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BRICS expansion adds clout to bloc, but also imports new tensions

BRICS expansion adds clout to bloc, but also imports new tensions
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa (far right), with fellow BRICS leaders President of Brazil Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (third from right) and President of China Xi Jinping (second from right) pose for a photo with delegates, including the six nations invited to join the BRICS group, Argentina, Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, during the closing day of the BRICS Summit at the Sandton Convention Centre on 24 August 2023. (Photo: Per-Anders Pettersson / Getty Images)

Expanding BRICS from five to 11 members offers the bloc greater economic and political clout, but could also create tensions between members and with the West.

Admitting six new members to BRICS will add heft to the bloc’s efforts to rebalance the global economic and political order. But it will also bring its own problems, including importing new tensions.

And, in particular, accepting Iran raises the prospects of souring relations with the US and the wider West.

The five BRICS leaders announced on Thursday after their 15th summit, in Johannesburg, that they would admit Iran, Egypt, Ethiopia, Argentina, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates as full members on 1 January 2024. Twenty-two countries had formally applied for membership, and wrangling over which to admit delayed by a day the release of the summit declaration and the announcement of the new members.

At the BRICS outreach summit on Thursday, when the BRICS leaders were joined by about 60 other world leaders, they all agreed that the expansion of BRICS from five to 11 members would give it greater clout.

Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva said the addition of the six members would increase the combined GDP of the BRICS countries to 37% of global GDP in purchasing power parity terms and increase its share of the world population to 46%. He dismissed concerns that the bloc would become too unwieldy, saying its expanded membership would help it to find creative solutions to the problems facing the world.

Anil Sooklal, South Africa’s chief diplomat or “Sherpa” on BRICS, said that taking on three oil-rich countries — Iran, Saudi Arabia and the UAE — would bring in a new part of the global economy which had not been represented and would further strengthen the bloc.

He dismissed concerns that admitting Iran could fundamentally alter the character of BRICS and antagonise the US and the West.

“Not at all. Iran has no problem with BRICS. It’s the West that has imposed unilateral sanctions against BRICS,” he added, referring to Western sanctions on Russia and Iran.

“BRICS doesn’t recognise unilateral sanctions. Iran will add value, so will Saudi Arabia and the UAE.”

Li Kexin, the Chinese director-general of international economic affairs, also dismissed these concerns, insisting that BRICS was not an anti-Western alliance and that the expansion did not change that. “We are not seeking confrontation,” he insisted.

He was asked, though, if accepting Iran as a new member would not heighten tensions with the US, which has a hostile relationship with Tehran. Li recalled that China had recently mediated a reconciliation between Iran and its regional rival Saudi Arabia.

“Happily, they both joined BRICS together,” he added, saying that BRICS could now become a platform for continuing to improve relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Potential tension

However, Gustavo de Carvalho, a senior researcher on Russia-Africa ties at the South African Institute of International Relations, cautioned that the expanded membership could import some problems.

He noted that Lula had championed Brazil’s neighbour Argentina, which currently, like Brazil, has a progressive government. However, he warned that either a centre-right or a far-right party in Argentina was favoured to win the elections in October and this could usher in an anti-BRICS government.

Despite China’s brokering of a reconciliation deal between Iran and Saudi Arabia, he said, there were still considerable tensions between them. 

He believed that admitting Egypt and Ethiopia could import the tensions between the two countries over Ethiopia’s construction of the giant Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on the Blue Nile, which Cairo says could endanger its vital water supply.

De Carvalho said relations between Iran and Argentina remained strained by suspicions that Iran had been behind a major terrorist attack on a Jewish centre in Buenos Aires in 1994.

Nevertheless, he added that BRICS was already an organisation of five countries with very different interests and that China and India had continuing border disputes which had recently flared into warfare. 

De Carvalho said he believed Russia had sponsored Iran’s admission not only for ideological or geopolitical reasons, but for economic reasons as it sought new markets in the Middle East and Africa to replace those lost in Europe because of sanctions against its invasion of Ukraine.

He said South Africa had backed Egypt and Ethiopia to get another African country into the bloc.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE were probably backed by China and India, respectively, though he added there was probably wide consensus on admitting the rich oil states, not least because they would boost the bloc’s economic heft and make the move towards trading in local currencies — rather than the US dollar — more viable.

