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Brics summit in South Africa to look at expanding group of five nations

Although economic development is the central theme of a Brics summit South Africa is hosting this week, expanding the group of five nations to increase its influence over world affairs is also high on the bloc’s agenda.

South Africa’s leader Cyril Ramaphosa will host Chinese president Xi Jinping, Brazil’s Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and Indian prime minister Narendra Modi at the three-day Johannesburg event, which opens on Tuesday. It is the 15th summit of the group now comprising Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa.

Russia’s Vladimir Putin will attend the conference virtually, though it is the first to be held in-person since 2019, as he faces an International Criminal Court (ICC) arrest warrant for alleged war crimes in Ukraine.

Were Putin to travel local authorities would be obliged to arrest him as South Africa is a member of The Hague-based International Criminal Court. Consequently a decision was taken in June by the Brics leaders that Russia’s president would stay away.

According to South African government statistics the Brics nations account for over 42 per cent of the world’s population, 30 per cent of its territory, 31.7 per cent of global GDP and 18 per cent of global trade. But only about 6 per cent of the group’s trade is between its current members. Until recently Brics has been regarded as more of an economic, development and financial alliance than a political one, but at last year’s summit officials from the member nations were mandated to look at a Brics expansion.

Last month the officials’ findings were handed over to member states’ foreign ministers, who then presented recommendations to the heads of state for the summit. Despite this details of exactly what will be discussed and announced at the conference have been scarce in the run-up.

The conference is themed Brics and Africa, so the continent’s development is expected to play a significant role. Despite Putin’s physical absence this year’s summit is being touted as the largest one to be held since the original four members – South Africa joined the group in 2010 – gathered for the first Brics summit in Yekaterinburg, Russia, in June 2009.

Aside from the current members’ delegations, 67 other heads of state and leaders of Global South bodies have been invited to attend. Indeed, interest in joining Brics has gathered pace in recent years as a growing number of nations seek to tap into a group that has positioned itself as a viable alternative to the unipolar world dominated by the US.

South African officials say 22 nations have formally applied to join the bloc, and the same number have informally shown an interest. The applicants include nations traditionally opposed to the West, such as Iran, Venezuela, and Cuba, so admitting them to a bloc already containing Russia and China could create further international tensions at a difficult time in global affairs.

Given that western nations are also major trading partners for South Africa, Brazil and India, Jo-Ansie Van Wyk, professor of international politics at the University of South Africa, believes Brics’s expansion will be dealt with sensitively, being promoted as an act of “unity, solidarity and cohesion” at the summit.

“Any announcements will be spun that these are the countries ready to join, that they are not the favourites but rather part of a staggered process that has already begun. What I’m really keen to see is what the requirements are to joining Brics,” she said.

Van Wyk said countries from the oil-rich Middle East – Bahrain, the United Arab Emeritus and Saudi Arabia have applied to join – are strong candidates as they would add financial clout to the bloc, which she expects to unveil new developmental institutions that require funding.

South Africa is also lobbying for the inclusion of other African states Nigeria, Kenya, Algeria, Egypt and Rwanda have all applied to join. But former ambassador of India to Denmark, Yogesh Gupta, told The Irish Times that equally vital to Brics’s development was the need to further develop relationships between its member states to tackle trade barriers and resolve currency issues among other things.

“My point is that expanding Brics is something that a few countries are talking about, but developing linkages and interactions between the existing members, these are equally important, and the summit should not lose sight of this,” he said.


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