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The Evolving BRICS

Alissa Wang, Co-chair, summit studies, BRICS Research Group
July 5, 2023

Prepared for a presentation to the European Parliament's informal working group of the Greens/EFA Parliamentary Group convened by Reinhard Butikofer, MEP, July 5, 2023.

Political Aspects: Evolution from a non-western to an anti-western group

The first question I will discuss is whether the BRICS is transitioning from a non-western to an anti-western group. The possibility of the BRICS becoming an anti-western group is very much limited, given its internal structure and characteristics. First, unlike the G7, which is united by a commitment to common political values and principles, the BRICS, in contrast, is held together by a principle of political toleration and flexibility. We can see this by comparing the distinctive foundational missions of these two institutions. The G7's distinctive foundational mission is to uphold the principles of democracy and human rights, and thus it is a rather homogeneous group politically, made up of the world's most economically powerful democracies. The distinctive foundational missions of the BRICS, in contrast, are to represent developing countries, strengthen intra-BRICS cooperation, support the G20, reform international institutions and promote economic growth. As such, the BRICS is united more by common economic interests. In terms of regime type, it tolerates a great degree of internal political diversity, as it is made up of three democracies – South Africa, Brazil and India, and two non-democratic regimes – China and Russia. The fundamentally different political values and norms that exist within the BRICS make it difficult to achieve any genuine cohesion on the political level. Rather than uniting on a shared political vision or principle, the BRICS is more concerned about pragmatic economic cooperation that can take place despite its members cherishing different political values. Thus, at a very fundamental level, the political diversity of BRICS members greatly limits the group's potential to unite on a common anti-western position.

Furthermore, the possibility of political cohesion and an anti-western position is also limited by the different, sometimes conflicting geopolitical positions of BRICS members. This is seen most evidently in the tension between the two largest, leading members by economic size – China and India. Not only are they burdened by geopolitical tensions caused by their border conflicts and territorial disputes, but India has also made clear its concerns regarding China's rising influence and its growing competition and conflict with the United States. Thus, despite being partners in the BRICS, India has not supported China's recent economic initiatives such as the Belt and Road project. To a large extent, under Prime Minister Narendra Modi India has also moved closer to the United States, particularly in recent years, and has engaged in efforts to contain China, rather than support it. The most recent moves that demonstrate this stance is Modi's attendance at the G7's Hiroshima Summit in May 2023 and his visit to the United States in June. Public opinion in India on China is the lowest it has been since the border conflict between the two countries in the 1960s, and India has banned Chinese technology companies and more than 100 Chinese mobile apps in India. Thus, the China-India rivalry within the BRICS represents a great obstacle to any genuine intra-BRICS cohesion and makes a common position against the West an extremely unlikely possibility.

Finally, it is similarly uncertain whether BRICS members will stand behind Russia in the aftermath of its invasion of Ukraine. Brazil has voted against Russia's invasion of Ukraine at the United Nations, but the statement issued at the 2022 BRICS summit in Beijing in June, after Russia's invasion of Ukraine in February, was vague in its official stance, stating that members "recall [their] national positions as expressed at the appropriate fora, namely the UNSC [United Nations Security Council] and UNGA [United Nations General Assembly]," and that they "support talks between Russia and Ukraine." The BRICS also voiced its support for UN humanitarian assistance in the region. The most recent demonstration of this uncertainty is seen in regard to the upcoming BRICS summit in Johannesburg in August. South Africa, as host, is also a member of the International Criminal Court, which issued an arrest warrant against Putin. Under terms of the treaty of the ICC, South Africa is required to arrest Russian president Vladimir Putin if he sets foot in South Africa. It remains unclear what the two countries will do – whether Putin will attend the summit in person, and what South Africa will do in response. So the BRICS position with regards to Russia is at best neutral, and the group is unlikely to mount a united stance in support of Russia.

Given these factors taken together, the BRICS is evidently not a coherent group politically. There is no common political value or geopolitical interest strong enough to hold the group together in a united bloc. In contrast, the economic interests that bind members together must navigate the political differences that create the largest obstacles for the group's cooperation. Transformation of the BRICS into a united alliance against the West is thus a highly unlikely scenario.

Possible Future of an Expanded BRICS

The second big question concerning the future of the BRICS concerns the issue of membership expansion. Last year, at the Beijing Summit, China proposed including new members from countries in Africa, Latin America, the Middle East and Asia. This expansion is meant to align with the BRICS's attempt to create a more inclusive global order and to give countries in the Global South a greater say in global governance. However, at the moment, there is still a large degree of uncertainty concerning the future of the BRICS after such expansion. There are several dimensions to this uncertainty. First, the most important question is which countries would be admitted. Currently, around 20 countries have expressed their interest in joining the BRICS, including Algeria, Argentina, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Egypt, Afghanistan, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Nicaragua, Nigeria, Senegal, Thailand and the United Arab Emirates. Russia recently announced that Iran and Argentina have already filed their official applications to join the BRICS, and Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Egypt have begun the process as well. But there is no news of successful membership applications or confirmations of new members at present.