Read more in Daily Maverick: ‘BRICS bank’ throws weight behind use of local currencies for trade and financing

Criteria for membership

Sooklal said the guiding principles for the selection of additional member states had been finalised by heads of state only on Tuesday. 

These included that countries should have a substantial population, should be from the Global South and be in good standing in their regions. They also sought to have a fair geographic representation, coupled with diversity. 

“I think it is a good mix because it is one of the guiding principles. We admitted a country — Argentina — from Latin America, two from Africa, Egypt and Ethiopia, and three from Western Asia. We are looking to develop the criteria for partner countries, and ministers have been tasked to formulate criteria,” he said.

Li disclosed that until the last minute, the five BRICS leaders had only intended to admit new members as BRICS partners. But they had then realised they had to take the candidates more seriously and admit them as full members. He said the BRICS foreign ministers had been tasked with establishing partnerships with the others in the list of 22 that had formally applied for membership but had not been granted it this week.

Sooklal said even with 11 countries, the expanded BRICS was a small group out of the totality of the Global South.

“The door is not shut on the other members who have not been admitted. So we now have to work on modalities of how we go about partner countries and make a determination on when a further expansion will be appropriate.”

Read more in Daily Maverick: BRICS expansion sees Argentina, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Egypt, Ethiopia and UAE welcomed into the network

There has been much speculation about whether BRICS would change its name and some tongue-twisting new acronyms have been proposed on social media.

But Sooklal said he did not think the name would change — or at most would change to BRICS-Plus. He noted that the G77 + China had not changed its name even though it now had 120 members.

“The name BRICS has become a global brand in terms of championing the Global South. So we are confident the term BRICS will remain.”

Sooklal explained that it was important the six new members fully embraced all dimensions of BRICS cooperation and fully grasped how BRICS functioned. He believed the differences between the countries would not be a stumbling block for the forum.

“We are not saying BRICS must be a homogeneous entity — the global community is not homogeneous. Yes, there are differences, but we are not bringing those into the BRICS group; we are mature enough to bracket those,” he said.

Many were surprised by Indonesia’s exclusion from the expansion while Ethiopia was asked to join the grouping instead. 

Daily Maverick understands that the BRICS leaders could not reach a consensus about inviting Indonesia, with one country refusing to back this move.

Ethiopia and Egypt were endorsed by South Africa. Daily Maverick understands that the inclusion of Ethiopia was because South Africa did not only want to include a country from North Africa while it also felt that Egypt was perceived as a Middle Eastern country. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Mark Cowell says:

    Not a single female face……

  • jcdville stormers says:

    The world is in a sorry state because we elect the fools that rule us.

  • Cornay Bester says:

    Controlled press, controlled property controlled thoughts, controlled religion, controlled women, controlled children, controlled sex, controlled economics, controlled minorities, …..

  • Jo Redeker says:

    Our government is so anti-west and so very gullible to team up with some of those countries.

  • Andy Gwijane says:

    Cry louder and harder

  • Johan Mynhardt says:

    Global South?
    From the original “BRICS”, only Brazil and South Africa is South on the globe. What did I miss?

  • Trevor Thompson says:

    This country is so obsessed with being anti-west, it cannot see the forest for the trees. Does it not matter that those we have teamed up with are delinquent in some or many ways with regard to social norms, morals, integrity, and best practices.
    Why cant we do the right thing and support those fundamentals of our own constitution when evaluating who to sidle up to?
    The obvious answer is because we are ourselves delinquent at heart.

  • tinned says:

    Wonder why Australia/NZ aren’t rushing to join hands with such charming regimes like Iran, Saudi, China and Putin-land.
    Well done Cyril..

  • Peter Dexter says:

    BRICS membership clearly isn’t dependent on democratic values or the human rights that the ANC fought so hard for during the struggle years.

    • Louis Sweidan says:

      ANC’s fight for rights is a smokescreen and makes their fight seem virtuous. They are in it for the spoils of the fight. One has to have a single brain cell to believe them.

