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Big decisions on Brics expansion are expected at the summit next week, with as many as 20 nations interested in joining or having already formally applied. However, there is still debate about what the criteria for admission should be. In addition to the individual suitability of each country, the existing members will need to consider the overall balance of the bloc. Candidates would require the unanimous consent of member states to join, so agreement will have to be reached on a case-by-case basis as new members are admitted.   

Comprising Brazil, Russia, India, China and SA, Brics already includes four of the five largest emerging-market economies in the world. As such, other sizeable emerging markets such as Indonesia, Mexico, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt are all good candidates. These are the largest developing countries in Southeast Asia, Central America, North Africa and the Middle East respectively, with none of these regions represented in the Brics grouping. 

Other notable nations considered strong candidates for Brics membership include Bangladesh and the United Arab Emirates, which are both already members of the New Development Bank. In terms of economic size this list could be expanded to the likes of Turkey, Thailand, Vietnam, Nigeria, Malaysia and the Philippines, all of which are among the 40 largest economies in the world.    

While Mexico has been invited to Brics events, inclusion in the bloc is considered unlikely because of its close ties to the US.  Nevertheless, there are reasons it may be worth considering. Former US president Donald Trump has threatened to direct the US military against Mexican drug cartels if re-elected, while President Joe Biden has admitted that drug enforcement administration officials already operate across the border without Mexico’s permission. As such, Mexico may decide to follow in Brazil’s footsteps in maintaining close economic ties to the US while advancing its political autonomy via Brics membership. 

Indonesia and Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, have a clearer path as both have become prealigned with Brics. Saudi Arabia has worked closely with China in recent months to normalise relations with Iran, and has also discussed dedollarising a portion of its oil trade. These are important events. The Chinese-brokered detente between Iran and Saudi Arabia earlier in 2023 is likely to bring an end to the war in Yemen and has coincided with Syria’s readmission to the Arab League. A united Middle East brings increased stability to a region boasting several candidates for Brics expansion. 

Syria has also expressed interest in joining Brics, but is less likely to be included at this stage due to the presence of US troops in the country. That said, the normalisation of ties between Syria and its neighbours is a political win for Russia, which has propped up the Syrian government and is working to persuade Turkey and Iran to help bring an end to the conflict in that country. The influence of Brics heavyweights such as Russia and China in the Arab world is on the rise, and half of the countries that want to join the Brics bloc are Muslim-majority nations.       

Indonesia is one of them. The largest emerging market economy not yet a member of Brics, it is already advancing one of the bloc’s primary objectives: trade in domestic currencies. President Joko Widodo has expressly mentioned sanctions on Russia as a motivation for developing non-Western payment systems, saying that “Visa and Mastercard could be a problem”. Meanwhile, the country’s central bank governor, Perry Warjiyo, said that “the direction is the same as the Brics”, when discussing Indonesia’s plans to conduct trade in domestic currencies. 

Plans to increase trade in domestic currencies will certainly appeal to Egypt, which has suffered a balance of payments and currency crisis in recent months and appears to be enthusiastic about Brics membership. Having already become a member of the New Development Bank earlier in 2023, the North African giant is a strong contender to become Africa’s second Brics member. SA has enjoyed the privilege of being the only African member state, while other economically more important countries from across the world have yet to be included.

As such, it is interesting that SA has joined the other Brics nations in embracing the idea of expansion. While the addition of new countries could dilute the influence of individual members it would give more weight to the group as a whole. Clearly, this is seen as more important than maintaining the structure. Brics has already surpassed the Group of Seven on a number of metrics, and expansion could see the group of emerging markets obtain even more influence over global affairs.

Strict criteria

India originally suggested that there should be strict criteria for membership, though the world’s most populous nation has since softened its stance. Perhaps India has calculated that it would be worth supporting Brics expansion, even in the absence of explicit criteria, because this would dilute China’s economic weighting and prove India’s willingness to work with other developing nations as New Delhi seeks to position itself as the voice of the Global South.

Concerned with maintaining cohesion in the group, Brazil has floated the idea of allowing countries to join as associate members before being gradually promoted to full Brics status. However, this counteracts the egalitarian image Brics wishes to promote. Though larger, regionally important economies are likely to be prioritised, the inclusion of smaller nations supports the notion that Brics seeks to build a multipolar world order rather than simply replace a Western-dominated system with its own. 

That said, Brazil’s concerns about the overall balance of the grouping remain valid. Though all the current members maintain warm relations with Iran, the ascension of US-sanctioned states such as Iran, Syria, Zimbabwe and Venezuela could make Brics appear anti-Western, which is not the case. SA already faces difficulties trying to balance its economic ties to the West and its political ties to Russia, so the ascension of other sanctioned nations to Brics could complicate matters further. 

Though certain criteria might be agreed upon, candidates are likely be considered on a case-by-case basis, and ultimately all the existing Brics member states will have to be in agreement as the group weighs up the suitability of the individual applicants against the overall balance of the bloc.   

• Shubitz is an independent Brics analyst. 

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