Russia and China aim to gain political and economic ground in the developing world at a summit in South Africa this week. Leaders from the BRICS economic bloc of Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa will meet in Sandton, Johannesburg’s financial district.
Chinese Premier Xi Jinping’s presence underscores China’s investment in the bloc. Russian President Vladimir Putin will join via video link due to an International Criminal Court arrest warrant.
Other leaders attending include Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and South African President Cyril Ramaphosa.
The main summit on Wednesday, as well as side meetings on Tuesday and Thursday, are expected to produce broad calls for greater cooperation among countries in the Global South amid growing discontent with perceived Western dominance of global institutions.
One specific policy point with more direct implications will be discussed and possibly decided on regarding the proposed expansion of the BRICS bloc, which was formed in 2009 by the emerging market countries of Brazil, Russia, India, and China and added South Africa the following year.
According to South African officials, Saudi Arabia is one of more than 20 countries that have formally applied to join BRICS in another possible expansion.
Any move toward including the world’s second-largest oil producer in an economic bloc with Russia and China would undoubtedly draw attention from the US and its allies in an extra-frosty geopolitical climate, especially given Beijing’s recent move to exert some influence in the Persian Gulf.
Analysts say that even agreement on the principle of expanding BRICS, which already includes a large portion of the developing world’s largest economies, is a moral victory for the Russian and Chinese vision of the bloc as a counterbalance to the G-7.
In the midst of China’s economic friction with the U.S. and Russia’s Cold War-like standoff with the West over the war in Ukraine, both China and Russia favor adding more countries to bolster a coalition, even if it is only symbolic.
In addition to the Saudis, nations ranging from Argentina to Algeria, Egypt, Iran, Indonesia, and the United Arab Emirates have formally applied to join and are potential new members.
If a number of them are brought in, “then you end up with a bigger economic bloc, and from that, a sense of power,” said Prof. Alexis Habiyaremye of the College of Business and Economics at the University of Johannesburg.
While Brazil, India, and South Africa are less enthusiastic about expansion and seeing their influence diluted in what is currently an exclusive club for developing nations, momentum is building for it.
However, nothing has been decided, and the five countries must first agree on the criteria that new members must meet. This is on the agenda in Johannesburg in light of Beijing’s initiative.
The United States has emphasized its bilateral ties with South Africa, Brazil, and India in an effort to counteract any disproportionate Russian and Chinese influence emanating from the BRICS.
The European Union will also closely monitor events in Johannesburg but will devote almost all of its attention to the war in Ukraine and the bloc’s continued, largely unsuccessful efforts to garner international condemnation for Russia’s invasion from developing nations.
With Xi, Lula, Modi, and Ramaphosa gathering, European Commission spokesman Peter Stano urged them to seize the opportunity to uphold international law.
If the BRICS foreign ministers meeting in Cape Town in June, the precursor to the main summit, is anything to go by, there will be no public criticism of Russia or Putin over the war.
According to Maria Snegovaya, Russia may see the summit as an opportunity to gain some favor. Putin may use the BRICS summit to announce more free grain shipments to developing countries, as he has already done for several African countries.
It would allow Putin to demonstrate “goodwill” to the developing world while excluding Ukraine from the process, according to Snegovaya.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Putin would have “full-fledged participation” in the summit despite appearing on a video link and making a speech.
BRICS Collaboration Amidst Challenges: Embracing Local Currency Trade to Diversify Global Economy
BRICS experts are generally united in pointing out the difficulties the bloc has in implementing policy due to the five countries’ differing economic and political priorities and the tensions and rivalries between China and India.
But a focus on more trade in local currencies is something all of them can get behind, said Cobus van Staden, an analyst at the China Global South Project, which tracks Chinese engagement across the developing world.
He sees BRICS pushing a move away from the dollar in regional trade in some parts of the world in the same way he sees this summit as a whole.
“None of this is the big sword that’s going to slay the dollar. That’s not the play,” said van Staden. “It’s not one big sword wound; it’s a lot of paper cuts. It won’t kill the dollar, but it’s definitely making the world a more complicated place.”
“They don’t need to defeat the dollar, and they don’t need to defeat the G-7. All they particularly want to do is raise an alternative to it. It’s this much longer play.”