By Andrés Serbin
(Opinion) The recent BRICS gathering was held in the context of the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, shortly after the G7 and NATO summits in June.
It was held after the conflict in Ukraine had prompted the West to impose economic sanctions on Russia, causing a boomerang effect that resulted in a global economic slowdown and an increase in inflation in most countries, in the framework of a possible global economic recession.
Within this context, the BRICS are seen as an alternative to the G7 countries, grouping together five of the most dynamic emerging economies, which are positioning themselves as a decisive factor in the global governance architecture and as a voice of the ‘Global South’ that advocates an economic and political alternative to the West.
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According to the World Bank, by 2019 the five members of the BRICS represented 42% of the planet’s population, 24% of world GDP, and more than 16% of global growth.
Although these figures should be reviewed in light of the current global economic situation, it cannot be ignored that these nations abound in strategic natural resources, enjoy the greatest biodiversity on the planet, and have contributed in recent years to 50% of the Gross Product of the planet.
Since its creation in 2009, the bloc has significantly increased trade and investment among its members (particularly during 2021), with China, which became the second largest economy in the world, as its main player.
It has gained ground as a recognized institution and has given rise to the creation of the New Development Bank (NDB) to support its members, while helping to stabilize bilateral relations between some of them, such as India and China, which are working to address ongoing border disputes.
Additionally, according to Brazilian analyst Oliver Stuenkel, “despite different political systems, economic characteristics, and geopolitical rivalries, the BRICS members share a profound skepticism of the US international liberal order and the perceived danger that unipolarity represents to their interests.”
Despite its heterogeneity and its frequent dismissal by Western analysts, the group has emerged as an alternative political bloc, contesting unipolarity and Western dominance in the international liberal order to promote an alternative global economic and diplomatic strategy.
In this context, the expansion of the BRICS has accelerated due to three factors, “first, the intense East-West confrontation; second, the deepening of “BRICS Plus cooperation”; and third, demands for the inclusion of “node” countries “with clear national strengths and obvious location advantages”, according to Nian Peng of the Research Centre for Asian Studies in Haikou, China.
The Summit’s agenda addressed a series of measures to increase economic cooperation and advance development among its member countries and expressed its willingness to promote multilateralism and ensure world peace and stability.
Among other initiatives in terms of increasing cooperation, one important measure in this regard was the creation in March 2022 of a vaccine research and development center through the collaboration of the five members.
On the other hand, in the framework of the Summit, Russia proposed the development of a de-dollarized financial space between its economies – already pre-announced with the creation of a de-dollarized Eurasian space and the growing exchange in national currencies in the region as a result of Western sanctions.
In this regard, the Russian Federation has fostered a joint strategy between the members of BRICS, the SCO, and the EAEU to increase payments in national currencies in their mutual trade.
Similarly, taking up China’s proposal for a ‘BRICS Plus’, announced at the 2017 Summit in Xiamen, the expansion of the bloc with the incorporation of new members from the group of emerging economies was included in the recent Summit, as the BRICS view themselves as an expression of the Global South.
Beyond the eminently technical visions of economic articulation and cooperation among its members, the possibility of enlargement has given rise to several political and geopolitical challenges for the BRICS.
First, within the framework of the existing heterogeneity of the bloc, different nuances exist in terms of how its members relate to the international liberal order.
Its members’ ties to the West vary from Russia’s more belligerent position to China’s more cautious one and India’s ambiguity.
The reaction to the West and its unipolar world does not always entail a clear and consistent vision of a multipolar order, and there are marked differences in the foreign policies of its current members.
This complex dynamic extends to the potential new members of the bloc, beyond their identity as emerging economies seeking to mutually promote development in an alternative institutional and multilateral framework.
A second challenging issue is that visions contrast with BRICS Plus, which is aimed at broadening the participation of the Global South.
There are different viewpoints with respect to the proposal to incorporate regional integration blocs such as the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), the South Asian Association for Cooperation (SAARC), the Southern African Customs Union (SACU), and MERCOSUR, among other regional organizations.
Several Russian analysts have promoted this idea, citing the experience of growing cooperation between the BRICS and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO); Russia, India, and China participate in both groups.
Although the BRICS seem to be advancing more quickly in pursuing enlargement, the SCO remains an important group, despite the delay in the prior admission procedures for new members.
The BRICS have not yet approved the rules and regulations for admission, but the NDB has already incorporated countries such as Bangladesh, Uruguay, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, as a precedent that may be useful for accessing new nations.
Nevertheless, accession becomes more complex in the case of the admission of blocs or regional organizations, particularly because each bloc has its own heterogeneities, tensions, and conflicts which can hinder the process and not always follow clear lines.
The recent MERCOSUR Summit illustrates this point, with the absence of the president of Brazil and the observer countries (Bolivia and Chile), and the divisive debate about the signing of an FTA between Uruguay and China, which calls into question the bloc’s agreements and consensus concerning relationships with other actors, is illustrative.
Finally, the effective incorporation of new countries as members and their degree of representativeness as regional “nodes” also have implications on the political level.
Argentina, with the support of China and Russia, has already requested its incorporation into the bloc as a Spanish-speaking Latin American member that, at the same time, currently chairs the Latin American and Caribbean Community of States (CELAC), along with Iran.
There is an extensive list of other potential candidates to join the bloc, but in this case, there is also a worrying precedent – the tension between the two countries.
Argentina blames Iran for a series of terrorist attacks perpetrated on its territory, including the murder of a prosecutor in charge of processing the agreement between the two countries promoted during the previous government of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner.
Argentina’s application for membership has also given rise to divided views and opinions in the country itself.
Even though all sectors of the ruling coalition can be considered ‘Peronists’, given that the current government has pursued an erratic and at times contradictory foreign policy, there are conflicting positions regarding international relations, alignments, and alliances.
If we consider only the broad spectrum of Argentine sinologists, some consider membership unfeasible partly because it would affect the bloc’s unity by requiring a full consensus and a complex administrative process.
However, it’s mainly objected because it would negatively affect Argentina’s relations with the United States and Europe, according to an article by a South American expert and co-founder of ReportAsia Juan Manuel Harán, who interviewed Argentine academics and officials.
Others, such as the current Argentine ambassador to China and several academics, have raised the key importance of BRICS in the process of building a multipolar world.
They observe the relevance of China’s trade and financial links, the corporation with the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the growing commercial exchange with India, and the advantages that could be obtained via its admission to the BND.
Notwithstanding these divergent opinions, it is necessary to consider Argentina’s persistent interest in pursuing a relationship with the BRICS, which has been going through governments of different political persuasions since 2014.
It also has a series of questions that will hopefully reveal the evolution of the global and regional transition: Is it in the interest of the BRICS, including Brazil as a potential competitor, that other South American countries could join the group?
Could Argentina´s incorporation complicate the country’s geopolitical position without yielding tangible benefits in an uncertain situation like the current one?
Perhaps more importantly, in the context of the current debate in Latin America, will it be able to promote a foreign policy of active non-alignment amid an increasingly turbulent international order by joining the BRICS?
Andrés Serbin – Executive Director of CRIES; Co-Chair of the Latin American Studies Association’s Asia and the Americas section (LASA).
This post is mirrored and was published first here.
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