Years after its founding, the 15th BRICS summit in South Africa found its member states of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa stand in diverse states of development.
The BRICS are pivotal geopolitical actors. Nevertheless, as the BRICS members tackle their respec-tive challenges, their distinctive goals and nature may lead to imbalances. China, Russia, and India were classically cited as the “big three” of the BRICS. In contrast, Brazil experienced domestic is-sues in early 2023, while the South African economy saw a significant decline.
Despite its classification as part of the “big three” of the BRICS, Russia has undoubtedly experienced the most upheaval of late. Russia inherited significant infrastructure from the USSR, and its economy stagnated due to both internal issues and international sanctions. Emerging from the USSR era, Russia was slower in adapting to the 21st century market economy than China. Following the com-mencement of the Ukraine conflict in 2014, Russia found itself further away from Western influence and outright rejected the West’s “rules-based international order,” while ramping up trade with China. The PRC later experienced a similar, but less extreme decoupling from the West. Although Sino-Russian trade grew 38.7% in Q1 2023, the PRC has taken a neutral stance in Russia’s conflict with Ukraine. While China’s neutrality is not completely aligned with the West, it has not led to the same sanctions Russia experienced after the invasion of Crimea.
Recent wars, epidemics, and ecological destruction might make the BRICS seem fractured, but the organization still accounts for 42% of the world’s economy. Despite the turbulence, this BRICS con-ference, and the addition of new members, indicate that the group remains coherent post-pandemic.
War Never Changes
It is easy to assume that Ukraine could create a vacuum for discussion at the BRICS summit. Alt-hough the Ukraine conflict is a major sticking point, there are other issues that inevitably also take center stage.
China and India, the two most populous BRICS member states, have border squabbles which im-pede BRICS members’ efforts to deepen trade and collaboration. Relations were further strained fol-lowing the Sino-Indian border clash between 2020 to 2021.
Despite this, the BRICS summit could easily serve as a “next exit” for the members to reset interna-tional trade, or to discuss sticking points in international relations not just within BRICS, but also re-garding Western priorities.
With the admission of Saudi Arabia and Iran to BRICS, further conflict resolution in the Middle East may be on the table. This presents a further opportunity for China to gain economic access to the region. It should be remembered, however, that American presence in the Middle East is usually re-garded as a destabilizing force, which creates both negative diplomatic and economic consequences for the U.S. in the long-term. Both China and India should resist the urge to rush into the region to “fill in” where the U,S. left off, while still maintaining cooperative initiatives such as the BRI.
New Members, Sub-missions, and a Gold Backed Currency?
Many nations are interested in joining BRICS, but their objectives are complicated. For example, Ar-gentina, has joined to bolster its struggling economy.
There has been talk of BRICS developing its own gold-backed currency to rival the U.S. dollar he-gemony. With Saudi Arabia drifting from the American security umbrella (as seen from its recent 2023 China-brokered deal with Iran) and a global pivot away from fossil fuels, the Global South could disrupt the current finical dominance of U.S. economic hegemony.
The development of a “Gold BRICS” would definitely be widely challenged. Russia is under U.S. sanction, and it is not inconceivable that this could extend to China in the future. Furthermore, BRICS’ internal issues (including the Sino-Indian disputes) complicate the development of a currency in the near future.
Although the development of a “BRICS currency” has been discussed extensively, it remains theoret-ical. The BRICS has made more concrete achievements in recent years. Member states have been busy creating local currency swap agreements, and the New Development Bank (NDB) has begun issuing local currency bonds and sovereign wealth funds. Its first Indian Rupee bond is scheduled to be issued in October 2023.
In August 2023, the BRICS expanded, welcoming six new nations: Argentina, Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, indicating a potential change in global paradigms. Washington must now compete for the attention of old friends like Argentina and Saudi Arabia. Other readings of the expansion include ensuring energy security for BRICS countries, as three major oil producers were allowed to join BRICS.
Non-alignment movement 2.0
During the 20th Century, due to the Cold War and the Sino-Soviet split, many nations, including some of the future BRICS countries, supported a non-alignment movement, which proposed an op-tion for nations to be subject to neither the West and NATO, nor the Soviet Union/Warsaw Pact. Chi-na had a great deal of influence in the early planning of this movement , with Zhou Enlai traveling to Bandung in 1955 and meeting with India’s Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, among other Asian and African leaders, and authoring the “Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence,” which was adopted as the framework for the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) by Marshal Tito of Yugoslavia in 1961.
The NAM still exists as a conduit for the Global South to communicate and develop trade, but it is not as powerful as it once was. BRICS is comprised of countries with significant economic power, both members and non-members of the non-alignment movement. The NAM was never a true trade bloc and more a loose alliance of nations. In contrast, BRICS represents a more concrete grouping of emerging economies independent from the West. Were BRICS to continue allowing more nations into its sphere, the non-alignment movement may see a revival.
In the mid-20th Century, the concept of a global first, second, and third world was developed. To this day, the BRICS still champion the idea of a united developing world. Despite China’s breakneck economic development, President Xi Jinping clarified at the 2023 BRICS summit, “China was, is, and will always be a member of the developing world.” This parallels the Bandung conference of 1955, but with China at the helm of the developing world.
South Africa hosting, BRICS to shine in Africa
International news providers and analysts have been watching the BRICS summit for a multitude of reasons, but the most dominant issue this year is a potential “BRICS-Africa cooperation.”
Africa has become increasingly separated from the West following the end of colonialism. After gain-ing independence, many African nations adopted Marxist-Leninist principles. Though there have been intermittent switches across the continent in ideology, many African nations have reaped bene-fits from cooperation projects with China during the 1980s/90s “Reform and Opening up.” Despite this, many areas of Francophone Africa still struggle with instability, compounded by domestic and external bad actors.
BRICS has an opportunity to shine here. India and China need natural resources for their manufac-turing sector, Russia needs support at the UN, and South Africa needs to reassert itself as a regional power after a transition period. Despite Valdimir Putin’s absence at the 15th BRICS summit amid prosecution and extradition concerns, South Africa rolled out the red carpet for the BRICS leaders and signaled potential interest in moving away from Western influence. Of the Western nations, Brit-ain and France walk a particularly narrow tightrope due to the shadow of colonialism in Africa.
The BRICS reboot is on the way. The BRICS would represent a powerful economic competitor to the West in future years, but the BRICS countries need to align their goals. BRICS is a group of extreme diversity. If all its member states, including the six new members, can put aside their differences for a unified goal of development, the BRICS would be of great potential.