The fifteenth BRICS summit (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) took place in Johannesburg from August 22 to 24, 2023, under the theme of “BRICS and Africa: Partnership for Mutually Accelerated Growth, Sustainable Development and Inclusive Multilateralism.” The bloc’s heads of state attended the summit, with the exception of Russian President Vladimir Putin, following consultations between Pretoria and Moscow, after which it was announced that there was agreement about Putin’s hypothetical participation. This relieved a significant burden for the host country's government, as it addressed the pressure from the United States to apprehend Putin when he arrives in South Africa. This was in response to an arrest warrant issued by the International Criminal Court in March, related to his involvement in the Ukraine war.
According to South African Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor, 67 countries representing all continents and regions of the Global South, as well as 20 international organizations, including the United Nations, were invited. In total, 34 countries confirmed participation.
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa revealed the results of the 15th BRICS Summit in a press conference on August 24, most notably the following:
1. Heads of states reached an agreement on the guiding principles, standards, criteria and procedures of the BRICS expansion process. “We have consensus on the first phase of this expansion process, and further phases will follow,” President Ramaphosa announced. “We have decided to invite the Argentine Republic, the Arab Republic of Egypt, the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia, the United Arab Emirates, Islamic Republic of Iran, and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to become full member of BRICS and the membership will take effect from January 1, 2024.”
He also said that all leaders appreciate the considerable interest shown by countries of the Global South in becoming members of BRICS. “In keeping with the BRICS principles and commitment to comprehensive multilateralism, the BRICS countries have reached an agreement on the guiding principles, standards, criteria and procedures of the expansion process. The declaration included no mention of the principles, standards, or procedures.
2. Ramaphosa also said: “We have tasked our foreign ministers to further develop the BRICS partner country model and a list of prospective partner countries and report by the next summit.”
3. The leaders' visions agreed that the bloc "advocates for the needs and interests of the people of the Global South," and that there is a need for beneficial economic growth, sustainable development, and multilateral systems reform. BRICS leaders reiterated their commitment to complete multilateralism and adherence to international law, particularly the United Nations Charter's goals and principles.
4. The leaders resolved to appoint BRICS finance ministers and/or central bank governors, as needed, to study the issue of local currencies, payment mechanisms and platforms and report back to the BRICS leaders at the next summit.
The following should be highlighted when evaluating the summit's outcomes:
1. The decision of the BRICS summit to accept six new members signals a historic shift in the bloc's operations. This is because the issue of expanding membership has loomed over BRICS from its inception, when South Africa joined in 2010, prompting several countries to seek membership, but to no success. A number of geopolitical challenges, including the following, explained the founding members' previously guarded position:
A) The heterogeneity among the BRICS countries, as there are subtle differences in how their members relate to the international liberal order, as well as the members' relations with the West vary between a more stringent Russian position, a more cautious Chinese position, and a third ambiguous Indian position. An observer of member nations' opinions to the West and its unipolar world would conclude that it does not necessarily imply a clear and consistent vision for a multipolar system.
B) There are distinct contrasts in the foreign policies of the BRICS members. India, for example, does not want to expand the bloc's membership as it fears new members will support Beijing. With its own global geopolitical ambitions, New Delhi will not be pleased to play a minor role in shaping the bloc's policies. Given India's historical alignment with the West and membership in the Quad alliance, the relationship with China remains tense. This is especially due to border conflicts and mistrust of Chinese technology. For Russia, the admission of new members to BRICS appears positive since it will be perceived as evidence of the West's inability to isolate Moscow.
