Can Russia and China Breathe New Life Into BRICS?

The global south is hungry for an alternative to the Western-dominated order, but BRICS may not be up to the task.

Russian President Vladimir Putin greets Chinese President Xi Jinping during a welcome ceremony at the start of the 7th BRICS summit in Ufa, Russia.
Russian President Vladimir Putin greets Chinese President Xi Jinping during a welcome ceremony at the start of the 7th BRICS summit in Ufa, Russia.
Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) greets Chinese President Xi Jinping during a welcome ceremony at the start of the 7th BRICS summit in Ufa, Russia, on July 9, 2015. Alexander Nemenov/AFP via Getty Images

The next test of whether top U.S. adversaries can erode its role as the leading global superpower will come in the form of a major diplomatic confab in South Africa. 

The next test of whether top U.S. adversaries can erode its role as the leading global superpower will come in the form of a major diplomatic confab in South Africa. 

Next week, leaders of the so-called BRICS group—Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa—will convene in Johannesburg for a major summit, where Moscow and Beijing aim to solidify a counterbalance to the Western-led international system. Both Russia and China are keen to breathe new life into the BRICS bloc to show the world that there are alternatives to the patchwork U.S.-led alliances and institutions that have dominated global affairs for decades. 

There’s clearly a growing appetite among other countries for an alternative to the U.S.-led system: Some 40 countries, from Argentina to Saudi Arabia to Kazakhstan, have voiced interest in joining BRICS, while more than 67 world leaders and dignitaries were invited to next week’s summit. 

“The global south will be watching next week’s BRICS summit closely in the hopes that the rising grouping of global and middle powers makes some progress in filling the considerable gaps left by America’s shoddy global governance,” said Sarang Shidore, director of the global south program at the Quincy Institute think tank. Even as emerging-market economies reel from the shocks of the pandemic and Russia’s war in Ukraine, Washington has offered little support, instead pursuing an aggressive campaign of interest rate hikes that has exacerbated economic turmoil around the world.

Next week’s summit harkens back to the days of the Bandung Conference, where 29 governments from Asia, Africa, and the Middle East assembled during the Cold War and laid the groundwork for the nonaligned movement. Like then, BRICS serves as an alternative, if inchoate, effort to push back against the hegemon of the day—albeit one that has been complicated by China’s and Russia’s membership.

“BRICS has tapped into a demand that wasn’t being met elsewhere,” said Rebecca Ray, a senior researcher at the Boston University Global Development Policy Center, who noted that countries that aren’t even applying for membership are attending the summit in Johannesburg. “The question is: What do they want their role to be in responding to that?”

There’s no clear answer yet. And experts don’t expect one to emerge from the upcoming summit, with few details yet released on the agenda or real deliverables. Complicating the matter is the fact that BRICS countries have vastly disparate national interests, and vague proposals to expand the bloc’s membership and economic influence seem poised to stumble out of the gate. 

India and China are at loggerheads; South Africa is caught between a diplomatic rock and a hard place over its ties to Russia amid the war in Ukraine; and Brazil has done little to stick its neck out for Russia, despite its historically nonaligned foreign policy. All BRICS countries, even China, face economic headwinds that make any future plans to challenge the U.S.-led Group of 7’s spot at the top of the global economy more pipe dream than reality.

The grouping is currently in a “sweet spot, where it’s fulfilling its role, it helps members constrain the United States to some extent, [and] it strengthens ties between the BRICS,” said Oliver Stuenkel, a professor at the School of International Relations at Brazil’s Fundação Getulio Vargas. “But I think if there’s more ambitious projects, then it will inevitably strain this grouping and expose the divergences.”

For Russia, the BRICS summit is an opportunity to demonstrate that it no longer needs the West following Western efforts to isolate Moscow on the world stage in the wake of its bloody war in Ukraine. But that opportunity comes with an awkward footnote: Russian President Vladimir Putin is no longer attending in person as he has a warrant out for his arrest over war crimes in Ukraine from the International Criminal Court (ICC). South Africa, as a member of the ICC, would have been legally obligated to honor the arrest warrant. 

China, meanwhile, is keen to position itself as the de facto leader of the global south and the friend of choice to countries worldwide that feel they have been undervalued or left behind by Washington and its most powerful and wealthy allies in Europe and Asia. Beijing has long pushed for the grouping’s enlargement, even though its ambitions have sparked pushback from other BRICS members.

“China is the only country that is not concerned at all about diluting the prestige of BRICS” by expanding it to more countries, Stuenkel said. “For China, I think it really makes sense to expand so that the BRICS can become an element in a more China-centric order—a Chinese-led system of different structures like the One Belt, One Road; the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank; [and the] BRICS bank,” he said, referring to China’s leading global infrastructure investment program, the Chinese-backed multilateral lender, and the nascent New Development Bank established by BRICS countries just under a decade ago.

Yet Beijing has had a harder time getting the other BRICS members on board, further underscoring their competing visions of the group’s future. The idea of expansion has worried India and Brazil in particular, both of which have taken pride in the group’s exclusivity and fear that an open door will diminish its prestige. 

“Brazil is very proud of its BRICS membership,” Stuenkel said. “If you’re part of a very exclusive club, it makes sense that you don’t want to see the club becoming open to everyone.” 

One major proposal some leaders have floated ahead of the summit is developing a BRICS common currency to hedge against the U.S. dollar, although it is not on the summit’s agenda and experts are highly skeptical of the plan. Economist Jim O’Neill, who first coined the BRICS term in 2001, blasted the idea of a BRICS currency as “ridiculous” and “absurd” earlier this week.

“The idea that five countries with very divergent interests and trajectories can somehow form a coherent enough union to expand its membership and stand up this hare-brained idea of a BRICS currency seems really far-fetched to me,” said J. Peter Pham, a former U.S. diplomatic envoy to African regions during the Trump administration. “I don’t expect anything of substance to come out of this summit, unless you consider the lack of substance as itself politically substantive.”

Still, even without a common currency, Beijing has capitalized on the BRICS grouping to boost its long-standing bid to internationalize the renminbi and slash its dependence on the dollar. In the run-up to the BRICS summit, a growing number of countries, including Brazil and Argentina, have used the renminbi in trade to cope with a shortage of dollars and curry favor with Beijing. These efforts are set to continue long after Johannesburg, with BRICS countries expected to deliberate how to ramp up the use of local currencies in trade at the summit. They are also set to discuss a potential common payments system and committee focused on a joint currency—although experts don’t expect any challenges to the existing global financial architecture. 

Talk of a BRICS common currency is “really a reflection of a desire among some segments of the world to have some counterweight to the U.S., the U.S. economy, the dollar,” said Daniel McDowell, an expert in international political economy at Syracuse University. But “I think most of this is just in fantasy land, because I don’t see any world in which it is really going to emerge in the way some people might hope.”

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

Christina Lu is a reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @christinafei

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