The BRICS bang! – Signals from BRICS enlargement to South, West and North

The BRICS group – Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa – invite six countries to join them for a BRICS+. The final list of invitees is an odd bunch: Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Iran from the Middle East, Argentina from Latin America and Egypt and Ethiopia from Africa, with the former also being an Arab state. This decision on specific members came after apparently tough discussions amongst current membership, as interests varied widely. Yet, the return of geopolitics seems to have revitalised a disparate group. Why (only) these six, what are likely effects on international relations, and who’s benefitting most?

Why these countries?

There were around 40 expressions of interests to join the BRICS group, amongst which more than 20 serious ones, as South Africa’s Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor claimed a couple of months back already – without revealing what made some more serious contenders then others. Among them large countries, clear regional players, and some smaller states – a concoction of interests to join. The illustrious list comprised, inter alia, Algeria, Argentina, Bangladesh, Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, Indonesia, Thailand, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, Nicaragua and Venezuela. It was a difficult choice. The BRICS debated membership criteria, and even cancelled a press conference on Wednesday evening, 23 August, as there was still “need for discussion” according to a speaker in Johannesburg. On 24 August, though, the global public were not presented a list of criteria, but rather – somewhat surprisingly – a list of countries invited to join.
Some left-outs were surprising, so let’s have a look at them first. It might have been expected that Nicaragua was too much of an odd-ball lightweight. Yet, not invited were South or Southeast Asian countries. Indonesia would have been a sizable fit and Bangladesh is already participating in the BRICS New Development Bank (just like Egypt and the United Arab Emirates). Alas, it seems that India and China could not agree due to hefty rivalry between them in the region, and little interest in strengthening the Asia weight in the grouping might have been an element among the other BRICS countries.
Argentina, a G20 member, and Egypt were almost obvious ones as substantial players in their region, Egypt being both African and Arab/Middle-Eastern. While Argentina, politically divided over BRICS membership, is economically and politically close enough for Brazil to accept, this was apparently not the case for Venezuela, with which Brazil has more difficult relations. South Africa might have had few incentives to have Nigeria on board – a competitor in Africa. More African BRICS members seem to have been a contested issue in the first place, and likely, Xi Jinping ultimately favoured Addis as a close African ally over Abuja with its good connections to “the West”.
China recently brokered a sort of reconciliation between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and the latter was sufficiently anti-Western for Beijing and is a current partner-in-crime for Moscow. Saudi Arabia, also a G20 member, is more in a seesaw policy, being somewhat a Western ally, too, despite rough patches in relations when human rights violations are too obvious. The UAE, for their part, are critically engaging and somewhat more balanced in their criticism of Western domination.

Effects on global relations

The BRICS is often dismissed as a talk-shop in Western countries, and as best seen as a “Southern G5”, coordinating within the G20, along the example of the G7. The BRICS created “family pictures” for their leaders and colourful logos for each presidency, issuing declarations summoning the spirit of “Southern solidarity” and calling for a changed global order. It provided a cosy international space for Vladimir Putin after Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the full scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022, or Brazil’s Bolsonaro after the Biden US gave him the cold shoulder. Yet, they more often than not couldn’t agree on much more. India and China particularly are in rivalry and have had flares of border spats in the last years.
The key project of substance in the BRICS is its New Development Bank. In 2015, the group finally established a joint Bank with an initial capital of 50 billion US dollars, later increased to 100 billion dollars. China would have been willing (and able) to put more money on the table, but equality of shares was agreed upon. While this prevented too obvious a Chinese domination, it was a limiting factor, as Brazil and particularly South Africa could not procure as much finance. Handling China as the elephant in the room is a tightrope act also for BRICS members.
The new member states add little demographic weight (42 % to 46% of global population as BRICS+) and some economic weight (25% to 37% of global GDP as BRICS. They cover a spectrum from “Southern in vocation”, like Argentina, to “devoted anti-Westerners”, such as Iran. Russia and China did not have it all their way to form an ‘anti-West’. Yet, while Argentina is an electoral democracy, the shift to a more autocratic group of states in BRICS+ is notable with Iran as a theocracy as a particularly far outlier. Respect for human rights was certainly weakened in this enlarged setup.
Brief, the new members add some weight to the idea of “being seen together” as Southern (non-Western) States. Most of all, though, they add complexity to the group. Agreement on anything constructive beyond criticism of “the West” will become more difficult. To the contrary: more internal conflicts are brought into the BRICS. Egypt and Ethiopia have clashes of interests over water resources of the Nile river, and the Middle-Eastern four new members are all competing in their region. True, whenever the BRICS+ are a chorus rather than a cacophony, this grouping will be harder to ignore. It will need skilled conductors, though.

