BRICS expands sans Bangladesh: What message does that send?

President of Brazil Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, President of China Xi Jinping, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi and Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov pose for a BRICS family photo during the 2023 BRICS Summit at the Sandton Convention Centre in Johannesburg, South Africa, on 23 August, 2023Reuters

Despite uncertainties over the decision to expand BRICS before the bloc’s summit in Johannesburg, the member states finally agreed to include new members in the five-member alliance. Six new countries have been invited to join the bloc next year, which means the alliance will be have 11 members from 2024. The group will have huge population base, fast growing economies and huge reserves of oil.

Overall, 40 countries including Bangladesh and Indonesia, who have done well in terms of economy in the recent days, also expressed eagerness to join the group. Some of the key member states of BRICS also have close relations with some of the countries that applied for its membership. However, it is still unclear what criteria led to the choice of member states.

President of host South Africa, Cyril Ramaphosa, only said the BRICS member states reached a consensus and agreed on “the guiding principles, standards, criteria and procedures of the BRICS expansion process”.
Following this Argentina, Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates were invited to join as full members from 1 January next year with the existing member states of China, Brazil, South Africa, Russia and India.

Though the idea of BRICS was first came to the light in 2001, leaders of four countries held a summit for the first time in 2009. The group was first expanded including South Africa as a member state in 2011.
One of the main subjects of discussion of Johannesburg summit was the expansion of the alliance. But there was uncertainty over expansion due to lack of any clearly stated process to include new membership. Though no side said anything about the expansion decision, international media groups were saying that the member states were not not being able to reach a consensus about the process to induct new members. Everything became more complex following a proposal of India.

Choosing the members

India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi proposed no country that might face global sanctions be made a member of BRICS and also that the member should be selected based on a minimum GDP earnings. This is not clear how far this proposal was considered because the newly invited Ethiopia has lower GDP than Bangladesh.

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“It is hard to find commonalities among the six countries invited to join BRICS other than that they are each significant states in their region,” Danny Bradlow, a professor with the Centre for the Advancement of Scholarship at the University of Pretoria, told Al Jazeera.

On the other hand, according to Sanusha Naidu, a senior research fellow at the Institute for Global Dialogue, a South African think tank focusing on China and Africa, with the inclusion of Saudi Arabia, Iran, UAE and Egypt, “You could argue it’s very Middle East centric”.

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“This has geo-economic, geostrategic and geopolitical implications,” Naidu argued, telling to Al Jazeera that the latest additions will push some BRICS nations to think more about their Middle East policies, and for China and India to boost up the existing policies.

A report of the British newspaper Guardian said, “It is unclear … how the expansion would significantly enhance the group’s clout on the global stage. That would depend on how far it will be able to act in unison, analysts said, and the group of new members has made it even more disparate, a mix of powerful autocracies with middle-income and developing democracies.”

“For China and Russia, this is a win. They have been pushing for this for five plus years now,” Ryan Berg, the head of the Americas programme at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies quoted as saying in the same report. “For China, it allows them to continue to build what they hope is a Beijing-centric order. For Russia, who is hosting it next year, it sees this as a tremendous opportunity in its current moment of significant isolation.”
BRICS new members Argentina and Ethiopia are rife with crises. The economy of Argentina has been going through a rough patch while Ethiopia has been facing a military coup and its aftermath. At the same time, Saudi Arabia has been joining the group alongside Iran, which was its “arch rival” even just a few days back.

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But the picture in the Middle East has been changing due to the initiatives of China. At the mediation of Beijing, recently Saudi Arabia and Iran reestablished relations. The role China played here is traditionally the US is seen to play. Meanwhile, India signed an agreement with the UAE a few days ago about bilateral business in rupee and dirham avoiding the US dollar.

China’s win

Liu Zongyi, secretary-general of the Research Center for China-South Asia Cooperation at Shanghai Institutes for International Studies, in an article in the Global Times, the mouthpiece of China Communist Party, wrote, “This summit is not only a diplomatic victory for the BRICS countries but also a victory for China, as it has been actively promoting the expansion of the BRICS since the BRICS Summit in Xiamen.”

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He also alleged in the article, “The US-led Western countries want to use India to divide the Global South and weaken China's position among developing countries in the Global South. Judging from India's diplomatic actions this year, it seems that it is enjoying this role. Hopefully, the BRICS Summit in Johannesburg will serve as a wake-up call for India.”

Fuel power

Senior research fellow at the Institute for Global Dialogue, Sanusha Naidu said the expansion list is “very energy centric”, adding that following the announcement, some analysts at the venue even facetiously commented if they should “call it BRICS plus OPEC?”

When selecting new members, the bloc may have taken into consideration the pricing of energy products, and how their countries can reduce their liability and vulnerability in terms of the cost of oil, she said. “Besides Russia, all of [the core BRICS countries] are non-energy producing countries. They need to be able to make their economies function, but they don’t want to get caught in the secondary collateral damage of sanctions,” she explained to Al Jazeera.

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Many people consider BRICS as a voice of global south or least developed and developing countries. Many of the countries regularly allege that they are victims of various organisations and irrational systems controlled by the US and its allies. But the western media is not ready to put much emphasis on the expansion of BRICS for now. A Bloomberg analysis says, “… the ‘vision’ that BRICS countries, including its newest members, have in common, amounts to little more than a cynical expediency: to increase their bargaining power in the trade, technology and military deals that they will continue to vigorously pursue with the United States and Europe.”

“Take, for example, India: the country needs cheap manufactured goods from its strategic rival China, cut-price oil from Russia, military hardware and technology transfers from the United States and Europe, and investments from the UAE. Accordingly, it cannot but have a foreign policy carefully hedged against binding commitments to this or that country or bloc in the multipolar world,” said the analysis published in Washington Post.

The Bloomberg analysis ended with saying, “… can it (India) plausibly claim, while banning rice and sugar exports, to lead the Global South. China’s better credentials in this regard are also fading as it scrambles to contain a mounting economic crisis. Perhaps, we won’t have to wait until the bigger summit of BRICS, hosted by Putin in Russia next year, to notice the gaping void of meaning at the heart of an expanding acronym.”

Not unimportant

It is not that the BRICS membership will bring benefits immediately. This is because China is the largest economy of the bloc and already has extensive ebilateral business with all.

Speaking to The Guardian, Margaret Myers, the director of the Asia and Latin America programme at the Inter-American Dialogue, said the group’s New Development Bank is still relatively small. But although the move is largely symbolic that does not mean it is unimportant.

“This is significant, and shouldn’t be dismissed by G7 and other global north actors,” she argued. “With these new members – especially the major oil producing ones – on board, the Brics configuration represents a much more significant share of the global economy and global population.”