Seeking more political and economic influence in a global system dominated by the United States and Europe, the BRICS club of emerging nations agreed on Thursday to expand by bringing on six new countries.
The expansion was regarded as a significant victory for the two leading members of the group, increasing China’s political clout and helping to reduce Russia’s isolation. Yet, Russia and China face growing economic headwinds that could undermine the economies of the very nations whose interests they claim to be promoting.
Joining China, Russia, India, Brazil and South Africa in the group are three members from the Middle East, most notably Saudi Arabia and a fiercely anti-American Iran, a firm backer of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Host South Africa, with longstanding ties to Tehran, also supported Iran’s inclusion, but it was an awkward outcome for countries like India and Brazil, leaders of the so-called Global South that want to preserve their freedom of action between Washington and Beijing.
The decisions underlined the odd quality of the grouping, which is heterogenous and has no clear political coherence except in the desire to reshape the current global financial and governing system to one that is more open, more varied and less restrictive — and less subject to American politics and the power of the dollar.
Together, the 11 countries have a population of some 3.7 billion people but comprise five democracies, three authoritarian states, two autocratic monarchies and a theocracy — among them Saudi Arabia and Iran, sworn enemies until a few months ago.
Their financial clout is comparatively small, except for China, which dominates the group and pressed hard for expansion. The addition of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates provides more financial heft, especially as the group tries to increase the size and influence of its own small development bank.
With the addition as well of Egypt, Ethiopia and Iran, the expansion also bolsters Beijing’s bid to show the growing support for its agenda despite its having alienated many countries in the developed world over its “no-limits partnership” with Russia and its tacit support for the invasion of a sovereign Ukraine.
“Iran, obviously, is a complicated choice,” said Cobus van Staden, a researcher with the China Global South Project. “I can imagine that some of the other members worry that it might increase geopolitical tensions with Western powers.”
Xi Jinping, China’s president, declared Thursday, “This membership expansion is historic,” adding, “It shows the determination of BRICS countries for unity and cooperation for the broader developing world.”
Still, the appearance of success for China may turn out to be the most significant takeaway from the summit meeting, which otherwise failed to deliver on its long-stated goal of establishing a BRICS currency to rival the hegemony of the U.S. dollar. The group instead encouraged members to use local currencies in trade.
Another symbol of the bloc’s limitations was the absence of President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, unable to attend because he is wanted for war crimes in Ukraine under a warrant issued by the International Criminal Court — a Western-dominated international institution that South Africa did not want to flout.
And the Kremlin’s image took another battering this week with the apparent death of the mercurial mercenary leader Yevgeny V. Prigozhin in a crash following what U.S. and other Western officials say was an explosion aboard his private jet.
It remains to be seen whether the changes introduced at this week’s summit will have the impact the countries are hoping for. The historical record, said Jim O’Neill, the former Goldman Sachs economist who coined the term BRIC in 2001, is not reassuring.
The meetings are “all about symbolism,” he said, adding, “It’s not clear to me that BRIC summits have done anything.”
And the often lofty rhetoric emanating from the summit meeting disguised significant problems that may weigh heavily on the group’s members in coming years.
With China’s economy in the doldrums, with a real estate scandal, the unexplained ouster of the foreign minister and the sudden firing of top generals, Mr. Xi needed a political win to display back home, suggested Philippe Le Corre, a China expert with the Asia Society Policy Institute.
But the setbacks seem to be accumulating, particularly with the Chinese and Russian economies.
The BRICS have always been China plus four, because China provides the main economic weight and trading advantages, said Jacob Funk Kirkegaard, an economist with the Peterson Institute for International Economics. “But the Chinese economy is in deep trouble,” he said, which also spells trouble for countries like Brazil and South Africa, which depend on commodity exports to China.
“The Russian economy itself is crumbling under the weight of sanctions, and the other BRICS are exploiting Russia, buying all this cheap oil and sending refined products to Europe,” he said.
