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On August 24, the BRICS countries issued, as part of their declaration, the expansion of the pact after days of talks in Johannesburg, South Africa. Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa decided to include six new member countries — Argentina, Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates — effective January 1, 2024. This expansion will more than double the pact’s membership and see BRICS represent almost half the world’s population.
Celebration in Beijing
China was quick to celebrate the expansion as a foreign policy victory. Chinese leader Xi Jinping and the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs declared the Summit “historic.” Xinhua News Agency called it a “new starting point for BRICS cooperation” and an amplification of voices from the developing world.
As BRICS chair country last year, China led the push for expansion, which its delegation said would “inject fresh vitality” into the bloc’s cooperation. At this year’s BRICS summit, Xi Jinping’s broad praise of BRICS as the basis for a “shared future for humankind” underlines China’s enthusiastic support and faith in BRICS.
While BRICS has struggled to make concrete achievements in the past, their momentum appears to be shifting. This expansion would have BRICS overtake the G7 in combined Gross Domestic Product, with the BRICS economies growing at much higher demographic and economic rates than the G7 members.
The BRICS expansion could also decrease tensions in the Middle East. It provides a new forum for dialogue between arch-enemies Iran and Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which has undergone periods of tension with the two states. Simultaneously, Iran’s induction into BRICS could increase tensions with the United States and NATO on top of Russia and China’s existing leadership in the bloc.
A Way In For Illiberal States
With the expansion, BRICS provides an alternative for developing countries seeking economic cooperation outside the G7 and G20. The G7 and G20 condition membership on specific value codes and foreign policy commitments (such as democracy) have previously excluded major developing countries. Despite being an economic powerhouse, China has been excluded from membership due to its human rights record. Russia was kicked out of the G8 in 2014 due to its invasion of Crimea. The Iranian regime became isolated from Western economic institutions through sanctions. India is also at risk of exclusion from the international trading system due to its renewed ethnic-nationalist policy.
China has been careful not to frame the expansion as challenging the current international order. Chinese media officials have recently reaffirmed China’s contribution to the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. At the BRICS Summit, China again committed itself to the goals and principles of the UN Charter, a claim the United Nations disputes.
Chinese officials and experts have also highlighted the opportunity BRICS presents to the non-aligned developing world. In the words of President Xi, the expansion “meets the expectations of the international community and serves the common interests of emerging markets and developing nations.” Alternative governance models, including those prioritizing state-led economic development over free-market representative democracy, will now face fewer barriers to international representation.
For China, BRICS will extend its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) by helping “[achieve] greater and faster development rates,” as shared by Abdel-Sattar Eshrah, Secretary General of the Egyptian-Chinese Business Council. Speaking to this dynamic, Wang Lei, Director of Beijing Normal University’s Center for BRICS Cooperation Studies, said that “the inclusion of the six additional countries in BRICS will help further demonstrate the solidarity among the Global South and demonstrate the BRICS spirit of openness, inclusiveness and win-win cooperation.”
BRICS, unlike Western-led economic blocs like the G7, Association of Southeast Asian Nations, and the Organization of American States, is not dependent upon social and political values but on mutual economic and diplomatic interest.
By expanding BRICS, China increases its footing in the developing world, helping spread its stated model of “non-intervention in the political affairs of sovereign countries” in more areas across the globe. BRICS members and prospective members, including Brazil and Ethiopia, have clarified that they are uninterested in the China-US-Russia geopolitical quarrel and prefer to take full advantage of the economic and diplomatic opportunities offered to all.
Xi called attention to this approach in his speech at the Summit, stating that “there are many civilizations and development paths in the world, and this is how the world should be. Human history will not end with a particular civilization or system. We do not barter away principles, succumb to external pressure, or act as vassals of others.” He also pointed out that the West is “ganging up to form exclusive groups and packaging their own rules as international norms are even more unacceptable.”
The BRICS, bolstered by China and its pursuit of rapid economic development, provides exactly that. Plans for expanded membership are already in the works, and participation is not restricted to any political or ideological basis. Competitors of BRICS, particularly the G7, might see their progress in membership stall in the face of the bloc’s broad appeal.
Developing Countries Want Change
Leaders in the developing world are already taking notice of the divide in approach between the BRICS and the G7, with some noticing that the BRICS presents an opportunity for states wanting to decouple from the West or those finding the West to be a coercive economic partner.
To that point, Mahasha Rampedi, editor-in-chief of African Times, shared with the People’s Daily that “Africans trust China far more than Western nations, and to be honest, I don’t think it’s just the Africans.” Polls throughout African nations echo this sentiment, outlining rising trust amongst Africans for China and decreasing confidence in American and Western leadership.
According to Zambian Deputy Secretary to the Cabinet for Finance and Economic Development, Siazongo Siakalenge, “China has been helping African countries to promote their industrial advancement, which is a commendable approach.” In 2023, China became Africa’s largest trading partner, topping $200 billion in annual trade with over 10,000 firms across the continent. China also lent over $160 billion in financing for public infrastructure projects to African countries between 2000 and 2020.
In leading the expansion, China sends a clear message to the United States and the G7: more developing countries will choose to cooperate with China if the G7 cannot lift political and ideological restrictions to membership.
Given that the leaders of G7 countries have continued to make values and the preservation of liberal order an essential principle of their bloc, it seems that the G7 may contribute to the increasing influence of the BRICS bloc, especially China. If the U.S. and G7 push litmus tests too directly, developing nations may simply join other blocs instead.
Edited by Anthony Hablak