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From quality to quantity. Why BRICS expansion benefits barely any of its members, and certainly not Russia

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On August 24, the BRICS group of countries concluded its regular summit. The event attracted the most attention in the alliance's recent history for multiple reasons: Vladimir Putin, who in the end never dared to fly to South Africa, sending Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov instead; expectations of a change in the group’s dynamics in light of the war in Ukraine; Xi Jinping's no-show for his keynote address; and finally, the first and most ambitious expansion of the bloc since 2010, which promises to double its size.

Expert opinions on the summit’s outcome vary dramatically: from a “very different, much less white-dominated world” (The Nation) to “a motley crew of failing states” (The Telegraph). The controversy is dictated by ideology rather than substance – which is very characteristic of the BRICS itself.

BRICS: a quest for a new identity

Since its formation in the late 2000s, BRICS has struggled to find its niche and clear format, which is not surprising for an alliance that was largely motivated by resentment toward the rich Global North – to the point of becoming an obsession.

In all that time, the group has achieved little but has not existed entirely in vain: apart from holding semi-formal annual forums, the member states managed to set up the BRICS Contingent Reserve Arrangement (CRA) – a joint monetary fund designed to provide an alternative to the International Monetary Fund – and an international bank called the New Development Bank (NDB). On paper, the institutions look good: the largest developing countries united to create an alternative financial infrastructure to make up for the flaws of the existing one. Developing countries can finally access finance on their own terms, without the domination of Europe and the U.S., and the hegemony of the U.S. dollar is about to end.

But in reality, both the CRA and the NDB have nothing on their competitors. Despite the impressive size of the member economies, the CRA is still one-tenth as big as the IMF. The NDB is about as successful: the bank has invested less in international projects in its entire existence than the World Bank spends in a single year. Talk about a common BRICS currency, which began as early as 2009, still has not yielded any tangible results. At the last summit, the issue was raised again – by Brazil instead of Russia and China, for a change. However, the common currency was not on the official meeting agenda, and BRICS states have shown no political will to take on this project.

The group's limited structural and economic successes are of little surprise: apart from their status as large developing countries, BRICS members have very little in common. China and India, the bloc's two leading powers, are constantly in a state of sluggish conflict; Russia has been cut off from the BRICS economic infrastructure due to its aggression; and Brazil and South Africa are far less interested than their counterparts in confronting the Global North.

Apart from the status of large developing countries, BRICS members have very little in common

Still, the disparate forum is striving to find its place under the sun and is even gradually gaining popularity: as of 2023, as many as 40 countries have expressed interest in joining the group. Their common ground is the aspiration for a “multipolar world” – a frequent theme mentioned at the summits and beyond, although the BRICS countries' understanding of this hypothetical multipolarity differs greatly across the alliance. The same idea prevailed at the last meeting in Johannesburg. And it's with the same slogan that BRICS announced its long-awaited expansion, welcoming as many as five new members. The legal grounds for the expansion had to be hastily created right at the summit.

The appeal of BRICS membership

There are several reasons for the bloc’s popularity. First, many developing countries of the Global South are dissatisfied with the existing global financial system. Inequality continues to grow, and the recent COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated it even further, in terms of both finance and access to other resources such as vaccines. Existing aid programs, grants, and loans from the World Bank or the IMF are often subject to burdensome political and economic requirements and criteria, therefore remaining inaccessible for many countries.

Inequality continues to grow, and the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated it even further, in terms of both finance and access to resources

Institutions like the World Bank realize this, too, and are trying to take countermeasures, like setting shared prosperity goals – but they're obviously not enough. Therefore, BRICS’ promises of building an alternative infrastructure hit the mark, despite limited practical value. After all, the opportunities for accessing new sources of financing through the BRICS countries, are realistic, if limited. Thus, China openly leverages BRICS as a platform to promote its own initiatives like the Belt and Road, which are quite popular among developing countries.

Second, developing countries fear their economic relations with the West may be jeopardized for one reason or another. Joining a bloc of large, purportedly “neutral” economies, like China, is simply diversification, a way to mitigate risks.

Other countries view joining the group as a way to improve political standing. Thus, Iran, which has remained in severe political and economic isolation for years, views BRICS as an opportunity to regain some of its influence and forge new partnerships.

Wealthy countries like the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, in turn, see BRICS membership as a door to new markets and want to play on the growing attention to BRICS countries.

What's going to happen to BRICS now?

There is no consensus on the impact of the expansion even within BRICS itself: India and South Africa fear that adding a large number of new members would weaken their influence and dilute the format and meaning of the bloc. The two countries aren't wrong. The current BRICS is already a fragmented and vague alliance, and the member states’ scarce common traits can only suffer from the inclusion of new countries. So far, South Africa has been the only BRICS economy with a GDP of less than a trillion dollars, but at least three new members (Ethiopia, Iran, and Egypt) are miles behind. As a result, the bloc will hardly be able to identify itself as a group of “largest developing countries” anymore.

Oddly enough, BRICS expansion is likely to become ideologically controversial too. The addition of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the UAE, and Iran immediately creates another seat of tension within the group. Although relations between the powers have improved somewhat recently, calling them stable would be a stretch. Moreover, the “anti-Western” foundations of the group have also been shaken, with Saudi Arabia and the UAE remaining the largest U.S. allies in the region. Consequently, the expansion of BRICS – or whatever it will be called – exacerbates its contradictions and weaknesses rather than enhances its strengths.

The expansion of BRICS exacerbates its contradictions and weaknesses rather than enhances its strengths

Russia's prospects in the group aren't rosy either. Already disconnected from BRICS institutions, Russia will face further dilution of its influence following the inclusion of new members, which could cause the group’s role as an “anti-Western coalition” to fade into the background.

Only Beijing remains in an unquestionable advantage. In this regard, one might recall that Xi missed his key summit speech for reasons unknown. However, speculations about his withering interest in the bloc are poorly grounded. Chinese diplomats, especially Xi Jinping himself, very rarely deviate from the protocol and script of speeches. Xi's “no-show” is more likely to speak to an extraneous circumstance, such as an illness, than to carry a political message.

In reality, China notably benefits from the result of the summit: the more countries join BRICS, the more blurred the dynamics within the group and the easier it is for Beijing to consolidate its status as an informal leader. The expansion offers even more opportunities for China to promote its investment programs and enhance foreign influence. Unsurprisingly, Xi has been more active than any other BRICS leader in calling for the bloc's expansion.

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