic lead of US interests. At the summit, he expressed that they do not aim to participate in power play and competition leading to ‘bloc confrontation.’ The idea of expansion is based on providing an alternative to the western led world order. 

Third, unilateral sanctions by the West and the Russia-Ukraine war. Russia has faced stringent actions from the West post its invasion of Ukraine. It froze half of the foreign currencies in the reserves of Russia after the war against Ukraine commenced, with the west imposing sanctions aiming to isolate Russia. 

Additionally, similar stringent measures have been taken against China were the west particularly the US heavily sanctioned China for the export of semiconductors. With the US weaponizing dollars by imposing sanctions, there has been an inclination by countries to look for alternative currencies and rely on local currencies for trade where President Putin, also called for “de-dollarization. 

Fourth, bilateral challenges may hinder BRICS’ functionality. The expansion has provided the bloc with much-needed clout and opportunities. The question arises whether they will be able to bring in any substantial changes, with the bloc facing overlapping bilateral challenges. With the China-India border dispute and Iran, Saudi Arabia’s only recent reenkindling brokered by China after years of animosity may stand in the way of making pragmatic decisions and hinder the group's potential. Regardless, the move may make the West rethink its international policy of dominance and aim to rekindle relations with the allies.

 What does it mean? 
First, scepticism towards expansion and dismay over irrelevance. The driving force of mutual interests brought the actors to agree on the expansion; what is to be noted is that the benefits from the move may vary. As a bloc, BRICS may now be able to gather better attention from the West but there is a persistent concern especially from India, that the bloc may just become a mouthpiece and facilitator for Chinese expansion. Before the current agreement, Brazil, India and even South Africa were hesitant over the idea, with Brazilians fearing that a larger number of members would lead to the diluting of their influence and say in the bloc. The concerns of the countries do remain valid as with this expansion, China and Russia will look to facilitate their agendas, and why shouldn’t they? Regardless, economic opportunities trump the fear of irrelevancy.

 Second, challenging the Washington-led world order can restructure the global order. The augmentation of BRICS claims to bring about a significant change in the global world order, while the debate stands whether that is even possible. Vivek Mishra, a fellow at the Observer Research Foundation (ORF), said: “There is certainly a space for carving out a new world order,” which was created for the better representation of Global South and as a strategic alternative for both Moscow and Beijing, which find themselves at odds with the Washington led alliance. The formation of the New Development Bank is another example where the Global South seeks to garner more control over developmental finances, instead of on the IMF and thus challenging the global financing architecture. 

 Third, BRICS is outweighed by Chinese interests. While BRICS promotes multilateralism and representation of a diverse Global South, Chinese influence looms high. China has twice the GDP of its member countries combined, meaning that even with a stagnant and slow economy, it fares better than the other countries. China furthering its agenda can be observed through the recent inclusion of new members to the bloc, where all six new members are part of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). China sees BRICS as a counter to the US and therefore it aims push its global agenda by bringing in countries where it had previously invested in through BRI.

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