BRICS Club Boom: What to expect in Johannesburg

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping. [Courtesy, Mikhail Metzel]

The expansion of the club of five is set to top the agenda when the BRICS nations convene in the South African city of Johannesburg on Tuesday. More than a handful of hopefuls  23 in fact, including Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, Iran, Argentina and Ethiopia — are interested in joining the bloc.

South Africa's top representative to BRICS, Anil Sooklal, told US economic outlet Bloomberg that leaders would draw up a statement on the expansion of the group beyond Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, and that this would represent a major shake-up of the existing world order.

Russia's war in Ukraine, related sanctions, criticism of the dollar's role in international finance and the global balance of power: this BRICS summit is about more than many developing and middle-income countries turning away from the West. It's about them asserting their growing self-confidence.

For China, it's about 'countering the Americans'

"China is benefitting from the anti-Americanism of BRICS countries, which is drawing many countries in the Global South closer to China," Felix Lee, an expert on the politics of the Asian super economy, told DW. "That is the goal China is pursuing with BRICS."

The five countries are a long way off from being a functional, trusting alliance, like the Group of Seven leading industrial nations, according to Lee. "But for Beijing, it's mainly about countering the Americans on a functional level."

Russia is also pursuing its own strategic interests, according to Günther Maihold at the Free University in Berlin. "Moscow [wants] to use this momentum to bring its allies — like Belarus and Venezuela — into the club," he said. "For [Russian President Vladimir] Putin, the expansion of the BRICS states represents the chance to overcome international isolation."

Not everyone backs BRICS expansion plans

This isolation will be underlined by the Johannesburg summit, since Putin will not be among the representatives from the 71 countries taking part. His absence is due to an International Criminal Court arrest warrant accusing him of responsibility for war crimes in Ukraine.

Plans for expansion are not without detractors within the BRICS group, however. India, Brazil and China are not interested in reducing their influence and also taking on new problems with new members, according to Maihold.

"If everyone tries to bring their own friend group into the mix, heterogeneity and tensions within BRICS will rise," he said. "In that respect, the issue will bring additional potential for conflict to the table."

South African Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor said in April that the admission criteria for new members would have to be discussed first. "It will probably boil down to having a circle of 'BRICS-plus' countries that don't have the same rights and powers of determination," said Maihold.

BRICS a big draw for foreign investors

Despite its internal conflicts, the BRICS community has been seen as a success story. Its combined share of global economic output rose from 18 per cent to 26 per cent between 2010 and 2021, according to the latest BRICS investment report from the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development released in April.

Two more indicators underline the group's potential: the growth rate of intra-BRICS exports and the level of foreign direct investment into BRICS countries is above the global average, according to the UN report.

That growth is dominated above all by China, as is intra-BRICS trade. Beijing is the biggest trade partner for Brazil, Russia and South Africa. Only India bucks the trend, with the United States coming in top and China in second place.

China, Brazil and India still buying Russian oil

The BRICS' anti-Western posturing has concerned observers in Europe, said Maihold.

"You can't get rid of the impression that the BRICS bloc remains an echo chamber for Putin. And that the countries are becoming a sanctuary for many other states to protect themselves from sanctions or the consequences of sanctions," he said.

The BRICS countries have not taken part in the punitive measures imposed on Moscow by Western nations since the start of Russia's invasion in February 2022. As a result, China, Brazil and India are among the biggest buyers of cheap Russian oil. However, besides benefitting from cheap energy prices, developing and middle-income countries have been particularly hard hit by the consequences of the war in Ukraine.

"There is a clear interest in Russia not boycotting or undermining food supplies. The same applies, of course, to fertilizer," said Mailhold. As such, he added, the Johannesburg summit will be dominated by a sort of unspoken Russia agenda.

"On one hand, they will be looking for regulations to mitigate the consequences for BRICS countries affected by the impacts of sanctions," he said. "On the other hand, they don't want to take sides and get even more involved in the conflict. That's exactly what makes it so difficult."