What is the future of BRICS?

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ohN LAIDH 22AIN the 15th annual conference of the BRICS—a group that includes Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa—takes place in Johannesburg. For the first time one of the leaders of the block will be absent. As a guest, the president of South Africa, Cyril Ramaphosa, felt obliged to welcome his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin. But as a signatory to the Rome Statute, the treaty that established the International Criminal Court, it was his duty to detain Mr Putin under the court’s arrest warrant and send him to The Hague to face war crimes court. The Russian leader has said he will stay away. But Mr Ramaphosa’s dilemma is part of a wider struggle between BRICS members about how to make the organization geopolitically relevant. What unites the BRICSand how important is the organization?

Alliances usually grow out of the common interests of their members. Not so with the BRICS. The acronym was coined in 2001 by Goldman Sachs, a bank, as a marketing tool to attract investment to four of the world’s fastest-growing middle-income countries (Africa was not -South originally part of the club). In 2006 the bank opened an equity fund for investors in the BRICs.

There is a big difference between the members of the group. Brazil, India and South Africa are democracies. Not Russia and China. Russia, China and India have nuclear weapons. Brazil and South Africa are not. Brazil and Russia export goods. China imports them. China’s economy is bigger than all the others combined. There has been a long-standing border dispute with India, which escalated in 2020, killing 24 soldiers. In 2015 Goldman closed a BRIC property. Three years later the Economist asked: “Does anyone still care about it BRICS?”

His leaders certainly do. For Brazil, India and South Africa, the outfit is a way to get 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 defense against pariah status. China was a good fit for a club of large, unaligned developing countries, at least until Xi Jinping, its president, made its foreign policy more open and anti-American. All five believe that a multilateral world, less dominated by America, is desirable.

In 2009 the leaders held their first summit. In 2014, they established a multilateral lending institution called the New Development Bank.NDB), based in Shanghai. Although small ($25bn in assets in 2022, less than a tenth of the World Bank’s total) NDB is part of an effort to challenge the global dominance of the dollar; it aims to provide 30% of its loans in borrowers’ funds. In 2020 the BRICS it surpassed the Group of Seven (G7) industrialized countries largest in economic size when measured in terms of purchasing power.

All this has raised the interest of other countries. According to the South African ambassador to the group, dozens are applying or considering joining. An adviser to the president of Iran calls membership of the BRICS “the next step” in his country’s foreign policy. It is said that Argentina, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkey and Venezuela are also in the queue. Bangladesh, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates have already joined the NDB (which is extremely formal). If all these countries were together, the more BRICS it would account for half the world’s population.

The BRICS founders are divided on their plans to expand. China and Russia want new members. The criteria and procedures for expansion were on the agenda of last year’s summit. New members, especially strong anti-American candidates such as Iran, would increase China’s influence and make the BRICS more of an anti-American deal. Mr. Putin sees a bigger one BRICS as a means of balancing the Western alliance against Russia. But for the same reasons, expansion is less attractive to Brazil and India. They don’t want the club to be more focused on China, and they don’t want it to be an obvious rival to the West, with whom they have a better relationship than China or Russia. The summit in Johannesburg will almost certainly avoid an extension of the debate. The view will determine the shape of the block in the future.

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