    • Cheryl Siewierski says:

      Yeah, it’s gross. The argument (clearly just a cop-out) is that the grouping is about trade – we don’t have the right to impose ‘our’ values on any sovereign nation just to do our shopping there. It’s almost as though sanctions against the old apartheid South Africa should never have happened by their standards. The hypocrisy is real, and I hate the direction that this beautiful country is headed in. Hang on to the Constitution, free press, and equal rights, Folks – I suspect it’s going to get a little more authoritarian in here.

  • Confucious Says says:

    Entrenching the “us” versus “them” theme even more so. The ANC has fallen so far off of its moral high horse that its lower than snake full of lead!

  • Oom Dugk says:

    BRICS is all about China’s desire for a new world order.

    India is hedging its bets and competing with China. The others are along for the ride…

  • Beyond Fedup says:

    Iran in, Cuba and Venezuela to follow no doubt. What next! Burma, Pol Pot if he was alive. The buffoon Cyril the spineless has no shame in sprouting that SA policies are based on human values and rights??? The man is a master of speaking with a forked tongue, false and hypocritical beyond belief. He has learnt well from Lavrov and the despicable Russians who are globe specialists in misinformation, distortion, lies and propaganda. Lots of human rights, freedom, democracy in these countries as well as in Russia, China, Saudi Arabia etc. It reminds one of the miserable days of East Germany – calling themselves the German Democratic Republic where vile communism and STASI ruled the roost. I am not anti-BRICS per se, if it means breaking down barriers and fostering trade but some of the rogue nations and bestial characters in the grouping are highly questionable and my suspicion is that its main purpose is anti West, no matter how much they deny it. You make your bed, you lie in it and of course suffer the consequences instead of screaming racism, exploitation etc. when things don’t go your way.

  • beatti says:

    If the Devil cast his net, what a catch. More criminal enterprises

  • George 007 says:

    The US could care less about Iran joining BRICS (or whatever they will call it) and said so yesterday, The US has long-standing and strong ties to all of the countries admitted yesterday — with the exception of Iran. Nothing to see here.

    From the NY Times yesterday:

    “American officials have sought to play down the impact of the group’s expansion plans. On Tuesday, Jake Sullivan, the White House national security adviser, told reporters that the Biden administration is “not looking at the BRICS as evolving into some kind of geopolitical rival to the United States or anyone else.”

    He said that the United States had “strong positive” relations with Brazil, India and South Africa, adding that “we will continue to manage our relationship with China; and we will continue to push back on Russia’s aggression.”

  • Russ H says:

    What a motley crew-freedom of speech and basic human rights are not important !
    The ANC ‘s moral compass is spinning like a fan !!

  • Janet Askew says:

    Dodgy human rights records and not a woman in sight!

  • Bob Dubery says:

    Now we only get to host a conference every 11th year. A savings on hospitality, not to mention jet fuel! Plus now we can let Argentina or Ethiopia explain why they are not going to arrest Putin the moment his foot hits the tarmac. This reduces the national blood pressure, saves on column inches, and is one less court case for the DA.


  • Desmond Davidson says:

    “Bric-a-brac” would be an appropriate name for this new motley crew…

  • ALEX TAPLIN says:

    Are we berserk??? We seem to be trying to create a bloc of the world’s worst despots – The Humanitarian injustices doled out by this motley crew is just devastating including our own President whose party has all but relegated SA to a Banana republic, with pretty much zero repercussions for the economic devastation they have unleased upon his so-called supporters. The ANC will learn a few more devious tricks from this lot. Not a single country amongst them is not currently accused of some atrocity or another. What’s the saying ” Birds of a feather flock together”.

  • Johan Buys says:

    Canada, Norway and the USA are larger oil & gas exporters than Iran. Did we send them an invite?

    It is a bit surprising that Nigeria did not crack an invite. We also missed North Korea, Afghanistan, Syria, Belarus and a host of pariah states.

  • Margie Worthington-Smith Worthington-Smith says:

    For fun I asked ChatGPT to create an acronym that now includes the new countries to replace BRICS: here goes: GREAT SCRIBERIA. It suggested it could stand for “Global Resurgence: Economic Alliances, Trade, Strategic Cooperation, Resource Integration, and Bilateral Exchange Relations In Alliances.”…

  • Johann Olivier says:

    Well! That’s sorted, then. What a powerful, bold challenge to the US dollar as the world’s reserve currency. And so concludes another edition of The Goon Show!

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