Russia’s President Vladimir Putin attends an informal meeting of leaders of the BRICS countries via video link in Moscow, on August 22, 2023.
MIKHAIL KLIMENTYEV/POOL/AFP via Getty Images
China’s Xi Jinping is in South Africa this week for the BRICS summit.
China and Russia want to expand the group and challenge the West.
Putin recently touted de-dollarization and renewed calls to use of local currencies for trade.
At this week’s BRICS summit in Johannesburg, South Africa, the future of the world’s leading non-Western economies is at stake.
Russia and China are seeking to remake the alliance, which promotes economic cooperation between members, into a power bloc to challenge the dominance of the US and the dollar.
Addressing the BRICS summit by video link Tuesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin took swipes at the West, and said the summit represented the “global majority.”
“This is the essence of the future-oriented strategic course of our association, a course that meets the aspirations of the main part of the world community, the so-called global majority,” said Putin, who couldn’t attend in person because he is wanted for war crimes.
Russia and China have ambitions for the group that extend beyond its initial purpose to promote mutual prosperity, say analysts.
“China and Russia in particular hope to leverage the group’s combined economic weight to counterbalance US and more broadly Western influence in global politics,” Graeme Thompson, an analyst with the Eurasia Group, told Insider.
Creating a power bloc to challenge the US
The BRICS are the leading non-Western economies in the world, with the group comprising Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa.
Together, they make up around 40% of the world’s population, around $27.7 trillion of the global economy, and are seen to represent the so-called “Global South” of southern hemisphere nations.
President of China Xi Jinping (L) delivers opening remarks from his meeting with South African President Cyril Ramaphosa (R) on August 22, 2023.
PHILL MAGAKOE/AFP via Getty Images
China’s President, Xi Jinping is attending the summit in person in only the second trip abroad he has made since the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, showing the importance of the summit for his global ambitions.
As the richest country in the group, China has considerable influence.
“Xi Jinping is not trying to out-compete America in the existing liberal international order dominated by the US. His long-term goal is to change the world order into a Sino-centric one,” Steve Tsang, director of the SOAS China Institute at the University of London, told CNN.
To topple the ascendancy of the Western-dominated G7, China and Russia are backing the expansion of the BRICS alliance to include other non-Western economies.
Applicants seeking entry include countries hostile to the West, including Iran, as well as those traditionally aligned with the West, such as Saudi Arabia and Indonesia.
Taking on the dollar
There are also proposals on the table to create a BRICS currency to challenge the global dominance of the dollar.
In his speech, Putin touted de-dollarization and renewed his call to increase the use of local currencies for trade.
“The objective, irreversible process of de-dollarization of our economic ties is gaining momentum,” Putin said, per a Reuters translation. He said that the summit participants would discuss in detail all the issues and mechanisms related to local currency trade.
Countries globally are calling for backup currencies for trade and transactions after sanctions against Russia over its invasion of Ukraine led to some world leaders and business figures sounding a warning over the power of the US.
But analysts say concrete plans to create an alternative currency for trade between members remain some distance away.
“Beijing is especially keen to position itself as a leader of the Global South, including by expanding the BRICS’ membership to include more fast-growing emerging market countries,” explained Thompson.
Xi unexpectedly had to pull out of delivering a major speech at the summit Tuesday, and his remarks, read out by a Chinese official, were an attack on Western dominance of international institutions.
The US is “obsessed with maintaining hegemony, [and] has gone out of its way to cripple the emerging markets and developing countries,” said China’s minister of commerce, Wang Wentao.
“Whoever develops first becomes their target of containment. Whoever is catching up becomes its target of obstruction.”
Opposition grows to anti-US plans
President of Brazil, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva (L) arrives at Johannesburg for the 15th BRICS summit in South Africa on August 21, 2023.
BRICS / Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
But other nations in the group remain wary of China and Russia, and deep divisions exist between members.
India has engaged in military skirmishes with China over a border dispute in the Himalayas in recent years, and has joined a major defense pact with Western nations aimed at countering growing Chinese influence in the Pacific region.
Brazil is also opposed to the bloc being transformed into a global anti-Western alliance under China’s influence.
“We do not want to be a counterpoint to the G7, G20 or the United States,” Brazil’s president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva said on Tuesday. “We just want to organise ourselves.”
Neither India nor Brazil are likely willing to damage relations with the US, an important international ally.
None of the BRICS nations has condemned Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, and winning the support of the “global south” remains Putin’s key diplomatic aim as he seeks to break Russia’s international isolation over Ukraine.
Yet the war has spiked grain and energy prices, badly impacting countries in the region, and increasing wariness of Russia.
China and Russia may have ambitious plans for the BRICS group, but realizing them still appears some distance away.
“All three countries value their foreign policy independence and retain close political and economic ties with the West,” remarked Thompson of India, Brazil, and South Africa.