FOREIGN MINISTERS MEETING
BRICS countries show signs of division over potential for expanding membership
Despite boasting about 20-odd countries wanting to join, the five BRICS member countries themselves don’t all agree that expansion would be a good idea.
The expansion of BRICS has been the main issue at the meeting of the bloc’s foreign ministers in Cape Town this week. The meeting included a Friends of BRICS component where 13 other nations joined the five BRICS member nations either in person or by video.
SA International Relations Minister Naledi Pandor characterised these as countries “which have indicated a strong interest in becoming a permanent part of BRICS.” And other nations not present have also either applied formally to join BRICS or have informally shown an interest in doing so.
The problem is that the five BRICS members themselves are not united about the merits of expanding membership, let alone the criteria for accepting applicants. Official sources have told Daily Maverick that while China is enthusiastic about expanding membership and SA and Russia are keen, Brazil and especially India are “dead against.”
A large part of the reason for their opposition is that expanding membership would dilute their relative importance in the bloc. But there are also concerns about the criteria for admitting new members. BRICS officials have said that one of these would be to establish common BRICS values. But what would those be? Already BRICS comprises three democracies — South Africa, India and Brazil, one quasi-democracy (at best) Russia and one unambiguous autocracy, China.
Some new applicants like Iran and possibly Venezuela, could present their own challenges to all members. There is a sense that expanding BRICS could in effect make it more of an anti-Western bloc which is not what Brazil and India necessarily want.
The divisions over the issue of expansion were visible at a press conference that the five BRICS foreign ministers gave after their meeting on Thursday. Chinese deputy foreign minister Ma Zhaoxu said China was “very happy” about the prospect of new members joining the “big family” of BRICS. Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov also welcomed the fact that BRICS was “evolving”.
Indian Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar and Brazilian Foreign Minister, Mauro Vieira did not comment.
But Pandor told media on Friday that the BRICS ministers had tasked their officials to refine their proposals for expanding membership and that the heads of state would discuss these proposals at the summit which is due to be held in Sandton in August. However, SA officials say they are exploring the possibility of moving the summit it to China to avoid the problem of Russian president Vladimir Putin visiting South Africa, when SA would be obliged to arrest him on an International Criminal Court warrant.
The official sources said it was proving difficult to resolve the differences over expanded membership. SA had proposed a possible compromise of admitting new countries not as full members but as part of a “BRICS-Outreach.”
The countries which participated in the Friends of Brics session, either in person or virtually were the foreign ministers of Comoros, Cuba, Democratic Republic of Congo, Gabon, Iran, Kazakhstan, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Egypt, Argentina, Bangladesh, Guinea-Bissau, Burundi and Indonesia.
However, even though Pandor had said these were countries which had shown an interest in joining BRICS, she also noted that several of them had participated as representatives of regional organisations such as the African Union.
Another topic of discussion at the foreign ministers’ meeting is the need for BRICS countries to conduct trade and financial transactions in their own currencies rather than the US dollar. Pandor said this would help reduce the vulnerability of countries to US sanctions.
There has also been a wider discussion about the BRICS countries establishing their own currency to further reduce their dependence on the dollar.
However SA’s “sherpa” on BRICS — the official in charge of this year’s summit — insisted that “It’s never been a topic amongst BRICS countries including amongst their finance ministers, we have never spoken about de-dollarisation.
“What we have done, which is nothing new, we signed an agreement several years ago, an interbank agreement, paving the way to trade in our local currencies. So what we are saying is that we need to trade in our currencies.
“The NDB (BRICS New Development Bank) has taken a decision to say that 30% of its loans can be borrowed in local currency. So these are things we are saying; we want to promote greater trade, greater investments using local currencies.” DM