Brics group looks to expand at summit despite divisions among key members

Leaders from developing countries representing almost half the world’s population including China and Russia are to meet in South Africa for a key summit aimed at reinforcing their alliance as a counterweight to the west.

The Brics grouping summit in Johannesburg, which starts on Tuesday, will be hosted by the South African president, Cyril Ramaphosa, and brings together the prime minister of India, Narendra Modi, as well the presidents of China, Xi Jinping, and Brazil, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.

Dozens of leaders of other countries in Africa, Asia and the Middle East will also attend, many hoping to be invited to join the bloc.

Russia will be represented by its foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, after Vladimir Putin decided not travel to Johannesburg to avoid forcing South Africa to choose between fulfilling conflicting obligations as hosts of the summit and as a member of the international criminal court.

The ICC has issued an arrest warrant for the Russian president for alleged war crimes in Ukraine that would have theoretically compelled South Africa to detain him. Putin will now only attend virtually.

The summit may see the Brics group, whose economies account for a quarter of global gross domestic product, take a clearly anti-western turn. This raises the prospect of a new and re-energised economic and political actor against the US and its allies in world affairs.

On Sunday, Ramaphosa sought to reassure concerned observers and domestic opponents that South Africa would “not be drawn into a contest between global powers” and wanted to avoid a world that was “increasingly polarised into competing camps”.

“Our decision not to align with any one of the global powers does not mean that we are neutral on matters of principle or national interest,” he told viewers in a televised national address.

One issue at the summit will be moves to undermine the dominance of the US dollar in international trade transactions, which would be helpful to Russia as its economy struggles with sanctions imposed after its full-scale invasion of Ukraine last year.

China is looking to build a broader coalition of developing countries to extend Beijing’s influence and reinforce its efforts to compete with the US on the global stage.

“The traditional global governing system has become dysfunctional, deficient and missing in action,” the Chinese ambassador to South Africa, Chen Xiaodong, said at a briefing in Pretoria last week, adding that the Brics grouping was “increasingly becoming a staunch force in defending international justice”.

But both China’s expansion plans and the more explicitly political stance that Beijing has outlined has riled India, the most populous country in the group.

Prof Harsh Pant, an international relations expert at the Observer Research Foundation, a thinktank in Delhi, said: “India is looking to ensure that this platform doesn’t just drift off into [being] an openly anti-western platform, and there is a danger of that with both Russia and China having a certain agenda.

“India and least of all Modi have no interest in shaping India’s foreign policy in an anti-western direction. Brics was conceived as a geoeconomic platform but is drifting into a geopolitical role and India is not likely to be comfortable with that.”

Officials in South Africa say more than 40 countries have expressed interest in joining Brics. Twenty three are thought to have asked formally to be admitted.

Anil Sooklal, South Africa’s ambassador at large for Asia and the Brics, said one of the reasons countries were lining up to join the group was a “very polarised world” that had been further polarised by the Ukraine war, and that countries were being forced to take sides.

“Countries in the [global] south don’t want to be told who to support, how to behave and how to conduct their sovereign affairs. They are strong enough now to assert their respective positions,” said Sooklal.

Among potential new members are Iran and Venezuela, both hit by sanctions and diplomatically isolated.

Ramón Lobo, Venezuela’s former finance minister and central bank president, told Reuters: “Other integration frameworks that exist globally have been blinded by the hegemonic vision put forward by the US government.”

Russia also sees the summit as an opportunity to reinforce its alliances in the developing world, particularly in Africa. Putin hosted African leaders in St Petersburg for a second Russia-Africa summit last month.

African candidates for membership such as Ethiopia and Nigeria are attracted by the bloc’s commitment to UN reforms that would give Africa a more powerful global voice. Others believe an expanded Brics may be able to drive through changes to the World Trade Organization, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.

With India’s opposition to any new members of Brics without very strict safeguards and its concerns that Beijing will pack the group with anti-western allies, there is very unlikely to be consensus, say experts, meaning immediate expansion is improbable.

“I don’t think we’ll see any explicit messages on this issue, just some anodyne statement,” said Pant.

Many analysts are also sceptical of hopes that even an enlarged Brics grouping could have much impact. Since its foundation in 2009, the bloc’s ambitions to exert significant global political and economic influence has been undermined by the differences between the values, interests and political systems of its members.

Steven Gruzd of the South African Institute of International Affairs, a thinktank, said: “They may have too high expectations of what Brics membership will actually bring in practice.”

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