Who’s benefiting most?

Beijing apparently has the self-confidence and some weight to be directing this unruly bunch to some degree; its economy is bigger than all other BRICS+ combined. China and Russia had the biggest interests in BRICS enlargement, possibly thinking of an anti-West coalition with its eyes clearly set on rivalry with the United States of America. South Africa, Brazil and India were much more sceptical, seeing risks in too many friends-of-China, foes-to-the-West joining the club. Both Brazil and South Africa see the BRICS as staunchly “Southern”, not “anti-Western”. South African President Ramaphosa stated that his country is “not to join any global power” and Brazil’s President Lula da Silva sees the BRICS aim to get “the South better organised”. These signals should not be overheard in the West – and in Beijing and Moscow.
If the “Southerners” remain sufficient impact in BRICS+, a big gain in the enlargement could be on calls for reforms of the global system for better Southern inclusion, sending clears signals to the Global North and South. For their part, Russia, China and, newly, Iran are more likely to engage in vilifying “the West” and legitimising an authoritarian turn. Yet, true alternatives are unlikely to be drawn out by this divergent group of 11 BRICS+.

How should the West react?

In Western capitals, there is little need to get hectic. The least Western counties should do is to regard the group as foes. German foreign minister Annalena Baerbock, for instance, not known for a naïve stance on Russia or China, immediately offered cooperation. Alienating large countries of the Global South would, indeed, be unwise, and create a bloc that isn’t. This is not a homogeneous group. And international politics are not a zero-sum game in which one’s gains are other one’s loss.
There is, however, also little reason for complacency in Western capitals. The current world order is indefensible and the call for reforms of the global system that reflects a world order of 1949 are becoming more urgent, as UN Secretary General Antonio Gutteres rightly pointed out. There is need to present real options for change and obvious need for cooperation on global challenges. While this should not threaten the set of values that the G7 have based their governance on, it also needs to offer real inclusion of underrepresented parts of the global population.

Image: Sven Grimm

Sven Grimm is Head of the Programme “Inter- and Transnational Cooperation with the Global South” at the German Institute of Development and Sustainability (IDOS)


  1. Ebenezer Acheampong - Antworten

    Thank you very much for the good publication and clearly pointing out threats and opportunities in my opinion of joining the BRIC.
    In my view I see China and Russia trying to have a certain power and influence in counties belonging to the Global South so that the enormous power and influence which the West has will be broken.
    On the other hand, Global South countries in my opinion want better deals and development and as a result seek to join this Bloc to better place their respective countries. Hence, a lot of interests are certainly at play here.

  2. Ursula Schäfer-Preuss - Antworten

    thanks for sharting this blog! There is a lot to say about BRICCS and its rather slow development over the years and one has to follow its evolvement carefully. Am sure that the existing int. finance institutions will watch out for what is happening in that regard, looking into financial aspects of the BRICCS bank, in particular looking into governance issues. I do say that, having been for 5 years Vice President for Knowledge Management and Sustainable Development at ADB, Manila (2006-2011).

    • Sven Grimm - Antworten

      Many thanks for sharing this point. This is certainly part of the aspiration of BRICS: to change the practice of existing finance institutions. Interesting also to see China-initiated AIIB in this context, given that the NDB is somewhat constrained by the felt need to balance power within in the bank (and not least: inner-Asian rivalry).

  3. Dan Ciuriak - Antworten

    The concept of purchasing power parity (PPP) is most appropriate when applied to per capita GDP to compare living standards. ITo compare the scale of economies, their actual purchasing power in the global economy, the appropriate measure is GDP expressed in a common currency. On the latter basis, the G7 share of global GDP in 2023 is about 43.5% and the BRICS+ is about 29.9% (IMF WEO, April 2023).