2. The question arises as to the reasons for the summit's historic decision to invite six countries to its membership out of the 23 countries that formally submitted requests to join, according to the South African Foreign Minister's statement on August 7, along with many other informal requests. The BRICS countries clearly sought to maintain broad discretion in this regard and agreed to the deal to invite the six countries while taking into account a mix of geopolitical and geoeconomic issues. The following reasons can be mentioned:
A) The major shifts that occurred in the international environment which became governed by fierce and open competition and sharp polarization attempts by the US and its allies. This is particularly true since the start of the war in Ukraine in February 2022 and the unforeseen ramifications that resulted, with which mobilization and militarization operations escalated, particularly in the Asia-Pacific region. This toxic environment has prompted most BRICS countries, particularly China, to be eager to welcome new members. This is mostly the case for those whose positions were characterized by a desire for independence in foreign policy, as well as a difficult balance in international relations in light of the difficulties imposed by the war. In this scenario, the new six countries have declined to impose economic restrictions on Russia.
B) As such, all six countries share various degrees of economic and trade collaboration, as well as considerable military and security cooperation with the five bloc members. Egypt, for example, has strong strategic partnerships with China, Russia, and, recently, India. The same applies to the UAE as well as Saudi Arabia. Egypt and the UAE have an institutional relationship with BRICS as a result of their membership in the bloc's "New Development Bank." Furthermore, Egypt has engaged in diverse cooperation with the bloc since 2017 through the BRICS Plus formula developed by China during the Xiamen Summit as a model for open cooperation with developing nations and a platform for engaging with them. It can be claimed that the development of the BRICS Plus was an essential component in quickening the bloc's expansion process, owing to China's eagerness for such progress.
In the case of Iran, its relations with Russia have progressed to the level of "full defense partnership,” according to official US estimates. There is little doubt that Beijing's backing of the deal to resume diplomatic relations between Riyadh and Tehran in March allowed the two nations, along with the UAE, to be invited to join the BRICS bloc. This makes all three countries full members of one grouping for the first time, which was previously unlikely due to issues related to Iran's relations with its Gulf neighbors.
Argentina's membership application previously divided the bloc's members. The country still blames Iran for a string of terrorist incidents on its soil in recent years. China, notably, supported Argentina due to trade, financial ties and the Belt and Road Partnership. This is in addition to the increased trade with India, and to balance the Global South's geographic representation: two South American, three African, and five Asian/Russian countries.
C) The six countries' admission to the BRICS would help to reformulate international multilateral collaboration in many ways. For example, the joining of Argentina and Saudi Arabia brings the number of BRICS members in the G20 to seven members. The 2023 G20 New Delhi summit will be held on September 9 and 10, and will be followed by Brazil (2024) and South Africa (2025). All BRICS countries are anticipated to endorse India's proposal to grant the African Union permanent membership in the G20.
Brazil’s President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva noted at the end of the summit the BRICS’ Gross Domestic Product (GDP) will now shoot up to 37% of the world’s GDP in terms of purchasing power (currently 32%) and 46% of the global population (currently 42%). Chinese President Xi Jinping said, “The expansion is a new starting point for BRICS cooperation. It will also bring new vigor to the BRICS cooperation mechanism and further strengthen the force for world peace and development.” India Prime Minister Narendra Modi said, “The expansion and modernization of BRICS is a message that all institutions in the world need to hold themselves according to changing times.”
D) When assessing BRICS' political and economic weight, it is commonly viewed as a counterweight to the Group of Seven main industrialized countries, which, except for Japan, belong to Western culture. The most significant event here is that four of the six new member states are Arab Islamic countries (Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Iran). This exceptional development aligns with the bloc's objectives aiming at creating a more just and equitable world and representing all global civilizations and cultures, including multiple principles and traditions, of which Western civilization is only one.
In an article published on August 21 by the South African magazine "Ubuntu," Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov stated that "the BRICS countries are ready to respond to the request to be one of the pillars of a new, more just, and polycentric world order." He noted that this is the reason behind the bloc’s expansion, and that "the joining of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the Emirates will enrich the bloc given their Arab and Islamic cultural heritage.”
