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The Appeal of BRICS: What Draws in Global South Countries?

15 Aug 2023
By Evan Freidin
Leaders of BRICS meet at Osaka, Japan. Source: Alan Santos/PR /

The upcoming BRICS gathering illustrates that a divergence of global political and economic values is occurring. The future demise of the global rules based order is not far off.

With the meeting between BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, and China) leaders coming later this month in Johannesburg, one of the key topics likely to be discussed will be the admittance of additional countries to the group. Last year at the 14th BRICS summit in Beijing, the leaders of each country agreed to increase the membership of the bloc. According to the South African foreign minister, around 12 countries have applied for membership, including, among others, Saudi Arabia, Mexico, Argentina, Bangladesh, and Egypt. It is a sign that since its first summit in 2009, BRICS has become a legitimate challenger to other western-dominated informal governance institutions like the G7 and G20.

BRICS was formed around the idea of bringing together the four large emerging economies likely to rise in the 21st century. Aside from China’s dramatic economic growth, that prediction has not come to pass, nevertheless, the group has remained committed to cooperation based around non-interference and mutual benefit. As a bloc, BRICS is composed of 41.5 percent of the world’s population and 31.6 percent of global GDP. The group meets each year to discuss economic, security, and political cooperation, aiming to increase each country’s strength globally. To support these aims, BRICS formed the New Development Bank in 2014, a multilateral development bank that has loaned US$33 billion to 96 infrastructure projects.

BRICS is an unlikely and unnerving consortium for stability and mutual agreement. The recent decision by Russian President Vladimir Putin to only virtually attend the 15th summit in Johannesburg, is hardly a sign of a united front. The South African government has announced it will follow the recommendations of the International Criminal Court, for which it is a member, and arrest Putin for crimes against humanity. Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine precipitated expansive western economic sanctions, which has severely crippled its economy. Meanwhile, Brazil’s elections late last year resulted in a campaign of disinformation, voter suppression, and various accusations of electoral fraud that culminated in an attempted coup on 12 December. China and India continue to have border tensions along the lines of control in contested Himalayan borderlands that could again turn violent.

In terms of economic importance, only China appears poised to continue its great economic rise, accounting for 70 percent of the group’s collective economy, and even then the country is facing deep structural problems amid crises in housing and local government debt, sinking current growth projections. It is an odd bunch of countries that critics rightfully point out was formed on the basis of an economist’s prediction that did not eventuate.

In competition with BRICS, there is the G7, an informal grouping comprising of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom, and the United States, with the European Union as an additional “non-enumerated member.” Together it amounts to around 31.31 percent of global GDP and 10 percent of global population, and holds greater economic sway than BRICS, including in terms of financial support to the UN, development loans, and control of global financial institutions such as the IMF, the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank, and others. The group similarly meets each year to coordinate economic cooperation and development. It is a far more unified and compatible collection of nations than BRICS and has far greater global economic influence. At their meeting at Hiroshima this May, the G7 presented a united front in espousing support for upholding a free and international economic order based on the “rule of law.”

For some, it is that cohesiveness that could be a weakness pushing developing nations to turn away from the G7 and towards BRICS. The G7 is dominated by the United States, far more so than China has influence over BRICS. Its economy dwarfs the other members and its military strength is even larger. In many ways, therefore, the US is the de facto leader of the G7. BRICS, by contrast, does not have such a leader. China’s economic heft has not translated into a similar position of influence, with India in particular pushing back against Chinese control, including not having BRICS endorse China’s Belt and Road initiative, and ensuring that the New Development Bank does not have any nation as a dominant shareholder. For some, this eccentric and chaotic grouping holds appeal for smaller powers seeking greater influence in the global political economy and potentially a more independent voice outside the dominance of groups like the G7.

Developing countries are drawn to BRICS because the group has come to represent a more diverse and multipolar world – an alternative to the Western-led one. Through BRICS, developing countries believe they can seek greater economic cooperation and support outside of the western world. Authoritarian countries such as Saudi Arabia and Venezuela are particularly drawn to BRICS as cooperation does not require caveats of protecting human rights and civil liberties. The G7’s commitment to upholding the values of liberal democracy and the “rules-based order” can make countries not fond of such values wary of such institutions.

In direct contrast, BRICS’ mixture of authoritarian and democratic governments means there is far greater space for contending ideologies and less requirement for “shared values.” This includes the preamble that members don’t interfere in “domestic concerns,” such as the violations of civil rights. This is especially true of authoritarian countries, which are always concerned about international reprisals.

Of course, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine proves that such ideals of non-interference do have limits. Both Brazil and South Africa have condemned the invasion, and Russia has only received tepid support from China and India, mostly in the form of buying Russian oil. Although the term “domestic concerns” gives countries leeway to avoid human rights obligations, it is not the perfect excuse, even for BRICS. But the influence is there, and in the future could serve as protection when it comes to western sanctions and UN votes.

If BRICS is able to increase its membership, and in turn increase its cumulative economic weight to rival the G7, nations outside of BRICS and the G7 will find themselves having to figure out how to handle relations with both blocs. Western nations such as Australia are likely to engage more with the G7, based on their shared liberal values. Meanwhile nations like Iran are likely to focus on engaging with BRICS, due to a longstanding animosity with the West. Others are likely to thread the needle between both with uncertain results. Indonesia, with a strengthening economy and growing importance to global supply chains with its large nickel mines, has found itself courted by both groups. It was invited to the G7 summit at Hiroshima, and at the BRICS summit in Johannesburg, the country will be discussed as an applicant for membership.

The possibility of BRICS expanding its membership demonstrates how appealing the group has become to the “Global South” as a forum to serve their own interests, and that it has become so much more than a prediction by a Goldman Sachs economist. It further represents a growing perception that the western-led unipolar world has reached its end, demonstrated by the expansion of political and economic blocs.

Evan Freidin is an international relations analyst whose work has been published by the Interpreter, Foreign Brief, The Diplomat, and ANU’s Near East Policy Forum. His writings focus on changing trends within China and the broader Asia-Pacific region. He has received a Masters of International Relations from the University of Melbourne.

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.