After more than 40 countries expressed interest in joining, the question of whether BRICS would admit new members was finally answered during the group’s summit last week. Despite pre-summit reports of division over the potential expansion, leaders from the five-nation bloc announced that Saudi Arabia, Iran, Ethiopia, Egypt, Argentina and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) would join the group starting in 2024.

Leaders representing the five-nation BRICS bloc on stage at the group’s summit in Johannesburg, South Africa. August 24, 2023. (Government of South Africa/Flickr)
Leaders representing the five-nation BRICS bloc on stage at the group’s summit in Johannesburg, South Africa. August 24, 2023. (Government of South Africa/Flickr)

With the addition of these six countries, BRICS now represents 42 percent of the world’s population and 36 percent of global GDP. The primarily economic bloc was originally created as an alternative to the U.S.-led international order, with the goal of offering growing countries in the Global South a counterbalance to Western institutions.

BRICS’s consensus-based approach has hampered its effectiveness in the past, but the geopolitical factors driving its expansion — as well as the sometimes-conflicting strategic goals of its individual members — will have a major role in shaping the future of the international system. USIP experts examine what BRICS expansion means for its founding members (China, Brazil, Russia, India and South Africa) and what the recent summit can tell us about the bloc’s plans going forward.

China

Tugendhat: This gathering has largely been seen as a diplomatic victory for Chinese leader Xi Jinping. He was lauded with the “Order of South Africa” as he arrived; he scheduled meetings with African heads of state who joined as observers to the meetings; and he even managed to de-escalate tensions on the Sino-Indian border.

But above all this, China was able to see through an expansion of the bloc’s membership. This matters, because the BRICS combination of U.S. adversaries like Russia and Iran alongside U.S. partners like Brazil and India will force the United States to consider the security interests they may come to share.

On the negative side for China, its ambitions to reform the world’s financial architecture in favor of Global South interests continue to meet frustrations. We have heard a lot about the possibility of a shared BRICS currency in recent months, but this is unlikely to gain traction for many reasons.

For starters, it implies that BRICS members would hold larger amounts of each other’s currencies, and it’s unclear that any members of the new or expanded BRICS would wish to buy Russian rubles right now even if they could. Moreover, the Chinese yuan still struggles to internationalize meaningfully for its closed capital markets. And finally, the introduction of the Euro in 2002 has had very little impact on the dominance of the U.S. dollar in the 20 years since, so it seems unlikely that a middle-income alternative would pose much more of a threat.

China’s attempts to drive the New Development Bank may fare somewhat better, but it is still unclear how much funding it may receive from existing or new members. It also remains to be seen how the bank might distinguish itself from already-existing Global South development banks. Furthermore, the New Development Bank has suffered from its dependence on sometimes fractious relations between the founding members, such as former Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s sometimes hostile engagements with China and the fallout over India and China’s 2020 border clashes. It’s possible that BRICS institutions will frequently fall victim to similar political disruption.

Which brings me to a final consideration. China’s ambition to expand BRICS membership has been analyzed by some as an attempt to establish a counterpoint to the G7. And yet, China may have inadvertently created something far closer to the G20: a big grouping with no secretariat, no legal authority to their decisions and often no consensus.

With so many competing views, this expansion may introduce more challenges than opportunities for the founding members, especially when it comes to creating alternative institutions to the current world order. The enlarged BRICS will undoubtedly serve as an important forum for global conversations among middle-income countries, but that may be its biggest impact on global affairs.

India

Markey: This year’s BRICS summit was a tricky assignment for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who aimed to tackle several thorny issues: balancing India’s ties with Russia and the West, managing BRICS expansion, and addressing border tensions with China.

Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, New Delhi has tried to balance close ties with Moscow (including major oil and defense deals, as well as continued diplomatic relations) against pressure from Western friends and partners like the United States. In part to sidestep Western ire, India transformed its July Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit into a virtual-only gathering, and Putin’s absence from the BRICS summit made India’s life easier. To complete New Delhi’s balancing act, Modi followed up with a friendly phone call to Putin a few days after returning home.

On BRICS expansion, India simultaneously sought to preserve its privileged stature as a founding member, advance its claim to leadership as a voice of the Global South, and resist moves by Beijing to dominate the group by packing it with overtly China-centric partners.

