Navigating the Vortex
Navigating the Vortex
Other BRICS in a new Chinese wall

Other BRICS in a new Chinese wall

On Our Radar, 28 August 2023

The 15th BRICS Summit, held in South Africa from the 22nd to the 24th of August was predictably underwhelming in its lack of concrete outcomes. The BRICS, even after the addition of six new members next year, will be anything but an alternative or rival to the G7. For all the talk about multipolarity, the BRICS, and their expansion, contribute further to the consolidation of a new bipolar order with just two rival blocs—led respectively by the US and China. It remains to be seen, however, whether dislike of a US-dominated order is enough to sustain the current lure of the BRICS.

What it’s about: The 94-paragraph Johannesburg II Declaration issued at the summit of currently five members of the BRICS—Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa—is a mostly aspirational and self-congratulatory document. The only truly notable outcome of the summit is contained in paragraph 91:

We have decided to invite the Argentine Republic, the Arab Republic of Egypt, the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia, the Islamic Republic of Iran, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to become full members of BRICS from 1 January 2024.

This is preceded by the announcement that “BRICS countries reached consensus on the guiding principles, standards, criteria and procedures of the BRICS expansion process” but without any further elaboration of what these might be. And the announcement of expansion is followed by a commitment “to further develop the BRICS partner country model and a list of prospective partner countries”.

Apart from that, the Declaration is hardly a revolutionary document. It repeats calls for reform rather than replacement of key international institutions, such as the UN, the World Trade Organisation, and the IMF. In addition, the BRICS “reaffirm the importance of the G20 to continue playing the role of the premier multilateral forum in the field of international economic and financial cooperation”.

There are the usual expressions of concern about war and conflict, with Sudan, Niger, Libya, Western Sahara, Yemen, Syria, the Occupied Palestinian Territories, and Haiti all name-checked.

On Ukraine, the language is predictably vague to accommodate the different stakes that the five members have:

We recall our national positions concerning the conflict in and around Ukraine as expressed at the appropriate fora, including the UNSC and UNGA. We note with appreciation relevant proposals of mediation and good offices aimed at peaceful resolution of the conflict through dialogue and diplomacy, including the African Leaders Peace Mission and the proposed path for peace.

On the other big issue in the run-up to the summit—de-dollarisation and the possible establishment of a BRICS currency—the Declaration stretches as far as “stress[ing] the importance of encouraging the use of local currencies in international trade and financial transactions between BRICS as well as their trading partners” and “encourag[ing] strengthening of correspondent banking networks between the BRICS countries and enabling settlements in the local currencies” with BRICS finance ministers and central bank governors to report back on these issues at the next summit.

Why it matters: In their current five-member composition, the BRICS constitute just over 40% of the world’s population and account for one-quarter of global GDP ($26tn out of $104tn, according to World Bank data). The six new members will not significantly increase either of these figures: based on 2022 data, the enlarged BRICS’ share of global GDP will only increase by three percentage points. But with the addition of major Chinese oil and gas suppliers—notably Saudi Arabia and the UAE, less so, for now, Iran—what will, from 2024 onwards count as BRICS-internal trade is likely to increase. The same is probable to occur for BRICS-to-BRICS FDI.

All five current members are part of the G20. With Argentina and Saudi Arabia joining the BRICS in 2024, seven G20 members will also be BRICS countries. If current, and future, members of the BRICS are serious about the G20 as “the premier multilateral forum in the field of international economic and financial cooperation” and if they are able to align and coordinate their approaches to global political and economic issues, dynamics at the G20 may change under the Brazilian presidency in 2024. But this is a very big ‘if’.

Our take: The BRICS do not constitute an alternative world order in either a geopolitical or geoeconomic sense.

The BRICS are not an international organisation in the traditional sense with a legal personality and a permanent secretariat, often established by a formal treaty, and united by a common purpose. Their ‘creation’ was almost accidental, based on an assessment in 2001 that GDP growth in the emerging markets of Brazil, Russia, India, and China would accelerate significantly and consequently have an impact on the global economic and financial system. Their first formal summit was held in 2009 in Russia’s Yekaterinburg. South Africa was invited to join in 2010, turning the BRICs into the current BRICS.

The BRICS’ share of global GDP—25% at present, 28% after their enlargement next year—sounds impressive. However, almost 70% of that is due to the size of the Chinese economy. China similarly dominates in trade terms. Our calculations based on the UN Comtrade Database indicate that Chinese trade in goods with BRICS partners in 2022 came to just over $550 billion, which, however, constitutes less than 10% of China’s total global trade. Expansion will add another $273bn to this figure, based on 2022 data, making BRICS trade worth approximately 15% of China’s total trade.

The single most important trade partner among the current BRICS for China is Russia with just over $190bn, but this was just over 3% of China’s total global trade in 2022. By comparison, trade with the US in 2022 was slightly more than $761bn, making the US China’s single most important trade partner overall, accounting for 12%.