The Future of BRICS:
Several factors should be observed that might influence the future of the BRICS after the joining of the new six countries in January 2024:
1. Disparities among member states:
There is no doubt that the BRICS member states' political and economic differences, as well as their competing interests and opinions on a variety of topics, contributed to the bloc's limited success. For example, despite accounting for 16% of total global commerce, intra-regional trade among BRICS member nations remains relatively low due to the absence of a free trade agreement between them. In terms of investment, the BRICS countries saw an increase in foreign direct investment inflows from non-member countries at an annual rate of more than four times between 2001-2021. Despite this rise, intra-investment operations remain small, accounting for less than 5% of total inward foreign direct investment in 2020.
Busi Mabuza, Chairperson of the South Africa Chapter of the BRICS Business Council, acknowledged this fact in her annual report submitted to the bloc’s summit. “We recognize the challenges posed by tariff barriers, non-tariff measures and regulatory complexities that hinder the full potential of our trade and investment capabilities,” she said.
2. The realism of BRICS goals:
It was notable that when announcing the outcomes of the latest summit, South Africa's President was eager to emphasize, "BRICS itself is a diverse group of countries… It is an equal partnership between countries that have different points of view but have common visions for a better world.” In this context, it is worth noting that the statements of BRICS leaders and top officials were marked by a high level of realism about the organization's ambitions and the magnitude of the challenge they pose to the current international order.
For example, Dilma Rousseff, President of the New Development Bank, said “local currencies are not alternatives to the dollar but rather alternatives to a system. So far, the system has been unipolar…?it’s going to be substituted by a more multipolar system.” Russian Foreign Minister stated in his previously cited article "the bloc doesn’t aim to replace existing multilateral mechanisms, let alone become a new collective hegemonic power." In his press conference on the summit's outcomes, South Africa's President mentioned that "there is global momentum for the use of local currencies, alternative financial arrangements and payment systems," expressing the bloc’s willingness to explore opportunities to improve the stability, reliability, and fairness of the global financial structure.
Many experts, including those from the BRICS countries, believe that the bloc's tangible successes are primarily represented by the founding of the New Development Bank. Regarding talks of establishing a common currency to challenge the dominance of the dollar or seeking an alternative by increasing the use of local currencies in commercial transactions between BRICS countries; there remain ambitions awaiting realization in the medium and long terms.
3. Seeking to change international institutions:
It is hard to deny that the BRICS bloc has worked in recent years to improve practical cooperation in the areas of poverty reduction, food security, epidemic control, vaccine development and dissemination, development financing, combating climate change, advancing green development, and developing manufacturing and the digital economy. Regardless of the founding countries' differing attitudes toward the West, the anti-Western projection does not appear to benefit all members, such as India. Many of the summit's provisions, however, clearly reflect the collective voice on the need to change international institutions, particularly international financial institutions such as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Trade Organization.
4. The American perspective on BRICS:
It is worth noting that US officials have downplayed the potential of BRICS growing as a geopolitical opponent, portraying the bloc as a highly varied group of countries comprised of both allies and rivals. Numerous American statements, however, revealed a clear level of concern about the bloc's attractiveness and its members' common opinion that the global system is dominated by Western countries and institutions in a way that does not serve the interests of developing countries.
The high demand for BRICS membership, which made the South African summit more important than previous summits, can be explained by the fact that many countries that previously aspired to achieve economic and social growth then collided with the realities of an unjust global system are now looking for other ways to establish economic partnerships. Many of these countries saw BRICS as the only way to help their economies recover, especially given its economic strategies and New Development Bank, which has a capital of about $100 billion and helps finance infrastructure projects in member and non-member countries. There is no question that the joining of the six countries to BRICS, beginning in January 2024, further increasing the bloc's membership to 11, would enhance its attractiveness and generate better and more collaborative results. This makes it a main force of positive change in the global governance system supported by emerging economies and developing countries.
Amr Wagdy is a Human Rights Expert. He has more than 15 years experience in the field of human rights. He has a Bachelor degree in Political science from Cairo University, and a Master degree in Democracy and Human Rights from Saint Joseph University in Lebanon. He writes in several newspapers and magazines. His area of interests are human rights, international relations and development.