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Analysis: can the new Brics stand up to the West?

When the leaders of the BRICS countries gathered for group photos at the end of the summit in Johannesburg last week, we got a glimpse of the contours of the new world order that China is trying to shape.

Front and center was Xi Jinping, the powerful Chinese leader, surrounded by leaders from emerging markets and developing countries across Africa, Asia and Latin America.

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The South African summit, with 60 countries, was the largest ever held by the Brics, an acronym that represents the member countries — Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa.

Alongside the current leaders of the Brics were those of Argentina, Ethiopia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, who had just be invited to join the club.

It is a major victory for Xi, who has long pushed to expand the bloc and its influence despite of reservations from other members such as India and Brazil.

The expansion, the first since South Africa was added in 2010, will more than double the group and significantly extend its global reach, especially in the Middle East.

“China is the clear winner” of the summit, said Steve Tsang, director of the SOAS China Institute at the University of London. “Getting six new members is a significant move in their preferred direction.”

For the Chinese government, as for the Russian one, the expansion is part of an effort to turn a loose economic group into a geopolitical counterweight to the West — and to Western institutions like the G7.

The mission has become even more urgent in the past year, given China’s growing rivalry with the United States, as well as the ramifications of the Ukraine war — which has seen China further estranged from the West because of its support for Russia.

As demonstrated by the expansion of the BRICS and the long waiting list to join the group, Xi’s offer of an alternative world order is to find receptive ears in the Global South, where many countries feel marginalized in an international system dominated by the US and its rich allies.

As a reflection of its demand for more space in global discussions, the declaration of the leaders of the BRICS repeatedly called for “greater representation of emerging markets and developing countries” in international institutions – such as the United Nations (UN) and its Security Council, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank.

Xi, who peppered his summit speeches with criticism US hegemonyhailed the expansion as “historic” and “a new starting point for BRICS cooperation”.

Happymon Jacob, professor of international studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, said the expansion highlights a shift in global geopolitical fissures.

“Being a leader of non-Western forums and the Global South, who are generally dissatisfied with US-led institutions, will invariably help China to become a counterweight to the US and the US-led world order,” he commented. .

the new members

However, broader membership also calls into question the cohesion and coherence of the BRICS, whose existing members already differ widely in political systems, economic success and diplomatic goals.

“I am skeptical in terms of how effective the organization will be after the expansion, and whether in the end this growth is more symbolic than substantive,” said Yun Sun, director of the China program at the Stimson Center in Washington.

“The more members there are, the more interests the organization needs to reconcile and accommodate.”

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The theme is particularly true for a consensus-based organization like the BRICS, where decisions are only made if all members agree.

The new members form a very disparate group. Two nations are struggling economies. Argentina, a serial defaulter that has long struggled with inflation and currency crises, is the IMF’s biggest borrower. Egypt, which is facing its own economic crisis, is the second largest debtor to the IMF.

Ethiopia, Africa’s second most populous country and once one of the continent’s fastest growing economies, is experiencing devastation after a two year civil war in the Tigray region of the country, which ended in December, amid tests of widespread human rights abuses.

The expanded bloc will also include three of the world’s biggest oil exporters: Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Iran.

The first two are traditionally close allies of America, but have recently fostered closer ties with Chinawhich has intensified its presence in the region amid a perceived power vacuum left by the US.

Iran and Saudi Arabia are rivals, although earlier this year they restored diplomatic ties in a agreement mediated by China.

The scenario is in stark contrast to a more unified bloc like the G7, which is made up of like-minded democracies with large industrialized economies.

Helena Legarda, principal analyst at the Mercator Institute for China Studies, a Berlin-based think tank, said it was unclear to what extent the expansion of the Brics would increase the group’s value and influence.

“Without a common ideology and a clear overarching goal, it is likely that the addition of six new members could instead make the BRICS a more divided group.”

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internal divisions

A key issue is the anti-US agenda encouraged by China and Russia, which has been reinforced with the inclusion of Iran.

India and Brazil have expressed concerns about the bloc potentially becoming too anti-Western and China-dominated, and some new members may be equally skeptical, according to Legarda.

“Despite the clear geopolitical goals that China has for the group, many other developing and emerging economies do not see the BRICS as an exclusively geopolitical body. They are also motivated by economic opportunities and the possibility of securing privileged access to Chinese and other markets”, opined the analyst.

Meanwhile, China struggles with its own economic problems internals – including a spiral housing crisisa growing local government debt, the record youth unemployment and the aging of the population. Many economists believe that the world’s second-largest economy is entering an era of much slower growth, which could have a profound impact on the global economy.

The BRICS expansion is likely to spur competition – and potential friction – between China and India, whose ties have already been strained by a border conflict.

“The Sino-Indian competition for leadership in the Global South is now set to get sharper with China having a clear advantage,” Jacob said in New Delhi.

“While India has good relations with all new BRICS members, China’s full portfolio and its ability to fill the post-American vacuum, especially in the Middle East, means that China will be able to influence the institution much more than India. India could,” he added.

Rivalry and tensions between China and India, as well as Iran and Saudi Arabia, mean that issues on which they can agree and act together are unlikely to be significant in number and nature, said Stimson’s Sun. Center.

“Expansion certainly builds an image of a growing coalition facing the West, but having more countries in an organization does not equate to more effectiveness.”

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Source: CNN Brasil

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