The 15th BRICS summit this year (2023) was scheduled in South Africa, Johannesburg from 22-24th August. The BRICS summit this year offers a more distinguished agenda on the table like the use of local currency in trade and its expansion discussed. It has immense significance because it is the first in-person summit after the Russian invasion of Ukraine and Covid-19. Also, it accounts for more than a quarter of the global GDP and 40% of the total population. Though, the BRICS grouping does not have uniformity in their politico-economic system, language, culture, religion, history, and geography.
Moreover, nearly 22 members formally applied to join the club. Among the BRICS members there remained a division over its expansion as Brazil and India wanted no longer enlargement but China, Russia, and South Africa wished otherwise due to their varying interests. Within the BRICS, Beijing holds a much more influential position in the group than that of New Delhi due to leverage of economic strength, the largest active military and political outreach globally unlike any other member. Therefore China and India, also due to their border dispute and regional geopolitical competition, have been at odds with each other over matters of expansion. For India, the expansion of members may signal the increase of the PRC’s political influence and thus later take the lead of the global south. It seems to be a foreign policy flaw as long as it puts power into the hands of China and hollows the presumption of the former to lead the global south.
China has been a supporter of expansion with full zeal along with Russian support because it indicates a geopolitical edge for the former and a showcase of allies despite the invasion of Ukraine for the latter.
As the summit has concluded, the admission of 6 new members in the organization including Egypt, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Iran, Ethiopia, and Argentina has been agreed upon and will be effective from January 01, 2024, also a big diplomatic achievement for Beijing, Russia and South Africa. Markedly, it still cannot be argued that it was a diplomatic failure for India just because it failed to pursue its agenda of restricting expansion. Instead, India has played a key role in setting criteria for newcomers which will benefit it to who to let in. With most of the new members, New Delhi has strategic partnerships like the UAE and Argentina. India’s opposition to expansion was stuck at the assumption that it would dilute the alliance’s core objectives and building consensus with more members in a time to come can be challenging. Pakistan has not formally expressed its will to become a member of the group. But being a developing country and due largely to China’s decisive role, joining the group suits Islamabad. A diplomatic leverage from Beijing can help Islamabad to join the club. However, the economic challenges the country faces and hundreds of billions of dollars in external debt owing to the IMF appear to be the actual hurdles.
There should be no denying that India will emerge as an impediment to the question of Pakistan’s admission as New Delhi has already expressed its concerns. However, India and China are locked in competition to enhance geopolitical influence and take the lead in the global south. Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the imposition of sanctions by the West against Moscow, China, and Russia are closer than ever before to challenge the dominance of the US and its allies. Due to the heavy weightage of both partners in the organization, the identity of the BRICS bloc is shifting- particularly from this 15th summit- from an economic alliance to a bloc which seems to be an alternative to the Western-led global financial and political order.
Developing countries’ hopes to become less reliant on the dollar for trade and loans from the World Bank or International Monetary Fund (IMF) have increased which they believe as uneven and less helpful because of Western influence.
In this context, China’s ambassador to South Africa, Chen Xiaodong, said that the bloc was “an important platform for cooperation among emerging and developing nations” and “the backbone of international fairness and justice.” Similarly, another Chinese official said that “if we expand BRICS to account for a similar portion of world GDP as the G7, then our collective voice in the world will grow stronger.” Therefore, forming a coalition with Russia and China gives Global South states leverage in their dealings with the US-led West.
The expansion of the BRICS seems less likely to serve New Delhi’s interest of restricting enlargement and preserving its role as a leader at the sub-system and system level. In this multipolar world, New Delhi follows a multi-alignment strategy to ensure its participation in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad), G7 meeting, and leading G20 summit this year, on the one hand, while participating in the BRICS and SCO, on the other hand. So, India is playing a hedging game while interacting with the outer world. Nonetheless, as the Sino-US rivalry intensifies, India will be able to continue its policy seems improbable. There is an inevitable growing gradual shift in the BRICS’ identity, India faces challenges to remain part of the bloc and more importantly, it does not want to be seen with various eyes by the US.
The 15th BRICS summit has been concluded with an outcome, unlike talk shop in previous meetings, of its expansion by including 6 members into it.
The expansion can be termed as an attempt to reshape the global order and present an alternative to the Western-led global financial forums. The BRICS+ has gone even further than just expansion where there are common standards, procedures, and payment mechanisms that make it more attractive in the developing world. As a result, it will expand China’s outreach in the global south and Russia will get new allies. The current structure of the organization with more developing countries’ participation and motive of creating a just global order where the developing world will be able to have a much stronger voice on the international stage is inspiring the emerging economies to become part of it.
In retaliation, this will improve their economic conditions while providing them a chance to closely interact with the economic giant, China, and with others as well. In fact, China will have a geopolitical edge over its rival India within the group since all the members currently have more trade with China and a trade deficit with India or even with each other. New Delhi’s claim to lead the south seems hollow as of now and China has been using the bloc more effectively vis-à-vis India. The enlargement of the group, however, can be challenging because of the huge diversity not only in their systems but also in diverging interests, particularly in those of influential powers like China, India, or Russia.
The author is a research fellow at the Institute of Strategic Studies Islamabad (ISSI), and an International relations scholar at the National University of Modern Languages NUML.