During my recent stay in Germany’s picturesque town of Heidelberg, I got into a rather heated conversation with a number of African, Indian, and Chinese postgraduate researchers from the town’s medieval university on the BRICS group and whether or not they can spawn a new movement akin to the Non-Aligned Movement of the last century.
Their argument that the last two decades have been extraordinarily good for developing countries and their mostly poor citizens, does make some sense. Indeed, Harvard University’s celebrated economist Dani Rodrik likewise noted that the economies of developing countries have expanded at unprecedented rates, resulting both in a large reduction in extreme poverty and a significant expansion of the middle class.
Such superlative performance was and still is—so argued my interlocutors from the developing world—primarily driven by China and India—countries that, along with Russia, Brazil, and South Africa, make up the BRICS group.
There is no doubt that the BRICS group has become increasingly formalized and institutionalized over the past decade, hosting regular summits and establishing collective bodies. But can they pose a challenge to the G7?
The recent 15th BRICS Summit held in Johannesburg saw six new countries, including Iran and Saudi Arabia, being invited to join the bloc in a move alluding to China’s and Russia’s ever-strengthening ties at a time when tensions with the West are reaching boiling point. Even long-time US allies such as the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, along with Argentina and Ethiopia are also set to enter BRICS from Jan. 1, 2024.
Despite Russia being heavily sanctioned by the West, it was surprising to see BRICS pull off a side event of sorts in Moscow—dubbed the Cloud City International Innovation Forum—where representatives of some thirty countries talked about their vision of cities in the future and how technology could be incorporated with modern city designs. Among the speakers were Nobel Prize winners, Professor of Economics Mohamed Yunus (2006) and the UN Secretary General's Advisor Rae Kwon Chung (2007), as well as Serbian film director Emir Kusturica, a longtime acquaintance of President Vladimir Putin. The forum was attended by major urban practitioners from all corners of the world including Erol Ozguner, director of information technology of the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality, Khaled El-Attar, deputy minister of communications and IT of Egypt, Abdulrahman Ibrahim, Medina city’s development authority, and Daouda Gueye, vice mayor of Dakar for technology, who discussed how modern technologies could help improve the quality of life and find effective solutions and ensure technological sovereignty. As someone born in Yugoslavia, the event harkens back to the days of the Bandung Conference, when Josip Broz Tito, Gamal Abdel Nasser, Jawaharlal Nehru, and Sukarno laid the groundwork for the Non-Aligned Movement.
Both Moscow and Beijing are keen to breathe new life into the BRICS bloc to show the world that there are alternatives to the patchwork U.S.-led alliance and institutions that have dominated global affairs for decades. Since the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the BRICS countries have only distanced themselves further from the West. Neither India, Brazil, South Africa, nor China are taking part in sanctions against Russia. Trade between India and Russia, and Brazil’s dependence on Russian fertilizer, have reached near historic levels.
Oliver Stuenkel notes that all BRICS members see the emergence of multipolarity as both inevitable and generally desirable—and identify the bloc as a means to play a more active role in shaping the post-Western global order. Member states share a deep-seated skepticism of the U.S.-led unipolarity and believe that the BRICS nations increase their strategic autonomy and bargaining power when they become independent of the West, the United States in particular. And over the past decade, India and China have enabled each other’s rise as emerging technology powerhouses. Chinese tech giants have invested billions of dollars into India’s biggest startups, while its smartphone makers dominate the country’s market and Indians have flocked to Chinese apps like TikTok.
So should the BRICS alliance be perceived as a counter to the West or more a forum for increased sovereign and autonomous thought? That depends on what one’s country’s ideological orientation is. Some, such as Iran and Argentina, are jumping on the bandwagon because they sense an economic opportunity. To others, BRICS serves as an attempt, if inchoate, to create an alternative to the existing world order.
The potential for synergies between the BRICS countries is enormous. In their current form, the BRICS make up around 31.5 percent of world GDP when adjusted on a purchasing power parity basis. Taken together, the expanded BRICS countries currently produce around 26 percent of global oil output and 50 percent of iron ore production used to make steel. They produce around 40 percent of global corn production and 46 percent of global wheat production. More importantly, Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa are home to 3.2 billion people, 42 percent of the world's population. In effect, these countries hold 42 percent of one of the most valuable resources on the planet: personal data.
China’s GDP is more than double that of the other four BRICS combined: almost $18 trillion compared with Brazil ($1.6 trillion), Russia ($1.8 trillion), India ($3.2 trillion), and South Africa ($400 billion). Joseph W. Sullivan wrote in Foreign Policy how in 2022 the BRICS ran a trade surplus of $387 billion—mostly thanks to China—and that all the talk of those countries coining their own currency may not be too far-fetched after all. The BRICS would also be poised to achieve a level of self-sufficiency in international trade that has eluded other currency unions as they are not united by shared territorial borders and hence are more likely to produce a wider range of goods than any existing monetary union. Finally, half of the BRICS countries’ population is already online, contributing significantly to domestic and international economic activity. These countries are working to welcome digital innovation and massively investing in their digital capabilities, crafting new data protection frameworks and increasingly requiring tech companies to store data about a person in that person’s home country. China has the most ambitious approach, making major investments in 5G networks, artificial intelligence, and high-tech manufacturing in a bid to be an even larger global technology power than it already is.
Russia and China have increasingly presented themselves to developing nations as economic and military alternatives to the West—that will neither attach demands on democracy nor human rights to diplomatic relations. Both Russia and China are upping the ante in recruiting these developing countries that are non-aligned and neutral.
Although they might find Russia an increasingly awkward partner, most Asian nations pragmatically choose to maintain their relationships for a combination of economic, military, and diplomatic reasons. The combination of China’s manufacturing might and India’s software and service prowess provides across-the-board capabilities. David Moschella and Robert D. Atkinson recently noted that parallels between America’s dependency on China for manufacturing and its dependency on India for IT services are striking.
In that context, Russia sees the relevance of the BRICS Innovation Forum as a means of strengthening relationships with friends and allies in an era of major geopolitical tectonic shifts. While many in the West hoped that Russia’s invasion would rally nations in the developing world behind the rules-based order, many in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East have largely rejected Western framings of the conflict as a battle between might and right.
For them, non-alignment in the form of BRICS is much more comfortable than being pigeonholed as part of a Western position—or, indeed, an Eastern position.
Harun Karčić is a journalist and political analyst covering the Balkans and Turkey. Over the past decade, he has authored numerous articles on Islam and foreign influence in the region, including Saudi, Iranian, Turkish, and more recently Chinese and Russian. He also regularly reports on Muslim minorities in Europe and rising right-wing nationalism. He tweets @HarunKarcic.