At the recently ended BRICS IV Summit in South Africa, members pledged to enhance solidarity and cooperation on the basis of consensus. Yet with the addition of Argentina, Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia and the United Arab Emirates, that consensus-based cooperation seems preposterous – it was difficult with just the five!
BRICS objectives are wide and far-reaching, ranging from the de-dollarization of the global economy to reforming the international system. Adding new members to its motley assortment of members strengthens the group in some ways but also reveals its limitations in others.
First, the BRICS members’ economic and political capabilities are not aligned – hence the members continue to function not as allies but as individual states. Their regime types vary, and so do their interests. Cracks between the democracies, South Africa and Brazil on one side, and the authoritarians, China and Russia, on the other, will likely widen with the admission of Iran, Ethiopia, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and UAE, which rank low on human rights.
Second, pledges to coordinate actions among BRICS members are not binding. Member states of BRICS speak multilaterally but act bilaterally. This is partly because as of 2018 China contributes more than two-thirds of BRICS’s global GDP contribution, making it the dominant economic power in the group. Unlike the other BRICS countries, China can achieve its geo-economic and geopolitical objectives on its own. A good example of this is the fact that President Xi Jinping met several African leaders in the China-Africa Leaders Dialogue Summit on 24 August 2023 on the sidelines of the BRICS event, demonstrating China’s capacity to unilaterally achieve its objectives on the continent.
Third, the same asymmetries influence perceptions and risk regarding their individual and collective engagement with each other and other countries/regions. South Africa, for instance, considers Africa to be its region of influence but Brazil, Russia, India and China all have their own ambitions on the continent. This makes it difficult for these five countries to work together in BRICS to harness the diplomatic leverage of African countries – for example in the votes they command within the United Nations – in support of their bid to reform the international economic order.
Fourth it is not always clear what BRICS is for and, importantly, who it is for. The reformist agenda of the BRICS has at times seemed to effectively be to challenge Western hegemony, but without clearly articulating how it intends to represent the non-Western world, in part because the anti-Western agenda of China and Russia is not necessarily shared by other members of the group such as Brazil and South Africa. This challenge is likely to intensify with the admission of Iran and Ethiopia, which will encourage BRICS to adopt an increasingly anti-Western position that will not necessarily align with the interests of African states such as Botswana and Zambia.
The effect of all of these challenges is that BRICS plays second fiddle to the individual interests and foreign policy objectives of its most powerful members. It is this competition among BRICS countries, and the difficult question of how to respond to the growing focus of the Unites States on containing the rise of China, that is likely to determine the success of the initiative – and whether further expansion will strengthen the group or sink it.
Obert Hodzi (@oberthom) is a Senior Lecturer in Politics at the University of Liverpool, UK.