The geographical balance of the new additions to BRICS clearly illustrates this intention. However, just like the original group and the currently expanded BRICS+, they present heterogeneities and asymmetries that will likely pose challenges in the future for consensus-building, Andrés Serbin writes.
Established in 2009 and expanded with the inclusion of South Africa the following year, the BRICS group (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) became an alternative forum for emerging economies aspiring to promote cooperation and eventually play a more active role in reforming and reshaping global economic governance. As an informal multilateral mechanism that differs from established international financial organizations, other informal forums for consultation, and traditional multilateral mechanisms, from its inception, BRICS aimed to give a voice to emerging economies of the Global South contesting the hegemony of the more industrialized and wealthier nations of the West, including Japan. The XV BRICS Summit constitutes, in this sense, a turning point, as it decisively impacts the configuration of a multipolar international system.
The return of geopolitics and the confrontation between major powers and emerging blocs following the COVID-19 pandemic and the economic sanctions imposed by the West on Russia due to the war in Ukraine contributed to revitalizing the group from 2019 onwards and to increasing its politicization in the face of ongoing changes in the international system.
In this context, the XV BRICS Summit in Johannesburg held in August of this year sparked a wide range of expectations regarding its growing weight in the international system. Some of these expectations were highly critical, questioning its role as a counterweight to existing organizations and its actual ability to become a prominent actor, particularly as it is perceived — especially in Western media — as an “anti-Western alliance led by Beijing and Moscow” that contributes to the construction of a Sino-centric global order.
Alongside these criticisms, China’s predominant role as the most powerful economy in the group and Russia’s “special military operation” in Ukraine raised a wide range of questions about the group perceived as being organized around the interests of this tandem, and whose potential expansion could threaten Western interests. Others, widely favourable in terms of the emergence of a mechanism capable of balancing or reforming global governance in favour of the Global South and emerging economies, aimed to highlight the role of the bloc as a fundamental and growing actor in a multipolar reconfiguration of the international system that would dilute Western and particularly US primacy.
Beyond these criticisms and perceptions, before the Summit, a series of questions were raised about whether the group should deepen its institutionalization — in terms of structure, procedures, budget, and permanent location—building on some previous achievements such as the creation of the New Development Bank in 2014 and the Contingent Reserve Arrangements, among others, that had begun to benefit some developing countries that were not yet members of the group, or whether it should proceed to expand — as BRICS+ — to increase its weight, representativeness, and legitimacy in the international system, given a list of more than 23 Global South countries aspiring to join the group.
However, the Summit’s agenda foresaw two prominent issues to address. On one hand, particularly due to movements in favour of using national currencies in trade and financial exchanges among group members and other nations of the Global South, the creation of a common currency to replace the U. S. dollar as the dominant currency appeared as key issues to be addressed. On the other hand, the expansion of the bloc to a broader platform, taking into account the numerous requests for entry from countries in the Global South. Additionally, two topics that were expected to be present were related to the group’s projection in Africa and positions regarding the situation in Ukraine and the resolution of the conflict, as China, Brazil and a group of African countries had previously launched initiatives to promote dialogues for peace between Ukraine and Russia.
After several international organizations pointed out that BRICS had become the largest GDP bloc — in terms of Purchasing Power Parity (PPP) — in the world, currently contributing 31.5% of the world’s GDP compared to the G7’s contribution of 30.7%, and that most members of the bloc largely ignored Western economic sanctions against Russia, the issue of creating a single currency, strongly promoted by Brazil, did not advance as expected at the Summit. Instead, the need to strengthen and resort to exchanges in national currencies before creating a common currency that could replace the dollar was reiterated. Beyond suspicions about a “yuanization” of the dominant currency due to China’s significant economic weight, the difficulties faced by China and other economies in liberalizing capital flows discouraged this initiative in the short term.
However, the second issue — the expansion of the bloc — advanced significantly, and the immediate inclusion of six new members — Argentina, Egypt, Ethiopia, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Iran — was approved, despite the resistance of some members like India, which proposed limiting it to three new members, compared to China’s proposals for a larger expansion of the bloc. In fact, both this and other debates highlighted the differences between the positions of China and Russia in their aspiration to make the group an instrument of their global projection; of India and Brazil, more focused on their own development interests; and South Africa, which aspired not only to this but also to strengthen its regional leadership.