Despite a public show of unity at the tightly controlled conference, the BRICS members brought competing views on expansion. China had pushed to go ahead rapidly, seeing in the grouping a platform to challenge American power. Several leaders pushed back, warning against a return to a divisive global order reminiscent of the Cold War.
While BRICS nations may have forged unity in opposition to Western hegemony, their goals remain divergent. “The group is going down an uncharted path, with new actors that have varied interests,” said Manoj Kewalramani, a China analyst at India’s Takshashila Institution. “It’s going to become unwieldy and, dare I say, more ineffective.”
Some BRICS officials disagreed.
Anil Sooklal, South Africa’s representative in the BRICS negotiations, said that the global architecture of Western-dominated institutions needs to change with the times. “This is what BRICS is saying, ‘Let’s be more inclusive,’” he said. “BRICS is not anti-West.”
In contrast, Mr. Kirkegaard sees the organization, even as it expands, as fatally diverse, “an artificial creation somehow held together by anti-Western sentiment,” especially now with the inclusion of Iran.
Iran’s accession alongside Saudi Arabia was perhaps the biggest surprise, given Tehran’s vital role in supplying Russia’s invading army and Riyadh’s long-term security alliance with the United States.
Saudi Arabia still gets most of its weaponry from the United States, and analysts say it is not about to abandon the U.S. security umbrella anytime soon. But Saudi officials are skeptical that Washington is truly committed to the Middle East and negotiated a rapprochement with Tehran in Beijing earlier this year, which raised China’s diplomatic stature.
Tehran, never a fan of Washington, has also grown unsurprisingly closer to Beijing, which has helped keep it afloat by buying heavily discounted oil, ignoring international sanctions.
On Thursday, Mohammad Jamshidi, Iran’s vice president for politics, called the country’s accession a “historic achievement and a strategic victory.” Iran’s membership also undermines leverage Washington held over Tehran as a kind of global gatekeeper, said Trita Parsi of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.
India went along with the expansion, despite serious misgivings, because it did not want to play the part of the villain, said Harsh V. Pant, vice president at the Delhi-based Observer Research Foundation and professor of international relations at the India Institute of Kings’ College London. He added that New Delhi would remain wary about the “changing nature of this platform from a geoeconomic one to a geopolitical one.”
On Thursday the State Department did not address the question of Iran’s joining the group, instead pointing to remarks earlier in the week from Jake Sullivan, the White House national security adviser, who said the Biden administration was “not looking at the BRICS as evolving into some kind of geopolitical rival to the United States or anyone else.”
Some analysts said the dozens of countries that expressed interest in joining BRICS should be a wake-up call to the West.
“The enthusiasm of many developing countries to join BRICS reflects not only the appeal of China’s values-neutral globalization but also the failure of Western countries to build a more inclusive international order,” said Neil Thomas, a fellow on Chinese politics at the Asia Society Policy Institute’s Center for China Analysis.
Reporting was contributed by Edward Wong from Washington, Isabella Kwai from London, Paul Sonne from Berlin, and Suhasini Raj from New Delhi.
A correction was made on
Aug. 25, 2023
An earlier version of this article misstated the number of democracies and authoritarian states included in the expanded membership of BRICS. There will be five democracies (Argentina, Brazil, Ethiopia, India and South Africa) and three authoritarian states (China, Egypt and Russia) among the group of 11, not six democracies and two authoritarian states.
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Steven Erlanger is The Times’s chief diplomatic correspondent in Europe, based in Berlin. He previously reported from Brussels, London, Paris, Jerusalem, Berlin, Prague, Belgrade, Washington, Moscow and Bangkok. More about Steven Erlanger
David Pierson covers Chinese foreign policy and China’s economic and cultural engagement with the world. More about David Pierson
Lynsey Chutel covers Southern Africa from the Johannesburg bureau and also writes about Africa for The Times's international morning newsletters. She previously worked for Foreign Policy, Quartz and the Associated Press. More about Lynsey Chutel
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