China’s most important trade relationships are with other blocs. First among them is the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, a free trade area including China, all ASEAN member states, and Australia, Japan, New Zealand, and South Korea. Trade with this bloc amounted to $1.9tn in 2022, equivalent of just under 31% China’s global trade. China’s trade with the EU was worth close to $900bn (14% of global Chinese trade in 2022). Trade with all the individual members of the G7, which do not constitute a free trade area, was worth just over $1.7tn, or 27% of all Chinese trade in 2022.

While China’s trade with the BRICS as a whole and its individual members may be less important for Beijing than other trading relationships, the reverse is not true. For Brazil, trade with China constitutes just over 27% of its total trade. Corresponding figures for Russia (based on 2021 trade volume) are 24%, for India 11.5%, and for South Africa 24%. For new members, the data differ slightly. Oil and gas exporters Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates depend on China for 26% and 13%, respectively (both 2021 data). For Argentina (2022), Egypt (2022), and Ethiopia (2021), the corresponding figures are 13%, 14%, and 15%.

From a geoeconomic perspective, China, thus, clearly dominates the current BRICS and will continue to do so after enlargement. But its trade relationships overall will still be highly diversified and the BRICS, even after enlargement, are unlikely to become a major trading bloc or a key driver of geoeconomic fragmentation. For that to happen, membership would need to grow significantly more, members would need to agree on a free trade arrangement, and they would need, collectively, to decouple more from the G7. None of this is impossible, but it is highly unlikely to occur anytime in the near future.

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Geopolitically, the picture is only slightly different. Since 2010, the BRICS have developed a stronger sense of common purpose, which can loosely be described as gaining more influence in the international system—be that in the UN, in international financial institutions, or when it comes to tackling global challenges like climate change. The BRICS often present themselves as defending the interests of the global south within in an unfair and unjust international order that is dominated by, and primarily serves the interests of, the US and its allies.

This is an attractive proposition to the current five BRICS countries, the six new members, and the reportedly dozens of other countries that have expressed an interest in joining. But for each of them, this means something different and their interests are often not aligned in a meaningful way.

The current five members can all subscribe to supporting “the legitimate aspirations of emerging and developing countries from Africa, Asia and Latin America, including Brazil, India and South Africa, to play a greater role in international affairs, in particular in the United Nations, including its Security Council.” However, while Brazil, India, and South Africa may see this as a pathway to permanent membership in the Security Council, neither Russia nor China have been overly enthusiastic about this prospect.

Similarly, the Johannesburg II Declaration is full of recognition of the challenges posed by climate change and the need to tackle it. Yet, it was India and China at COP26 in Glasgow who were responsible for opposing a firm commitment to “phasing out” coal.

In addition, there are also significant bilateral issues between the current five members, including a long-standing border dispute between India and China. Notwithstanding the China-mediated resumption of diplomatic relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia earlier this year, inviting these two traditional Middle Eastern rivals into the BRICS is unlikely to increase BRICS coherence. And decades-old tensions between two other incoming members—Ethiopia and Egypt—over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on the Nile are not a recipe for harmony either.

Crucially, though, the BRICS have increasingly turned into yet another mechanism for China to rally support, especially in the global south, in its ongoing rivalry with the United States. The weakening of Russia, especially since the start of the Kremlin’s war of aggression against Ukraine in February 2022, has made China the default leader in the BRICS, as well as other gatherings, like the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. While China commits rhetorically to lofty notions of “inclusive multilateralism”, of “an environment of peace and development”, and of partnerships for “mutually accelerated growth” and “sustainable development”, these are ultimately serving the singular purpose of strengthening China’s position vis-à-vis the US.


The Johannesburg II Declaration reaffirms the BRICS’ commitment “to ensuring the promotion and protection of democracy, human rights and fundamental freedoms for all with the aim to build a brighter shared future for the international community based on mutually beneficial cooperation.” While the irony of such a commitment seems entirely lost on the signatories, this ‘vision’ will work for BRICS members now and in the future—under certain conditions. One of these conditions is that none of the leaders who signed up to BRICS membership will ever be held accountable for delivering on this vision. Given that the 2024 enlargement will do little to increase the number of genuine democracies among the BRICS, this is perhaps a lesser concern for current and future leaders. Another condition may be more important: that a China-led dictators’ club continues to remain attractive, especially for other middle powers whose support China will need if it seriously wants to take on the US. It is unlikely that the mere dislike of a US-dominated international system will be enough of a long-term attraction to keep rising middle powers like Saudi Arabia committed to the BRICS or to attract others like Indonesia or Turkey.

Herein lies a real challenge and opportunity for the US and its allies: to offer a genuine alternative to a China-led bloc in the emerging new bipolar order. At the end of the day, the first step in that direction is not to dismiss the BRICS as yet another failed Chinese project to take over the world but to see it for what it is: another BRIC in a new Chinese wall that seeks to carve up an ever-growing sphere of influence.

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Navigating the Vortex
Navigating the Vortex
We live in a complex and ever-changing world. To navigate the vortex we must adapt to change quickly, think critically, and make sound decisions. Lucy Marcus & Stefan Wolff talk about business, politics, society, culture, and what it all means.