Another important question is when and how membership expansion will proceed. It is uncertain whether the process would begin at the Johannesburg Summit in August, which is very soon. It is also unknown whether the BRICS will extend its invitation to one new member at a time, or a group of members together. Since its formation in 2006, the BRICS has expanded only once – with the inclusion of South Africa in 2011. So one member added at a time has been done before. It is also the way the G7 did it, with Russia. If it is one new member at a time, then the question arises of which one. Which country is leading candidate? And finally, the criteria for admission are unknown. The most sensible requirements would be a country's status as a large emerging economy and its representation of a particular geographical region. If these are indeed the criteria, then Saudi Arabia would be an obvious choice as a large, booming economy that is getting richer, especially with current oil prices, and it is also in the Middle East, a region that is missing representation in the BRICS.

The last and perhaps most important cause of uncertainty about expansion is how much support expansion has among current BRICS members themselves. So far, this proposal has the greatest support from its initiator – China – and has been met enthusiastically by Russia, especially after its invasion of Ukraine. But support from the other countries, especially India, is more qualified. There is a concern among BRICS members that their influence within the BRICS will be diluted with the addition of new members. Some members – particularly India – are also concerned about China's growing influence within the BRICS, especially if its close allies are admitted. Currently, China's gross domestic product (GDP) is already greater than the other four BRICS members combined, so admitting its close political allies would further increase the intra-BRICS inequality in China's favour. Thus, although India has voiced its positive support of expansion, it is also seeking wider consultations. It is pushing for the development of objective membership criteria for admission so that the group does not simply become a pro-China alliance. At the most foreign ministers' meeting in June, India's external affairs minister called BRICS expansion "a work in progress" that had to take into consideration how the existing BRICS countries work with each other and how the BRICS works with non-BRICS countries. India's support is a qualified and careful.
All in all, the future of BRICS expansion is burdened with many uncertainties. Nonetheless, it is still possible to imagine several possible future scenarios. Even though the detailed mechanisms and timeline remain unknown, expansion is more than likely. So how will the expansion affect and shape the future of the BRICS?

The first likely impact is an economically stronger BRICS. Membership expansion would bring many concrete benefits to the BRICS as a group. The most favourable scenario, if all the countries that have expressed interest so far are accepted, is a new and expanded BRICS that would account for over 50% of global population, a total GDP that is 30% larger than that of the United States, and control of 60% of global gas reserves.[1] The addition of Iran and Saudi Arabia would be particularly significant. Saudi Arabia, which possesses around 17% of the world's petroleum reserves and a large range of other natural resources, would greatly add to BRICS power and influence. Similarly, Iran has the equivalent of over 1.2 trillion barrels of oil and gas, and holds the largest hydrocarbon reserves. So the BRICS influence over important natural resources and its economic weight will be greatly enhanced.

A second impact of an expanded BRICS membership would be a more diverse group that focuses increasingly on pragmatic economic cooperation. The addition of new members would only increase the political diversity within the BRICS, and add more complex layers of different and even conflicting geopolitical tensions. The list of potential candidates includes some pro-China countries, while others are India's friends and allies. So tension between the two most powerful BRICS members will likely remain the central political divide within the group. The more members that are added, the more difficult it will be to strengthen political cohesion. In this sense, perhaps the most likely scenario is that the BRICS would increasingly turn toward pragmatic economic cooperation. As a result, the principle of non-interference in domestic affairs and an open and tolerant attitudes toward different political values and norms will be enhanced as central unifying values within the BRICS – in light of the BRICS's distinctive foundational missions to represent developing countries, strengthen intra-BRICS cooperation, support the G20, reform international institutions and promote economic growth. As expansion proceeds, the BRICS would return to its original economic agenda and embrace its role as a platform for economic cooperation among developing countries and emerging economies.

In conclusion, BRICS expansion would likely strengthen the BRICS economically but potentially come at the cost of political cohesion. For existing and prospective BRICS members, there are many economic interests that can unite them, but also many political differences that limit how far cooperation can go. The biggest challenge for the BRICS in the near future would be the question of how to strengthen economic cooperation while navigating the political differences and conflicts among an increasingly diverse array of members. Expansion presents more of a challenge for the BRICS itself than an expanded BRICS presents for Europe or the United States – and in fact presents new opportunities for Europe to engage with the BRICS in new levels, as it does present for the BRICS itself. So, all in all, BRICS expansion is not something to be feared but perhaps an opportunity to be taken.

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[1] Chris Devonshire-Ellis, The New Candidate Countries for BRICS Expansion, Silk Road Briefing, November 9, 2022.