Battling widespread speculation that India initially objected to the expansion agenda, Modi took pains to express enthusiasm for the added members. The new member list could have been worse for India, which enjoys increasingly warm relations with Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Only Iran’s admission creates minor headaches, as it reinforces the group’s anti-Western reputation and saddles the bloc with another prominent member facing U.S. sanctions.

Back in India, the most anticipated meeting of the summit was between Modi and Xi. The two leaders had barely spoken in person since the summer of 2020, when Chinese and Indian forces along the Line of Actual Control engaged in their bloodiest border skirmishes in over four decades.

In the end, a closed-door, “informal” one-on-one session bore all the hallmarks of intensive negotiations. There were no prior announcements, dueling readouts (with India’s more upbeat than China’s), and a day-long delay before the exchange was publicly disclosed. The meeting achieved no obvious diplomatic breakthrough, and Indian opposition politicians pounced on Modi. Overall, the experience will only raise the stakes for the next major Modi-Xi exchange, likely to happen in New Delhi at the G-20 summit in September.

Brazil

Randolph: In an increasingly polarized world driven by competition between the United States and China, Brazil is finding it more difficult to assert its relevance and leadership, as demonstrated by last week’s BRICS expansion announcement. China managed to secure the expansion despite the reservations of India and Brazil — shifting the forum from one grounded in alternative economic development to one intended to directly challenge Western-dominated forums and institutions.

Brazil’s President Lula publicly stated during last week’s summit that the BRICS forum is not meant as “a counterpoint to the G7, G20 or the United States,” instead characterizing the group as a means of organizing developing countries. To that end, President Lula exclusively focused his speech to the forum on the bloc’s economic nature, emphasizing its importance in securing greater financing for developing economies, achieving fairer global trade and building more Global South-driven economic growth.

However, Chinese leader Xi articulated a much broader mission for the group in a speech to the forum read by Chinese Commerce Minister Wang Wentao, laying out a vision in which BRICS works to reform global governance and expand political and security cooperation among members. This vision, as well as the inclusion of Iran among the six new member states, belies President Lula’s insistence that the group is not taking on an anti-West stance and places Brazil in a progressively more uncomfortable position in its relationship with the United States.

This is not a new approach for President Lula, who has historically sought to elevate Brazil on the international stage by serving as an intermediary for competing powers. In 2010, he traveled to Iran to try and facilitate a nuclear deal between Iran and the United States. Most recently, President Lula’s government has struggled to finesse its attempts to broker peace between Russia and Ukraine.

It remains to be seen what Brazil stands to gain from its concession to China in remaking the nature of BRICS. Brazil is widely considered to have supported the expansion of BRICS in return for China’s support of Brazil’s addition to the U.N. Security Council as a permanent member, alongside fellow BRICS country India. The compromise appears lopsided from the start — China walks away with immediate gains and Brazil receives only hollow promises, given that U.N. Security Council reform appears unlikely. 

Perhaps President Lula will be able to use China’s support to his advantage during his expected meeting with President Biden before the U.N. General Assembly. However, Brazil may find itself increasingly one power among many struggling for relevance in the ongoing competition between the United States and China to define the future of the international order.

South Africa

Verjee: For South Africa, the current BRICS chair and host, the summit can be divided into two halves.

During the run-up to the meeting, the possibility of hosting Russian President Vladimir Putin given his International Criminal Court (ICC) warrant loomed large. Had Putin attended, South Africa would have been legally required to detain him. The episode evoked the 2015 visit of then-Sudanese dictator Omar el-Bashir, who narrowly escaped arrest after attending the African Union summit in Johannesburg, leading to a severe rebuke of the South African government by both domestic and international courts. Ultimately, Putin’s absence from the BRICS summit defused any significant domestic controversy in South Africa.

However, the summit itself brought few tangible outcomes for South Africa, whose membership in BRICS is largely symbolic. South Africa is the smallest and most economically insignificant member of the club. The expansion of BRICS will diminish South Africa’s significance even further — the two African states joining, Egypt and Ethiopia, are both more populous than South Africa and are experiencing higher rates of economic growth, albeit in much smaller economies.

Perhaps more important than the summit was the bilateral visit from President Xi the day before, as well as the preparatory visits that Chinese trade ministers and business groups made just weeks earlier. As Xi himself pointed out, this was his sixth visit to South Africa. South Africa was the first African country to sign the Belt and Road cooperation document, and China is South Africa’s largest trading partner. Bilateral trade volumes continue to grow, as does Chinese foreign investment in South Africa. Summit or not, South Africa’s relations with the other BRICS countries remain far less important.

