President Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa announced on 24 August that the BRICS Summit meeting, held in Johannesburg from 23 to 25 August, had decided to accept six new members in the second expansion of the group after the admission of South Africa 13 years ago.
He said that the admission of the new members was based on a “consensus” regarding what he termed the “first phase of the expansion process” and that further phases would follow, though he did not set a timetable for these.
The six new countries are a mix of Arab, Middle Eastern, African, and Latin American nations, and they join the existing members of Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa.
From the Arab world, three heavyweight countries, strategically, politically, and economically, have been accepted as BRICS members. Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE will become members on 1 January 2024, though the Saudi Foreign Minister said that his country was awaiting details as to the nature of its membership and its “components.”
“Based on that and our internal procedures,” his country would take the “appropriate decision,” he said.
From the Middle East, Iran was invited to join the group in a decision that surprised many given the fact that Iran is under various international sanctions for reasons that include sponsoring terrorism, its nuclear programme and the question marks hanging over the real aim of this, and its sponsorship of armed militias around the Middle East.
I imagine that the Chinese and Russian governments pushed for the admission of Iran. The remaining countries out of the six chosen for membership are Ethiopia and Argentina.
With this new makeup, what I will call “BRICS Plus,” the group has become more representative of the Global South, and the admission of the new members will increase its share of global GDP from 32 per cent to 37 per cent on a purchasing power parity (PPP) basis, according to President of Brazil Inacio Lula Da Silva.
Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi said that Egypt was looking forward to working with the rest of the BRICS Plus group to achieve its goals towards strengthening economic cooperation among the member countries and raising the voice of the Global South on a global scale.
Some Western observers believe that China was the driving force behind the second enlargement of the group as a counterweight to the Western-dominated G7 group of countries. They also believe that Beijing wants BRICS Plus to oppose US “hegemony” over world affairs.
However, it is doubtful that the new members, except Iran, will welcome any such idea. They have joint interests with the Western countries, particularly the US, and they would not want BRICS Plus to become a bloc aimed at countering the West.
Instead, they want to see it as a group of like-minded countries that is willing to negotiate with the industrialised countries from a strong bargaining position, as well as one that can work to change some of the principles and rules that have governed the policies of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to the benefit of the Global South.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said that “adding new members will further strengthen BRICS and give it new impetus,” for example.
Russian President Vladimir Putin addressed the Johannesburg Summit via an audio link and called on the group to deepen economic ties, including by creating a common currency. He assured the group’s leaders that “we will continue what we started – expanding the BRICS’s influence in the world.”
Chinese President Xi Jinping said that the enlargement “serves the common interests of emerging markets and developing countries.” He also recommended the strengthening of “strategic cooperation” as well as promoting representatives of countries from the Global South.
China’s Special Envoy to the BRICS Li Kexin stressed that the initial expansion process had begun during China’s chairmanship, referring to the admission of South Africa in 2010. He added that his country has been working with member countries to “steadily advance the expansion process.”
The leaders of the BRICS Plus group charged their finance ministers and central bank governors with developing measures to reduce reliance on the US dollar in trade among themselves and to submit a report on progress next year. The South African president touched on the same topic, saying that “there is a global momentum for the use of local currencies, alternative financial arrangements, and alternative payment systems.”
It remains to be seen how the BRICS Plus group will deal collectively with questions of international peace and security as well as with food security, climate change, the problem of indebtedness of many countries in the Global South, Egypt among them, the reform of the UN Security Council, illegal immigration and human trafficking, and the reform of the international economic and financial institutions set up at Bretton Woods after World War II.
It goes without saying that each member country already has its own positions on these international challenges, but it is not yet clear how BRICS Plus will deal with them collectively. Due to the growing polarisation between the West and both Russia and China, it will be a challenge for members of the group that have interests in both camps, or in either camp for that matter, to steer its work.
On an optimistic note, BRICS Plus could play a positive role in international efforts to bring the war in Ukraine to an end and push for a political resolution to the situation in Ukraine. China, South Africa, Brazil, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt have already come up with initiatives to end the war, and in July Saudi Arabia hosted an international meeting in Jeddah attended by China that had previously announced a 12-point plan to end the war in February.
Diplomatic coordination between the Chinese, the Americans, and the Saudis could pave the way for a ceasefire in the conflict and the start of peace negotiations between Russia and Ukraine. The first test in this respect could come with the international conference on peace in Ukraine that has been proposed by the Ukrainian government and should convene before the end of the year.
* The writer is former assistant foreign minister.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 31 August, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly