A virtual meeting of BRICS+ foreign ministers was held on May 20 in which the ministers of Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa (BRICS) were joined by representatives from Argentina, Egypt, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Nigeria, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Senegal, and Thailand. Russia and China have decided that this is an opportune time to expand BRICS and challenge the domain of the G7 by including members from the G20. The convulsions in the international order, heightened by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the hardening of Western positions, are leading to the making of competitive plurilateral fora. Efforts to disrupt the G20 may not entirely succeed with Indonesia holding firm on inviting Russia, but the cracks in the G20 are looming. The strengthening of plurilateral bodies is now in fashion. China is challenging Western influence over countries and wants to use BRICS to that end.
Established in 2006, BRIC graduated to a summit in 2009. Since India, Brazil, South Africa (IBSA) summits were held alongside, South Africa became a logical member of BRICS in 2011. China made it appear that it was the creator of the consensus to admit South Africa when India was the key force behind this decision.
Now, again, China is taking the lead and setting the agenda for BRICS expansion. It is taking its 2022 theme of “Foster High-quality BRICS Partnership, Usher in a New Era for Global Development” seriously.
The New Development Bank associated with BRICS, expanded membership in 2021, admitting Bangladesh, the UAE, Uruguay and Egypt. The new entrants may seem like strange bedfellows but they were the first four countries to be admitted after the original BRICS countries established the NDB. This shows the Chinese determination for an expansion process on its watch.
The ministers supported discussions among BRICS members on the expansion process but China posits this as a consensus. This has made India, Brazil and South Africa uncomfortable. China would like to invite these countries to the June summit as well but has not obtained the concurrence of other members except Russia.
What are the likely criteria that could emerge to guide the process of inducting new members into BRICS? The first likely criteria will be to prioritise G20 members. Among the recent guests, Argentina, Indonesia and Saudi Arabia would qualify for this category. The UAE and Egypt could utilise their membership of NDB as a qualifier. Kazakhstan was invited as the largest country in Central Asia, where China and Russia have important interests. Nigeria was invited as another important African economy. Senegal was invited as the current chair of the African Union. Thailand, as the chair of the APEC, and Indonesia, as the chair of the G20, were there as well.
From among Mexico, Indonesia, Korea, Turkey and Australia (MIKTA), only Indonesia was invited. Thus, China, backed by Russia, is creating cleavages to choose its friends from among the G20 and beyond. It is one thing to have guests at a meeting where they can include countries which lead regional organisations but it is another to have countries on a permanent basis. Another criteria which could come up would be an emerging economy status and adherence to BRICS objectives.
The push for setting criteria is actually a battle to choose partners who are more amenable to the individual members of the current BRICs. Russia and China would be happy to have Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Saudi Arabia, UAE and Argentina with a toss-up on Egypt, since it is a close ally of the US. Brazil would have a say onincluding Argentina – the two countries have a longstanding rivalry in Latin America. If Argentina is excluded, it may unravel the G20 membership criteria for inclusion in the BRICS.
South Africa has views on Nigeria and, particularly, Egypt. Being a member of G20 gives it leadership in Africa. Being in the BRICS gave it heft as the African representative. If Nigeria and Egypt are admitted, South Africa would no more be the African representative in the BRICS.
There could be an easier consensus on Indonesia because India is unlikely to oppose it as its relationship has been improving politically, even if not economically. The UAE and Saudi Arabia are two countries with whom India has rapidly enhanced its engagement and are good contributors to development. Having them in the BRICS could be of advantage to India. Both countries have a longstanding relationship with the US, but seek to diversify and would not be averse to joining BRICS.
On Kazakhstan, the decision would be that of Russia and China and how they deal with the other Central Asian countries. China may also back Iran and Malaysia but then Indonesia may feel a loss of uniqueness.
A consensus with Brazil and South Africa for members from their regions will be critical.
China, backed by Russia, is hastening the process of expansion of BRICS as part of its strategic challenge to the international order and to collect middle powers around them. China cannot get India out of BRICS or the G20 as it has been trying to keep India out of other international fora. India needs to ensure that expansion is not on Chinese terms and that the countries admitted are equally receptive to India. Bilateral engagement with them should see this perception built up.
Since Russia is simply with Chinese priorities, it’s time for the IBSA trilateral of democracies within BRICS to assert itself. Consultations on criteria and members must be strong. IBSA may act as a phalanx within BRICS to prevent China from running away with the expansion agenda over the views of other members.
The writer is former Ambassador to Germany, Indonesia & ASEAN, Ethiopia & the African Union