This week, the BRICS group held its fifteenth annual summit in Johannesburg, South Africa. The forum has drawn more public and media attention than usual compared to past summits due to the much-publicized expansion of the group, which is said to bolster its geopolitical weight. Twenty-two states have officially applied for membership, six have been invited to join, and many others have expressed interest in membership of this exclusive club of rising economies. For the candidate states, official membership in the BRICS creates a window of opportunity for coveted goods: development aid, technological cooperation, and the much sought-after wiggle room to avoid or minimize potential or actual Western economic sanctions.
On August 24, the summit announced the six new members: Argentina, Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. This is an unprecedented development in the history of BRICS. Originally a descriptive economic grouping proposed by a Goldman Sachs economist, the bloc was formally launched in June 2009 (South Africa joined the group in December 2010). The BRICS’ membership expansion drive holds enormous potential benefits for the existing and aspiring candidate states. For China and Russia, a larger roster adds additional weight to their geopolitical agenda to curb the United States’ unilateral dominance.
But despite the crowing headlines, there is substantial doubt whether BRICS can emerge as a credible counterweight to the Western-dominated world order. The real challenges to success in transforming the global geopolitical landscape originate not from without but rather within. Wide internal differences significantly undercut BRICS’ capacity to work as a unified bloc and realize its goal of a multipolar world order.
On paper, the bloc maintains serious economic heft. The current BRICS accounts for approximately 32 percent of the world’s GDP, 41 percent of the global population, and 16 percent of international trade transactions. The addition of six new members significantly boosts the group’s global economic standing: their combined GDP now totals 37 percent of the world’s (in PPP terms) with a total population of 46 percent of the worldwide population. The three new oil and gas-producing members—Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates—add strategic weight to the group. The bloc’s combined fossil fuel deposits and production create an OPEC effect and enhance the prospects of open oil and gas businesses between the member states. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates’ massive sovereign wealth funds can inject billions of dollars into the BRICS’ New Development Bank (NDB) established in 2015.
The group’s push for de-dollarization in the form of a common BRICS currency or a gold-backed digital currency was primarily spurred by the Biden administration’s Russia sanctions. But the dollar won’t yield so easily. Unlike the EU, BRICS is neither a political integration project nor an economic union under the supervision of a central bank with jurisdiction over the member states. Without these components, a currency union between sovereign states with divergent fiscal policies is politically impossible.
BRICS and Geopolitics
BRICS is the brainchild of China. The grouping reflects Beijing’s growing economic, political, and diplomatic clout. Like the BRI (Belt and Road Initiative), it is China’s other ambitious project to create an alternative power base to the West. Except for Russia, all BRICS member states reside in the so-called Global South, a loose and ambiguous geopolitical construct. A serious question to ponder is: Do China’s interests (or the group’s collective interests) converge with the interests of the vast majority of poor and developing countries in the Global South?
A common goal, however, binds BRICS member states together—the attempt to shift their status from “rule-takers” to “rule-makers” by breaking down U.S. hegemony and cultivating a multipolar power structure in the global economy. Until the 2007–08 global financial meltdown, the United States and its G7 allies exclusively exercised global rule-making power. The rise of the G20 and BRICS in the wake of the financial crash made some clear dents in the West’s rule-making capacity. Alongside the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), BRICS’ two-tier institutional setup—the NDB and the Contingency Reserve Arrangement (CRA)—was created in 2015. While the NDB finances sustainable development projects, the CRA is a safety net to help member states weather financial crises. Nonetheless, this rudimentary financial architecture is negated by problems of political ideology and foreign and economic policy misalignment.
BRICS is a heterogeneous club of democracy and autocracy, free market and state-controlled economies, and contradictory foreign policy alignments. India, Brazil, and South Africa could be labeled at least flawed democracies with largely free-market economies. China and Russia’s political systems are mostly autocratic, and their economic systems are neither state-controlled nor market-based economies but a mix of the two. The entrance of three Middle Eastern autocracies further dilutes BRICS’ partially democratic character. Striking any meaningful chord that unites democracies and dictatorships and between market-based and state-controlled economies remains a Herculean task.
More glaringly, BRICS members often have more conflicts with each other than the United States. Most notably, India’s long list of grievances with China include its border provocations, support for Pakistan, and growing Indian Ocean naval presence. These differences have pushed New Delhi to forge a strategic partnership with Washington.
The BRICS members’ different levels of economic development remain a major disincentive for solidifying closer economic integration. China’s gargantuan economy is larger than the economies of all other BRICS countries put together. Measured in GDP terms, China’s economic output is approximately fourteen times bigger than South Africa’s and five to eight times the size of the Indian, Russian, and Brazilian economies. The overbearing nature of China’s economy has made inter-BRIC economic cooperation more difficult. For instance, India chose not to join the BRI, fearing that Beijing’s growing economic muscle might overshadow New Delhi’s position in South Asia and the Indian Ocean region.
There also exists little demonstrable BRICS foreign policy convergence in other global fora. Neither does the group broadcast a shared vision of an alternative new world order to the Western-dominated one. Other than some issue-specific cooperation (such as climate change and counterterrorism), BRICS member states have no notable record of the cooperation needed for a coherent group identity. Moreover, divergences in voting behaviors are evident in the UN General Assembly, the Security Council, and other international bodies.
The Way Ahead
BRICS runs a high risk of becoming an artificial construct. To overcome this risk, BRICS states must first put their own houses in order. There must be a way to address intra-BRICS tensions and conflicts. No economic or political grouping can survive on the mere slogans of reform of or opposition to the current world order. Anti-Western and anti-American postures may fade unless BRICS states foster solid economic ties and strategic linkages to effect their desired changes in the global order. The admission of new members may be more meaningful if BRICS addresses its own internal shortcomings and cooperates more often and more effectively. Otherwise, it’s just another multilateral grouping in an international forest of fora.
Dr. Mohammed Nuruzzaman is a Professor of Political Science at North South University, Bangladesh.