Certainly, this expansion gives more weight to the bloc in the international system, among other reasons, because it assumes the role of spokesperson for the Global South in the face of the Western North and seeks to expand to Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Despite the ambiguity of the concept of the Global South—which partially assumes the legacy of terms like “Third World” and “developing countries” — this marks the rise of a group of nations with growing prominence and global influence that aspire to play a more active role in shaping the international system despite their disparities and asymmetries.
The geographical balance of the new additions to BRICS clearly illustrates this intention. However, just like the original group and the currently expanded BRICS+, they present heterogeneities and asymmetries that will likely pose challenges in the future for consensus-building.
The Challenges of Latin America
Beyond the strategic peripherization it experiences in the international system and the great heterogeneity of the region — which makes regional bloc articulation difficult despite the existence of mechanisms such as CELAC — the potential inclusion of Latin American or Caribbean countries in BRICS implies a series of opportunities, but also risks. In terms of opportunities, participation in the bloc expands the range of trade and investment options with other members and access to NDB (New Development Bank) credits. It may also increase the capacity for collective negotiation in organizations like the G20, the IMF, and the World Bank, where some countries have been demanding greater participation for years. Nevertheless, it also faces the risk of alienating its ties with the West and being perceived as associates or allies of countries like China, Russia, and Iran, which are subject to various sanctions by the United States and EU countries as perceived threats to their interests.
This dilemma between economic benefits and geopolitical risks is clearly illustrated by the case of Argentina.
With the support of one of its largest trading partners, Brazil, Argentina formally was accepted to join BRICS and will operate as a full member starting from January 1, 2024. Alongside Brazil, China and India are among Argentina’s top five trading partners, and its inclusion will likely enhance these relationships and open up the possibility of broader and more diversified international links. However, the economic benefits could be overshadowed by political and geopolitical risks. Firstly, while membership in the RIC (Russia, India, China), BRICS, and the SCO (Shanghai Cooperation Organization) may have helped ease tensions — until very recently — between India and China, who were embroiled in a territorial dispute and regional leadership rivalry, Argentina and Iran have a pending issue due to terrorist attacks on Argentine soil for which Buenos Aires holds some high-ranking Iranians responsible. This could increase tensions and disparities within the bloc. Additionally, in the context of the upcoming presidential elections in October 2023, two of the leading right-wing presidential candidates have categorically rejected this inclusion and announced that they will leave the bloc if they win the elections.
In fact, as two Argentine analysts point out, the underlying problem lies in the persistence among Argentine political elites of limited cognitive maps and narratives clinging to outdated schemes that sum up contrasting views between a hyper-Westernism that forces them to align with the United States and the European Union, and a Sinophilia that brings them closer to China on the international stage, a situation not unique to Argentina and Latin America.
The benefits and risks posed by this combination of economic, political, and geopolitical factors in Argentina, with different nuances and particular characteristics, can be extended to other countries in the region. While Argentina has been incorporated thanks to the mediation of Brazil and the support of China, Russia, and India, it could serve as a spearhead for the inclusion of other South American countries like Uruguay, Bolivia, and Venezuela, as well as Central American and Caribbean countries like Cuba (whose president, Diaz Canel, attended the Summit on behalf of the G77), Honduras, and more recently, Nicaragua. It is evident that a majority of these countries clearly align against the United States and in favour of Russia and China. It is clear that the weight of two emerging economies like Brazil and Argentina (although the latter is going through a serious economic crisis and uncertain political transition) in South America may tempt other South American countries — especially those with significant economic ties to China — to aspire to join BRICS, probably contributing to greater heterogeneity within the group. However, this decision may also be influenced by respective geopolitical alignments. Mexico — among other reasons, due to its close ties with the United States and Canada — has shown ambiguity, if not clear opposition, to the possibility of seeking entry into the group.
In the context of tensions and disputes in the current transition from a unipolar to a multipolar international order, it seems that the doctrine of active non-alignment promoted by some Latin American analysts and diplomats can help maintain balance in an uncertain and changing international environment and a complex process of global reconfiguration. But, as demonstrated by India’s current position at the G20 Summit, it is not an easy balance to maintain.