“We value the interest of other countries in building a partnership with BRICS. We have tasked our Foreign Ministers to further develop the BRICS partner country model and a list of prospective partner countries and report by the next Summit,” said South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa during the BRICS meeting as his country hosted the three-day summit in Johannesburg last month.
Russian President Vladimir Putin notably skipped the much anticipated gathering of the BRICS leaders and attended virtually instead, sending a video message. Putin risked arrest under a war crimes indictment issued by the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine that has served as a watershed moment for Europe. The war has provoked several sanctions on the Russian regime ever since its fallout.
BRICS — the coalition led by Global South states Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa — aims at expanding the association further as the world becomes more multipolar. Representing nearly half of the world’s population, BRICS has sparked interest in more than 40 countries that have now either expressed interest in joining the bloc or submitted official applications. Iran, Saudi Arabia, Argentina, Ethiopia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates are to be admitted as full members from January next year. Ramaphosa made historical announcements concerning key interests shared with geopolitical partners. South Africa became the first beneficiary of the expansion of the bloc in 2010 when it joined after an invitation from the group formerly named BRIC.
While the expansion is likely to benefit economically, particularly the African states, the inclusion of countries with poor human rights records like Iran and Saudi Arabia remains a concern for many. Both Russia and China, the leading members of this bloc — which represents a third of the global GDP — face numerous human rights challenges themselves that put a dent in the BRICS’ eagerness and otherwise commitment to be seen as a revered voice for the Global South countries. In India, the human rights situation, particularly those of the minorities, has severely plummeted with the rise of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) under the patronage of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
The bilateral challenges and diverging interests, such as conflict between China and India over a long disputed border — that resulted in a clash in the Ladakh region killing 20 Indian and four Chinese soldiers three years ago — and growing rivalry to exert greater influence in the South Asian region, insinuate internal fragility within the BRICS fabric despite a unifying front projected at the Johannesburg summit in August. Chinese President Xi Jinping is further skipping the G20 Summit in India being held on the 9th and 10th September, which is being seen as a new setback in Beijing- New Delhi relations.
The more recent diplomatic thaw between upcoming members Iran and Saudi Arabia, brokered by China, after years of hostility is a welcoming sign nonetheless.
If the BRICS alliance wants to exert a greater influence geopolitically and aspires to be more than just a trading bloc, it will have to address human rights concerns to be considered more purposeful for the Global South peoples than just another heavyweight alliance aiming towards global hegemony. The European Union, for instance, offers visa-free travel within Schengen states and EU countries in Europe for its citizens while displaying unhinged solidarity in political discourse. It responded decisively and stood together in the face of Russian aggression and continues to do so, setting an example for the world and other alliances formed based on shared interests and values.
Economically, the New Development Bank, established by BRICS, is coming across as a positive substitute to the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for developing nations due to its favorable terms. The world’s economic balance is also seen to be shifting towards emerging economies. While Brazil’s President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva proposed a BRICS currency for trading in order to counter the dominance of the US dollar and work towards mobilizing resources for infrastructure with conditionality acceptable to member countries in the bloc, there does not seem to be more substantial common grounds for the partners in the alliance that could truly threaten the US and the West-based world order and political system despite China and India being the fastest growing economies. China is even projected to overtake the United States as the world’s largest economy by 2050.
A shared discontent with Western powers is undoubtedly a point of mutual understanding between BRICS members and what played a part in bringing them closer in the first place. This point of commonality, however, varies in proportion from country to country within the bloc. India, for instance, shares great relations with the United States and Europe that have gotten a renewed push in the recent past despite its long and enduring relationship with Russia.
The five major economies of the BRICS constitute 41 percent of the world population, 24 percent of the world GDP and 16 percent of global trade flows. These countries, as Ramaphosa said, “ have emerged as powerful engines of global growth.” Economically, the future looks bright. The litmus test for BRICS, however, would be dealing with and navigating through their bilateral disagreements and keeping autocracy at bay.