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

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.

By Queenin Masuabi and Peter Fabricius

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.

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.”

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. 

Ethiopia and Egypt were endorsed by South Africa.

Article courtesy of Daily Maverick