Russia

Sharad/Ashby: As Russia deals with economic sanctions and international condemnation for its war against Ukraine, BRICS has become an important forum for Moscow to demonstrate it is not internationally isolated. Russia not only needs BRICS — it needs BRICS to expand in order for Moscow to advance its own foreign policy.

Evading an ICC arrest warrant, President Putin had no choice but to deliver his summit speech remotely. Similar to his message at the Russia-Africa Summit in July, Putin used his BRICS speech to align Russian foreign policy with Global South countries and accused the United States and the West of advancing a rules-based system that hinders most countries politically, economically and militarily. He also sought to frame the war against Ukraine as a defensive mechanism against perceived Western aggression.

Touching on the economic fallout from that war, Putin deflected blame for exiting the Black Sea grain deal — a move that has led to increased food costs in many of the countries attending the summit. Instead, Putin proposed an increase in trade between Global South countries, which would further mitigate shocks to his own economy due to Western-led sanctions.

After over a decade in existence, it remains to be seen whether BRICS will become a force politically and economically within the international system. Russia is banking that it will, based on its support for BRICS expansion during the summit.

Russia has varying degrees of relations with the new BRICS members, with its strongest bilateral partner among them being Egypt. The motley crew of established and new BRICS countries works in Russia’s favor, though — particularly economically, as the UAE, Iran and Saudi Arabia add energy heft to the group.

From Russia’s perspective, BRICS and its new members will enable the Russian government to further push for a multipolar world order — a key talking point under Putin’s rule. Russian officials also reiterated aspirations for the bloc to decrease their dependency on the U.S. dollar and to further the goals of the Strategy for BRICS Economic Partnership 2025.

Kirk Randolph is a program officer with USIP’s Latin America program.

Related Publications

La guerra entre Israel y Hamas divide a América Latina a través de líneas partidistas

La guerra entre Israel y Hamas divide a América Latina a través de líneas partidistas

Wednesday, November 8, 2023

By: Mary Speck, Ph.D.;  Nicolás Devia-Valbuena;  Lucila Del Aguila;  Sebastián Guerra

A medida que aumentan las bajas civiles en el conflicto entre Israel y Hamás, muchos líderes latinoamericanos están intensificando sus críticas al gobierno israelí. Bolivia recientemente se convirtió en el primer país en romper relaciones con Israel; Chile, Colombia y Honduras llamaron a sus embajadores para consultas; y diplomáticos de Argentina, Brasil y México han condenado a Israel por su violencia, exigiendo un cese inmediato de las hostilidades.

Type: Analysis

Global Policy

Israel-Hamas War Divides Latin America Along Partisan Lines

Israel-Hamas War Divides Latin America Along Partisan Lines

Wednesday, November 8, 2023

By: Mary Speck, Ph.D.;  Nicolás Devia-Valbuena;  Lucila Del Aguila;  Sebastián Guerra

As casualties mount in the Israel-Hamas conflict, many Latin American leaders are intensifying their criticism of the Israeli government. Bolivia recently became the first country to sever ties with Israel; Chile, Colombia and Honduras recalled their ambassadors for consultations; and diplomats from Argentina, Brazil and Mexico have blasted Israel for the bloodshed, calling for an immediate end to hostilities.

Type: Analysis

Global Policy

Sameer Lalwani on the G20 Summit

Sameer Lalwani on the G20 Summit

Tuesday, September 5, 2023

By: Sameer P. Lalwani, Ph.D.

At the G20 summit, the United States should focus on engaging with the Global South. “A lot of these countries are worried about bread-and-butter issues,” says USIP’s Sameer Lalwani. “In the absence of U.S. leadership at an institutional level … there’s going to be other actors that fill that vacuum.”

Type: Podcast

Henry Tugendhat on the Geopolitical Impact of BRICS Expansion

Henry Tugendhat on the Geopolitical Impact of BRICS Expansion

Tuesday, August 29, 2023

By: Henry Tugendhat

The expansion of BRICS is a significant step in the bloc’s push to counterbalance the Western-led international order. But as a consensus-based group, “the question remains to what extent will they agree on what [that] alternative world order might look like,” says USIP’s Henry Tugendhat.

Type: Podcast

View All Publications