Major expansion as economic bloc that includes Russia and China attempts to provide counterweight to the US and western allies
The Brics group of big emerging economies has announced the admission of six new members, in an attempt to reshape the global world order and provide a counterweight to the US and its allies.
From the beginning of next year, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Argentina, the UAE and Ethiopia will join the current five members – Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa – it was announced at a summit in Johannesburg on Thursday.
China’s president, Xi Jinping, described the expansion as “historic”. He had been the leading proponent of the admission of new members, presenting an enlarged Brics as a way for the global south to have a stronger voice in world affairs.
It is unclear, however, how the expansion would significantly enhance the group’s clout on the global stage. That would depend on how far it will be able to act in unison, analysts said, and the group of new members has made it even more disparate, a mix of powerful autocracies with middle-income and developing democracies.
“It’s not entirely clear what the newest Brics members will have to gain from their membership in the bloc,” Margaret Myers, the director of the Asia and Latin America programme at the Inter-American Dialogue. “For the moment, at least, this move is more symbolic than anything – it’s an indication of wide-ranging global south support for a recalibration of the global order.”
Vladimir Putin did not attend the three-day summit in person, as he faces an arrest warrant for war crimes in Ukraine issued by the international criminal court, but the Brics enlargement represents a symbolic boost for him, as he fights a US-led effort to isolate his regime to force a withdrawal and an end to the war.
The decision to admit Iran, also looking for a way to sidestep sanctions, represented a win for Putin and Xi, helping give the group a more anti-western, non-democratic tinge. They prevailed over the more cautious approach of the other members, who prefer to portray the group as non-aligned.
For Argentina, facing dire economic problems, membership represents a potential lifeline to escape from the deepening crisis. Its president, Alberto Fernández, said it represented a “new scenario” for the country.
“We open up our possibilities of joining new markets, of consolidating existing markets, of raising investment coming in, of creating jobs and raising imports,” Fernandez said.
Ethiopia became the only low-income country in the group. Its prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, described it as “a great moment” for his country.
Nearly two dozen countries had formally applied to join the group, but there had to be consensus among its existing five members for candidate countries to be admitted.
South Africa’s president, Cyril Ramaphosa, said the members had agreed on “the guiding principles, standards, criteria and procedures of the Brics expansion process”. Those criteria were not explained, however. Indonesia, for example, with a population of 274 million and a powerful force in Asia, applied to join but was not admitted.
“For China and Russia, this is a win. They have been pushing for this for five plus years now,” said Ryan Berg, the head of the Americas programme at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies. “For China, it allows them to continue to build what they hope is a Beijing-centric order. For Russia, who is hosting it next year, it sees this as a tremendous opportunity in its current moment of significant isolation.”
“If you’re Brazil, or if you’re India, you’re less enthusiastic about expansion, even though they’re rhetorically committed to it, because it dilutes the power of your membership in an organisation that includes global power like China,” Berg said.
There is not likely to be an immediate economic benefit from membership for members, who already have extensive bilateral ties with China. The group’s New Development Bank is still relatively small. But Myers said that although the move is largely symbolic that does not mean it is unimportant.
“This is significant, and shouldn’t be dismissed by G7 and other global north actors,” she argued. “With these new members – especially the major oil producing ones – on board, the Brics configuration represents a much more significant share of the global economy and global population.”