Five major developing countries opened a summit Monday to map out their future course after host Chinese President Xi Jinping called on them to stand up together against a growing tide of protectionism across the world.
Leaders of the BRICS nations — Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa — are meeting in the southeastern Chinese city of Xiamen through Tuesday.
Ahead of the summit, Xi gave a speech to BRICS business leaders on Sunday calling for those nations to work with others around the world to deal with problems arising from globalization.
BRICS was formed as an association of fast-growing large economies about a decade ago to advocate for better representation for developing countries and challenge the Western-dominated world order that has prevailed since the end of World War II. It soon achieved agreement to increase the share of voting rights for emerging markets in world financial bodies the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. It has also started operating its own development bank.
Xi wants BRICS to play a more important role in international affairs, even as some observers suggest its power is waning given rivalry between China and India and the economic woes of Brazil, Russia and South Africa.
"BRICS country cooperation is not a talking shop but a task force that gets things done," Xi said in his speech Sunday. "Our goal is to build a big market of trade and investment, promote smooth flow of currency and finance, improve connectivity of infrastructure and build close bonds between the peoples."
All broadly support free trade and oppose protectionism, although particularly China, the world's second-largest economy, has been accused of erecting barriers to foreign competition.
Yet clear political and economic differences exist among the countries. They range from democratic to autocratic, with some maintaining heavy government control over the economy and civil society. And the economies of Brazil, Russia and South Africa are driven largely by raw material exports and have been hit by slumping commodity prices, while China and India are oriented more toward manufacturing and services.
Suggesting disagreements lie ahead in Xiamen, South African President Jacob Zuma said that despite a doubling of his nation's trade with BRICS countries from $15 billion in 2010 to $31.2 billion in 2016, it had been "inequitable."
"The character of trade has been highly inequitable," he said in remarks to the BRICS Business Council on Sunday. "Exports from South Africa have been driven particularly by raw materials. This dominance of raw material exports has adversely impacted South Africa."
He called on the other BRICS nations to invest in supply and development programs in Africa and skills development and technology transfer, and engage in projects "that would support inclusive development and equal partnerships."
He also called on the New Development Bank, which was created by BRICS in 2014 and started operating last year, to lend more to Africa.
A meeting between Xi and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is due to take place Tuesday. Last week, the two hurriedly concluded a 10-week border stand-off over disputed land in the Himalayas, which was their most serious confrontation in decades, to smooth the way for Modi's participation in the summit. The two greeted each other smiling and with a firm handshake at Monday's welcoming ceremony.
Some observers say admitting other countries to BRICS would answer some of its problems. While no formal progress is expected on that at this summit, China has invited the leaders of Egypt, Guinea, Mexico, Tajikistan and Thailand to attend a dialogue with the BRICS' presidents and prime ministers on Tuesday.
On Sunday, Xi met on the sidelines with Russian President Vladimir Putin and discussed North Korea's latest nuclear test — its sixth and most powerful yet, which has cast a shadow over the summit hosted by its only major ally, China. The official Xinhua News Agency said they agreed to "appropriately deal with" it, without elaborating.
Xinhua also reported that Xi and Putin had agreed to enhance military cooperation between China and Russia.