Cooperative Security, Arms Control and Disarmament By Herbert Wulf | 18 June, 2023
Additional BRICS for an Expansion of the House
The foreign ministers of the BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) met in South Africa at the beginning of June to discuss two main agenda items: the admission of new members and the creation of a BRICS currency. They reaffirmed their ambitions to be a counterweight to the Western powers.
BRICS was founded in 2009 primarily to change the prevailing world order. Now in its second decade of existence, BRICS is more attractive than ever, with 19 more countries lining up to join. An expanded BRICS (BRICS+ or BRICS 2.0) with its own currency can lead to fundamental geopolitical change. Why is the alliance so attractive today, even though Russia, the aggressor against Ukraine, who has violated international law, is a key member?
More than 40 percent of the world's population lives in the five BRICS member countries. More decisive for the growing interest in BRICS, however, is its rapid economic growth. While the share of the world gross domestic product (GDP) of the G7 countries of the "liberal world" (Canada, France, Germany, Great Britain, Italy, Japan, and USA) fell from around 50% at the beginning of the 1980s to 30% today, the BRICS countries experienced the opposite development: their share of GDP rose for the same period from just over 10% to 31.5% in 2022. BRICS countries have overtaken the G7 in purchasing power. The main reason is the rapid economic growth of China and, for some time now, India. BRICS has become an indispensable engine of economic growth in the world.
But BRICS is not a well-structured association of states with an executive and legislative branch. BRICS does not even have a central secretariat. Nor is the group a homogeneous bloc. BRICS is characterised by a great deal of heterogeneity. Democratically elected and authoritarian governments cooperate. The economic weight is extremely unequal. More than 70% of BRICS' GDP is generated by China. Per capita income in Russia is five times higher than in India. Two members (China and Russia) are thwarting the ambitions of the remaining three to become permanent members of the UN Security Council. Conflicts between India and China, the two heavyweights in the club, have not been resolved and repeatedly led to military border skirmishes in the Himalayas. BRICS remains a loose association that emphasises common interests, especially trade and development.
BRICS members criticise, with varying degrees of vehemence, the liberal narrative of democracy and human rights, often pushed for by Western liberal governments. BRICS members Brazil, India, and South Africa, as well as numerous other countries in the Global South, are calling for a greater say in international organisations such as the UN, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank and the World Trade Organization (WTO). In 2014, BRICS countries established their own development bank as a counterweight to the World Bank and IMF.
BRICS is an anti-hegemonic project that aims to change the existing world order and break the global economic dominance of the dollar. At the same time, however, BRICS is a geopolitical project with classical power politics, economic and military strength, and foreign policy leverage.
At the next BRICS summit in South Africa in August 2023, the possible expansion of membership will play an important role. Global or regional heavyweights such as Algeria, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Indonesia, Thailand, Senegal, Argentina, and Venezuela, among others, applied for membership. This will change BRICS into BRICS 2.0 and, more than ever, to an important global player and a pacesetter for international norms.
Especially through intra BRICS trade, the group wants to break away from the US dollar as the world's reserve currency. They want to create their own currency to reduce the influence of the United States in global trade. "De-dollarization" of international trade is the keyword. So far, decisions for a common BRICS currency have not had a solid basis. Steps along this path could be bilateral agreements. In March 2023, Brazil and China agreed to trade in their respective national currencies in RMB Yuan and Brazilian Real. This reciprocal procedure is also applied by China and Russia.
Unexpectedly, Russia's war against Ukraine has led to the strengthening of BRICS. The US and the EU have been able to unite against Russia's aggression. Many countries in the Global South also adopted the March 2022 UN resolution condemning Russia's war. Of the five BRICS countries, only Brazil agreed, Russia―of course―voted against, and China, India and South Africa abstained.
The goal of the Western alliance was to make Russia an international pariah and to hit it economically through comprehensive sanctions. An unintended consequence of these sanctions has been serious distortions of international trade. These disruptions have been exacerbated by the recognition in the G7 that dependencies had arisen through close trade links. The counterstrategy, diversification of supply chains, mainly concerned trade with China, whose economy had also suffered from China's tough Corona policy.
BRICS countries and other emerging economies are worried because the sweeping Western sanctions against Russia also have consequences in the Global South. The Indian government most clearly expressed its criticism of the West's expectation to join the sanctions regime. For understandable reasons, most governments in the Global South consider their own economic interests to be more important than supporting the boycott of Russia. The war in Ukraine has exacerbated tensions between the West, especially the US as the self-proclaimed leader of the free world, and the Global South. The South feels pressured to take sides in this war in Europe, although the role of the free world in many conflicts in the South has often been rather dubious.
President Vladimir Putin's mantra of a unipolar world in which the US calls the shots is widely shared in the Global South. For them, the time of the "global policeman" is over. In addition, there are resentments about the colonial era. Many countries of the Global South were colonised and are still suffering from it today. They often still feel patronised today. This became clear at a recent press conference in Kinshasa, when the President of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Felix Tshisekedi, pointed out to his French guest, President Emmanuel Macron, in front of the cameras that the nature of cooperation had to change: "The way France and Europe deal with us. You must begin to respect us and see Africans in a different way. You have to stop treating us and talking to us in a particular tone. As if you are always absolutely right and we are not."
It remains to be seen whether the EU's current charm offensive, especially in Africa, with offers of cooperation in development projects, the improvement of infrastructure and in the energy sector, will be successful. The reservations as to whether this current initiative is serious and sustainable are too obvious and whether it means more than prioritising European interests in the current difficult global political situation. Many countries in the Global South sympathise with the BRICS's philosophy of creating a counterweight to the G7. The foreseeable expansion of BRICS will further increase the weight of this grouping. However, heterogeneity in BRICS 2.0 will also increase dramatically. Just look at the political divergences and economic imbalances of the potential accession countries.
The creation of BRICS 2.0 could have two different consequences: on the one hand, the strengthening of global cooperation and the reduction of US influence and power in global affairs. In March 2022, for example, BRICS adopted an initiative to collaborate on vaccine research to be able to deal cooperatively with future pandemics. On the other hand, the competition and conflict between the US and China could influence the two blocs G7 and BRICS to such an extent that it leads to a Cold War-like confrontation.
At the global top table: Will 2023 be India's year? (3-minute read)
Russia and China are edging out the US in the Middle East (3-minute read)
Herbert Wulf is a Professor of International Relations and former Director of the Bonn International Center for Conflict Studies (BICC). He is presently a Senior Fellow at BICC, an Adjunct Senior Researcher at the Institute for Development and Peace, University of Duisburg/Essen, Germany, and a Research Affiliate at the National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, University of Otago, New Zealand. He serves on the Scientific Councils of SIPRI and the Centre for Conflict Studies of the University of Marburg, Germany.