    But in the modern knowledge-based and data-driven economy, what really matters is command of technology. The „Global North“ in 2021 had a combined $417 billion of the world total $434 billion in international receipts for intellectual property (World Bank indicators); of that $284 was accounted by the G7. China had $11 billion and the rest of the Global South combined had only $5.5 billion.

    Finally, it may be noted that, following the industrial revolution, the ratio of the income of the rich to the income of the rest rose steeply from 1.9:1 as the currently rich countries pulled away from the rest through industrialization, reaching 6.7:1 in 1973 according to the Angus Maddison data. In the last several decades, we have had two major industrial revolutions (ushering in the knowledge-based economy and the data-driven economy respectively) and are now going through a third one which is bringing us into the age of AI as a productive resource (or the age of „machine knowledge capital“). Yet the rich did not pull away again (see, e.g., Art Kraay’s blog , and Kremer et al. 2021 – The fact that we did not see greater divergence is almost certainly due to the powerful force for convergence from the much-maligned model of globalization – global value chains, FDI by technologically advanced corporations, the Internet facilitating flow of disembodied technology, and the mobile age opening up access to infrastructurally-challenged regions.

    My punch line is that this much-maligned model is what the BRICS+ bloc seems to oppose. The issue is not for the Global North to fear – it is for the Global South to get on the right train to development. My paper setting all this out is here:

    • Sven Grimm - Antworten

      Thank you for pointing out that measurements in the blog are simplistic, as this is a short opinion piece, and they are certainly to be discussed (in a different publication). While I am with you on the crude nature of GDP, there are also elements that might be difficult to „measure“ in the first place, such as „soft power“ (Nye) or leverage to change the international order (including by coersion). Shouldn’t stop us from asking these questions and working on their answers, I believe. As a political scientist, my answers are likely to come with a certain perspective – my work environment, a methodologically pluralist space, notwithstanding.

      I am not quite sure that China is busy opposing a certain way of development. In my observation, it rather replicated a quite traditional trajectory – and through that tried to gain sufficient strength/leverage to change the system to its favour (Xi has further tightend party control, which creates some new problems). With regard to command of technology, and beyond the number of patents, for instance, there is also a systemic difference in its use: AI for facial recognition of for recognising people by their gait might be more advanced also through its application in China. Is that where we want to be? I do oppose elements of the „Chinese model“ and do not see them as desirable. Is this a model for, say, South Africa or Brazil to follow? (more fundamentally: can countries pick-and-choose from „model cases“ in the first place?). And even with lower numbers of patents, to some extent, Brazil is more „advanced“ than Germany in the digitalisation of its public administration, creating future opportunities and potential (as we will argue in a forthcoming paper).
      This might point to the direction that you call „the right train to development“, as „right“ certainly is a value judgement. I am curious to have a look at your paper, thank you for the reference.

  4. Dirk Meyer - Antworten

    Ruhe ist die erste Bürgerpflicht – das hätte auch als Überschrift funktioniert. Was, wenn die Hauptstädte doch zu langsam sind, weil sie weiter glauben, die kriegen es eh nicht hin, könnte dann eintreten, was Frankreich gerade in Westafrika erlebt? Mich erstaunt die Gelassenheit als Historiker, hat die Geschichte doch immer wieder gezeigt, dass sich plötzlich „Verdichtungsräume“ (Osterhammel) auftun – und alle überraschen.
    LG Dirk Meyer

    • Sven Grimm - Antworten

      Calm and strategic engagement is necessary. That’s certainly different from a simple „keep calm and carry on“, and requires action in seeking joint solutions and building coalitions with change-makers, even if they operate in uneasy settings. It is also different from vilifying a group or seeing them as „a bloc of others“ that we can dismiss as the prolongued arm of Beijing or Moscow, as I have seen in one or the other news outlet.

Leave Comment

Deine E-Mail-Adresse wird nicht veröffentlicht. Erforderliche Felder sind mit * markiert