Countries of the Global South show a surge of interest in joining BRICS – Anil Sooklal
Rising big-power contestation is driving small and medium-sized countries to seek security in BRICS, says South Africa’s BRICS ‘sherpa’ Anil Sooklal.
Russia’s war against Ukraine is prompting an unprecedented surge of interest by countries of the Global South in joining the BRICS alliance, which now comprises Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa.
About 13 countries have formally written to the BRICS leaders requesting membership while several others have informally expressed an interest in membership, according to South Africa’s BRICS “sherpa” Anil Sooklal.
Like the sherpas of the Himalayas, who help mountaineers ascend summits, Sooklal is South Africa’s top official on BRICS and bears the main responsibility for organising South Africa’s hosting of the 2023 BRICS Summit in August. The summit will decide which new members to admit.
Sooklal’s formal title is ambassador at large for BRICS and Iora, the Indian Ocean Rim Association. Until last year he was deputy director-general for the Middle East and Asia in the Department of International Relations and Cooperation.
He notes that of the 13 countries that have formally requested membership, six are from the Middle East and North Africa region – Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, United Arab Emirates, Algeria, Egypt and Iran. Outside that region, Indonesia, Argentina and Kazakhstan have also formally requested membership. Sooklal did not name the other four countries.
But other countries which had indicated an interest in joining included Afghanistan, Mexico, Morocco, Nicaragua, Nigeria, Senegal, Thailand, Turkey, Venezuela and Vietnam.
Sooklal said 20 countries had also applied to join the BRICS New Development Bank (NDB) in addition to Egypt, UAE and Bangladesh, which joined in 2021. Uruguay has also been accepted, but has not yet formally joined.
Sooklal told Daily Maverick that BRICS had whittled down the list of 20 applicants to the NDB to about 12, including some African countries, which were currently being considered by the NDB board of governors.
The number of applicants had been reduced to make the accession process more manageable. Also, there had to be a consensus among existing members to accept new members.
“So for example, a country shouldn’t have fraught relations with a BRICS member,” said Sooklal.
But it is the sudden surge of interest by other countries in joining BRICS itself that is attracting global attention. Sooklal noted that over the years since South Africa joined BRICS in 2011, only two or three countries had previously expressed an interest in joining.
He said that several Western ambassadors had asked him about the sudden surge of interest now.
“I think there are several factors. The impact of Covid on the global environment — that has changed the international scenario dramatically, firstly. Secondly, the post-Covid economic recovery hasn’t gone the way we expected it to go. Thirdly, the major power contestation, starting with sanctioning of Chinese entities by the US.”
The US-China tensions had increased further with the visit of the then US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan last year and then this year, Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-Wen’s transit through the US where she met the current House Speaker Kevin McCarthy and other members of Congress. China reacted furiously to both visits.
“And then more recently the Russia-Ukraine situation. And also, smaller countries have become emboldened,” Sooklal added.
Quite a few countries, including in Africa, had either voted against or abstained from the UN General Assembly resolutions of the past year condemning Russia’s aggression against Ukraine — “which was unthinkable a few years ago”.
Ten to 15 years ago, far fewer smaller countries would have voted against or abstained from such resolutions, he said. Sooklal said smaller countries were no longer feeling powerless.
“They are asserting their independence of thinking far more. And they’re emboldened to do that. And I think there are a number of factors for that. I think that the age of a unipolar world is over. You don’t have one superpower. You have emerging poles of power. China has emerged as a powerful pole of power. And many other countries are starting to assert their aspirations on the global stage.
“So I think it’s a changed global dynamic… We are in a world in between orders. We are neither in a unipolar world [nor] a bipolar world, and we haven’t reached multipolarity yet. This is the grey area that we find ourselves in at the moment.”
Smaller countries had also become more assertive because they had become less dependent on development aid, “which played a major role in the past”. Now development aid from the major donor countries had “shrunk dramatically”.
“So you no longer have that dependency relationship where you are constrained in your posture and actions vis-à-vis those countries. So it gives you that freedom to navigate. So small but not powerless is asserting itself more on the global stage. And increasingly they’re using the term non-alignment or strategic neutrality in their posturing and don’t want to fall into camps and be pulled into big power contestation.
New evolving order
“When we have challenges in Africa, it’s our problem. But when the major powers are caught up in problems, they want to drag us on to sides. I think that is where you are seeing middle powers and smaller countries starting to assert a level of independence that you hadn’t previously witnessed.
“So I think all of this is impacting in terms of this new evolving order that we are in the midst of. And countries are trying to realign.”
Influential emerging market developing countries from Latin America, Asia, Africa and the Middle East were the ones most interested in joining BRICS.
“So obviously they are seeing certain values and principles that BRICS ascribes to that’s appealing to them. Also for a very long period, the countries of the Global South including SA have been on the margins. So I think this era of marginalisation is over. Countries don’t want to be marginalised. They want to be relevant.”
These aspirant members felt their aspirations were chiming with the direction that BRICS is taking.
“But also, of course, the current Russia-Ukraine situation; the China-US situation, there’s uncertainty and countries are looking for some kind of security in numbers. And the configuration in which they feel they will find some level of comfort.”
Sooklal said the sense of BRICS as an alternative to the big powers was crystallising.
“If I look at when we joined in 2011 and when we hosted the summit in 2013, BRICS was still trying to find its feet. And many thought this configuration would come and would have its heyday and it would pass.
“But what we have seen within BRICS, in the first instance, is a great desire to consolidate despite fault lines that exist. We do have fault lines among the five of us.”
On the other hand, there was growing cooperation among BRICS countries and increasing benefits. BRICS had come together at a critical moment “when the world needed an alternative voice, especially the Global South”, he said.
Sooklal nevertheless objected to the way many people in the Global North were characterising BRICS as a counterweight to the Global North (aka the West).
Striving for more geopolitical weight
He cited an article about the expansion of BRICS written last year by Günther Maihold of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs which said that BRICS, “which has seen itself as an association of up-and-coming economies… is now trying to position itself as an alternative to the G7 and is striving for more geopolitical weight with a possible expansion to BRICS+. The West should not ignore this.”
Sooklal insisted: “BRICS was never created as a counterweight or a bloc in competition with anyone. BRICS was about ourselves and about advancing the collective interests of the Global South in partnership with the Global North in crafting a new global architecture that is inclusive, that is fair and that is representative of the current realities of the world.”
He welcomed the speech that French President Emmanuel Macron had delivered on 27 February before visiting Central Africa, in which he called for a new partnership between the North and the South in tackling global problems. Macron said France would “shift from an assistance approach to a social investment and partnership-based approach” with countries of the South.
Some BRICS officials and analysts — including Jim O’Neill, the economist who originally coined the acronym BRIC (without SA) as an attractive investment package — have proposed a BRICS currency to reduce what they regard as the excessive and often negative influence of the dollar on other economies.
Sooklal said there had been suggestions within BRICS of creating a currency that was “way down the line… What we do have is an interbank agreement to trade in local currency. That’s a framework agreement which we haven’t activated. So now there is serious talk about activating it.”
In fact, BRICS countries had already begun to move in that direction. Its New Development Bank had begun lending in local currencies and aimed to reach 30% of lending in local currencies in five years.
The bank was also exploring borrowing in local currencies and individual BRICS countries were starting to trade in each other’s currencies. DM