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Picture: 123RF/Alexan107
Picture: 123RF/Alexan107

As the host of this year’s Brics summit SA faced the daunting challenge of driving the process to draft admission criteria for expanded Brics membership.

Though expansion has been on the cards since 2018, with China strongly supporting it, the Covid-19 pandemic helped push the can down the road. This was useful, it required more reflection among the Brics members as to the club’s fundamental identity. Is it primarily a means for the creation of alternative economic and financial mechanisms, or does it see itself as evolving into a far larger economic and political group?

Brics detractors are fond of casting the bloc as nothing but a GDP club with few common values and even less geographical overlap. Yet this ambiguity has been both Brics’ strength and its weakness.

Until Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 the bloc was essentially about reforming institutions of the existing international order, with a strong emphasis on trade, economic development and finance. However, with escalating US-China trade disputes and the Ukraine war, for some revision of the Bretton Woods order (rather than its mere reform) became imperative.

It is this tension between reformists — who see Brics as a bulwark against US-China polarisation — and those who see it as a means for the creation of a Western counter-hegemonic bloc, that had to be navigated at the Johannesburg summit.

The differences between the reformists and the revisionists run along two lines of difference. The former (for the first line of difference) does not want Brics to be seen as a basis of opposition to the G7 and (on the second line of difference) prefer a stronger focus on economic and social development.

However, the revisionists would prefer Brics to demonstrate options alternative to the West. Though cognisant of economic development imperatives, the revisionists are keen to see some or more geopolitical and security issues on the Brics agenda — the second line of difference.

Given their historic nonaligned positions, India and Brazil advocated the former and Russia the latter. However, Vladimir Putin’s attempt to drum up support for Russia’s invasion elicited only brief and neutral responses in support of peacemaking from Brazil's Lula da Silva and SA’s Cyril Ramaphosa, while India’s Narendra Modi did not mention it in his address, and nor did China’s Xi Jinping.

China possibly has a leg in both groups. As the world’s second largest economy it benefits from a stable international trading order, yet also wants to shape an alternative security order. For example, Xi also proposed sharing intelligence among Brics members.

Members of the now redundant Ibsa club of democracies in the Global South — India, Brazil and SA — remain vigilant to the risk that an expanded Brics may simply become a big Beijing fan club. Yet SA had little choice but to support expansion. As the smallest economy in the group whose admission had been supported by China and Russia, Pretoria would be hard-pressed to do otherwise.

One idea to mitigate a stronger power tilt towards Beijing should new members be admitted was the introduction of a “tiered” level of membership, with the original Brics members enjoying extended privileges. However, given that such an approach would mirror the unequal distribution of power within the UN Security Council that Brics was created to oppose, it died an early death.

Both India and Brazil were initially against expansion but eventually agreed provided clear criteria were developed, though a reluctant Modi had to be persuaded by Ramaphosa. Modi reportedly suggested at the eleventh hour that a minimum per capita be part of the admission criteria and that an aspiring member may not be a target of sanctions (thus barring Venezuela and Iran).

Though speculation started to surface that due to a lack of consensus no new members would be announced, eventually six new members were invited: Argentina, Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. It is striking that only two of these — Argentina and Ethiopia — are not big fossil fuel exporters with Argentina, facing crippling foreign reserve crises, strongly supported by Brazil and Ethiopia, and Egypt supported by SA.

Questions of human rights and democracy aside, the addition of Iran, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt will give Brics undeniable oil-producing heft. Moreover, the UAE and Egypt were already members of the New Development Bank (NDB) — membership of Brics is not a prerequisite for membership of the NDB, as is the case for Bangladesh.

Yet Indonesia — the largest economy in Southeast Asia, which earns 19% of its exports from fuel — also applied for membership. Though Indonesian President Joko Widodo addressed the summit in person, emphasising human rights and international law, Indonesia seems to have decided against joining Brics, saying geopolitical tensions with Russia and tensions between China and India are likely to overshadow prospects for economic and social co-operation. As one of the world’s largest democracies with a long tradition of non-alignment, Indonesia’s reluctance to join Brics does not auger well for a good balance between countries with democratic and other political systems within Brics.

For SA, the inclusion of Ethiopia and Egypt introduces the difficult trade-off between its national interest against its pan-African leadership aspirations. Given that SA’s ascension to Brics was originally justified based on it being Africa’s “representative” considering its small economy, it is less clear what Pretoria will be bringing to future Brics jamborees besides its G20 membership, given that it will no longer be the African primus inter pares.

Given the possible need for a small secretariat to look after a growing Brics family, Pretoria could pitch the idea that it — like Brussels — could host such a secretariat. However, Ethiopia may contend that a Brics secretariat could easily “piggyback” on the existing AU infrastructure. At which point China might eagerly suggest the NDB headquarters in Beijing.

The issue of “de-dollarisation” has been a long-standing item on the Brics agenda. Yet media speculation about a new Brics currency in the wake of Russia’s expulsion from the Swift international banking system sought to frame the Brics summit in alarmist terms. Ill-informed media hype about the imminent demise of the dollar problematically shaped a polarising narrative that the reformist group sought to downplay. Accordingly, the summit declaration approved the creation of a working group and reiterated the existing contingency reserve arrangement in suitably technocratic language.

Whether the new 11-member Brics will amplify the voice of the Global South depends on several conditions.

The first is finding the optimal size of the eventual coalition — encompassing enough to make a decisive global impact but not so large that transaction costs and a lack of substantive focus and division overwhelm momentum.

The second is balance between the number of democracies and non-democracies. If the club is seen to be dominated by pro-Beijing or Moscow types, the reformists will leave, undermining the Brics’ collective goal of inclusive multilateralism.

The third involves the role of non-state actors. Given the prominence of the Brics Business Forum, capital may also help moderate divisiveness.

• Prof Van der Westhuizen teaches in the department of political science at Stellenbosch University. This article is based on analysis commissioned by the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung.

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