BRICS began as a close-knit group of four countries, namely Russia, China, Brazil, and India. They came together to develop an inclusive financial system that would advance multilateral trade and investments and run parallel to the Western-dominated financial structures. In 2010, South Africa became a member, and with its inclusion, BRIC received its “S,” and as a result, the acronym BRICS was born.
BRICS expansion was on the cards for a long time, but it was repeatedly put on hold since the members differed over who should and should not be admitted. China pushed for immediate expansion as it wanted to dilute the Western influence. India prioritised admission criteria formulation over rapid expansion, arguing that democracies should be the focus of membership considerations along with states that were not the target of internal sanctions.
The BRICS Summit from 22 to 24 August 2023, held in Johannesburg, South Africa, gave this discussion new life when the alliance formally extended a membership invitation to six states: Saudi Arabia, Argentina, Ethiopia, United Arab Emirates (UAE), Iran, and Egypt. The existence of “BRICS” in a literal sense ended when it added new members. A new term, therefore, became a necessity to reflect its new reality. The recent expansion of BRICS in August 2023 represents a pivotal moment in the alliance’s history, offering a plethora of advantages and a fair share of drawbacks. A careful analysis of the pros and cons is essential to grasp the full implications of this expansion for the member states.
In terms of expansion, BRICS is taking the same trajectory that the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), for instance, have taken. Started off as a close grouping and, with time, expanded due to the influx of various states. The question, therefore, arises whether BRICS will share the same fate as the aforementioned groupings. Will it also have to deal with the political and economic difficulties brought on by the influx of new states? Most probably, yes. Rapid expansion does come at the expense of internal coherence and consensus formation.
BRICS must redefine its purpose and develop a contemporary blueprint to ensure continued relevance and effectiveness.
BRICS was criticised for having a relatively loose alliance structure, as well as for its frequent internal conflicts, lack of cohesion, and absence of a collective vision. Since the bloc’s establishment, it has been under fire for having more differences than similarities. There have been countless objections regarding the futility of the alliance, as it has achieved so little in terms of notable outcomes. Hence, there is growing concern that adding six additional members, each with its own sociopolitical and economic circumstances, might expose existing internal conflicts and accentuate member-state disparities, thus complicating the bloc’s ability to function.
However, the rapid expansion of BRICS does offer a plethora of potential benefits to individual members and the community at large that should be acknowledged. For example, the enlargement of BRICS represents a success for Brazil’s longstanding policy goal of championing the Global South’s cause. For Russia, the expansion provides a perfect opportunity to counter the narrative of isolation at the global level, which has arisen as a consequence of the Ukraine crisis. Likewise, for Iran, inclusion into BRICS demonstrates that their integration in the community of nations does not depend solely on the Western nations. Hence, it could be stated that, as a result of expansion, BRICS geographically appears to be more inclusive and diversified as it includes representation from South America, Asia, and Africa. Moreover, economically speaking, it caters to developing and developed countries and gives hope for a financial structure independent of Western hegemony. Additionally, it creates opportunities for supply chains and market diversification. It offers a promising future for the global energy market by bringing oil consumers and producers together on one stage where they may work together to ensure energy security.
BRICS also provides an equal voice to the monarchies in the Middle East, dictatorships in Africa, autocracies in Russia and China, and partial or flawed democracies in India and Argentina. The inclusivity of political systems discourages Western policies of snubbing leaders and states that dare to choose a path different from the West. It creates a pathway for future cooperation between SCO and BRICS, encouraging the development of a multipolar system free from Western influence. Additionally, it brings together technologically developed and deprived states, hence opening the door for technical collaborations.
Yet, the enormous obstacles to cooperation among the BRICS members should not be disregarded, as each member brings a different agenda to the table. Russia prioritises security-related interests, whereas India seeks to attract more Chinese investments and address climate-induced pressures. Consequently, streamlining and achieving consensus within the group becomes a challenging endeavour. The fundamental restriction, thus, is internal cohesion, which has been a subject of investigation since its inception. It could be a challenge to reach unanimity among the members due to disparities in their political systems, economic structures, and collective identities.
Numerous groupings have faced the difficulty of forging consensus due to the prevalence of diverse perspectives. BRICS is no exception. With the inclusion of new members, reaching an agreement might become more complex. One such example of disagreement was regarding BRICS’s possible outlook. Sergey Lavrov, in his statement, said that the strategic line of G7 is determined by the United States (US) while BRICS works fairly. This statement of pitting the alliance against the US was unwelcome by Brazilian President Lula da Silva. He reiterated the notion of BRICS not wanting to challenge the US and the G7 but to organise the Global South.
Limitations are not restricted to organisational and functional matters; they also include policy matters. The absence of a shared identity and outlook is another crucial impediment. Some see the bloc as an alternative to the Western-dominated system; others view it as a chance to promote South-South cooperation. For instance, India sees it as a forum to seek its vision for a multipolar order. The addition of new entrants has worsened the situation as it has increased the range of possible themes for the alliance’s future direction. Moreover, Iran and Saudi Arabia’s membership has added a new layer of complexity. Their contradictory ambitions might cause conflict and possibly politicise the bloc, undermining BRICS’s effectiveness. Differences between India and China are widely recognised. The inclusion of an additional set of competitors might hinder the alliance’s decision-making process.
Furthermore, for some new entrants like Egypt and UAE, committing to the BRICS agenda may be a balancing act because they also have partnerships with the US to meet their economic and security needs. Thus, any BRICS initiative undertaken with this in mind, such as the most widely advocated one, de-dollarisation, may not materialise as easily due to such apparent priority differences between member states.
In short, the expansion of BRICS presents both opportunities and challenges. The recent growth of the bloc prompts the need for a new acronym that mirrors the evolving dynamics within the group. BRICS must redefine its purpose and develop a contemporary blueprint to ensure continued relevance and effectiveness. Failure to do so may erode the spirit of the bloc, rendering it meaningless.