Shortcuts / 22 August 2023

The BRICS summit

Some powerful nations are holding a summit this week – and no, it’s not the G20, the Quad or APEC… It’s called BRICS and it’s a gathering of China, India, Russia, Brazil, and South Africa. If there’s a fence going down the middle of global blocks, BRICS is on the other side of it. So in this Squiz Shortcut we’re going to talk about its history, what’s on the BRICS agenda, and why it might be expanding.

Let’s get the basics down pat – who are the BRICS nations again?
To put it in order… BRICS stands for Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa. And it’s important to note it’s an informal partnership. It’s not a military alliance like NATO, for example… The thing that holds these nations together is, broadly speaking, a scepticism of the West – and particularly the dominance of the United States.

Is the group important?
They control a quarter of the global economy and 40% of the world’s population, so, yep.

When did they first group together?
This dates back to the mid-noughties, when people started referring to Brazil, Russia, India, and China in the same breath because of the economic potential of these nations. The grouping became formalised in 2006, and South Africa were invited to join a year later. In 2009 they held their first summit.

And they’ve been meeting since then?
Sure have. Every year since there’s been a BRICS summit, but there haven’t been any major moves until the last couple of years… with one big factor in the change being Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The invasion that reshaped the world…
Exactly. Russia’s invasion changed the game. For Russia, it meant that they became diplomatically isolated from the West, which is why they’re turning to the BRICS nations for support.

What about the other nations?
China is the biggest player in BRICS, economically speaking, and they’ve been leaning into BRICS recently because of the growing tensions they’ve had with the United States.

How has the US responded?
We’ve seen recently that the US has been shoring up its alliances with nations who also want to contain China – just last week the US signed a new security pact with South Korea and Japan. In the same way, China has been wanting to create stronger ties with its allies.

Okay, so what’s the big agenda at this year’s meeting?
The big question is: is BRICS going to expand and get some new members?

In the lead up to the summit, South Africa has said that more than 40 nations are interested in joining the group, with 22 countries formally asking to join, and around 20 others informally expressing interest. 

Which countries specifically?
We don’t know them all, but same names that have been floated around are countries like Saudi Arabia, Argentina, Iran, Cuba, and Kazakhstan. For these countries, it’s obvious why they might want to align themselves with the BRICS group – opening up trade opportunities with the BRICS would bring huge economic benefit. 

But that still leaves the question: is BRICS going to let more nations into the group?
That’s a good one, and there’s no consensus on that within the group. China is pro-expansion of the BRICS – that aligns with its desire to expand its influence, and expanding this group could be helpful to achieving that. Brazil, however, reckons expanding the group would dilute its power. 

Why would it dilute BRICS’s power?
The Brazilian foreign minister Mauro Vieira has spoken in the past about protecting the BRICS “brand”. But it’s not just Brazil; India is also wary of expansion, but for different reasons.

Why doesn’t India want to grow?
You have to realise there’s a tricky relationship between India and China… For India’s part, it sees itself as a potential leader of the global south, and so it doesn’t want China to become the de facto head of an expanded group of nations. And don’t forget that India has its own big ties with the US – and they don’t want to jeopardise that economic relationship.

Where’s Russia in all of this?
Russia’s coming from a weaker position, so their default is to support China. But an interesting thing to note is that Russia’s leader, Vladimir Putin, won’t actually be at the meeting…

Wait, why not?
Putin is actually under an international arrest warrant, so if he travelled to South Africa for the summit, the host nation would be obliged under international law to arrest him.

Yep, they’ll be firing up the video conferencing equipment in Moscow… As for the other BRICS leaders – China’s Xi Jinping, India’s Narendra Modi, Brazil’s Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, and South Africa’s Cyril Ramaphosa – they’re all going to be there. Expect plenty of photo ops.

Squiz recommends:
A great explainer from The Economist on BRICS and the tensions within the group.

If you’re more of a watcher, Bloomberg TV has some short video explainers on BRICS.

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