China and Russia's Growing BRICS Bloc Speeds Decline of U.S. Influence
BY TOM O'CONNOR
As the United States struggles to maintain influence across vast parts of the Global South, the expanding BRICS bloc led by Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa is receiving more applications than ever before, signaling a growing shift in the international economic order.
The top diplomats of the five core BRICS nations began their latest high-level meeting Thursday in Cape Town, South Africa, a prelude to the 15th annual leaders' summit scheduled to take place in Durban, on the country's eastern coast, in August. Long dismissed by Western analysts as a mere multilateral marriage of convenience, this year's BRICS gatherings serve as an opportunity to discuss how far the group has come and where its future lies amid growing calls to challenge the Western-led global financial system and the U.S. dollar.
But Anil Sooklal, a veteran diplomat who serves as South Africa's ambassador-at-large to BRICS, asserts that "BRICS is not a group of countries that is in opposition to any particular grouping."
"We would like to cooperate with all of our global partners both in the Global North and South to collectively address some of the challenges that we are facing," Sooklal told Newsweek, "in terms of reforming the global governance architecture, to make it more inclusive, more equitable, and more just and fair, which many of us continue to feel that it's not."
And while Sooklal identified a number of factors driving this inequality, including climate change, the lingering effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and a growing global technology gap, he argued that deficiencies in the existing order led by the wealthiest nations was at the heart of why more countries were choosing BRICS.
"We see an erosion of the global multilateral architecture," Sooklal said, "unilateral measures, unilateral sanctions becoming the norm of the day, an uneven global architecture, and countries wanting to have a greater say in terms of how the new evolving global order pans out."
"So, I think these are some of the areas that finds attraction with countries from the Global South who increasingly want to identify with the BRICS group," he added.
The term "BRIC" was coined in 2001 by then-Goldman Sachs economist Jim O'Neill to describe the emerging global economies of Brazil, Russia, India and China. Five years later, the vision became reality when the foreign ministers of the four nations met on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly and launched a series of high-level meetings that led to the first BRIC summit in 2009. The following year, South Africa joined the group.
"When BRICS came together as a formation, it basically sought to address some of the key challenges that we have in terms of the global geopolitical, geo-financial economic architecture," Sooklal said, "and to try and create a more inclusive global community that seeks to address the continued marginalization of countries of the Global South in a very changed global environment."
"I think the attractiveness of BRICS is that it articulates the challenges that countries from the Global South continue to face in a very unequal world," he added, "a world that vastly changed over the last almost 80 years since the founding of the U.N. system."
This attractiveness was demonstrated a year ago when some 19 world leaders attended the "BRICS+" summit hosted by China in June 2022. Algeria, Argentina, Iran and Saudi Arabia are among the countries that are known to have officially applied for membership, with many more, including Egypt, Indonesia, Mexico, Türkiye and the United Arab Emirates, speaking openly of plans or considerations to do so.
As of today, Sooklal said that more than 20 countries hailing from all corners of the globe have either applied for or expressed interest in joining BRICS.
And though BRICS' official mission does not explicitly involve mounting a challenge to the West, many involved in its activities see this as a necessary objective.
"BRICS was mainly created to represent the interest of developing countries and get their deserve," Mohammed Saqib, secretary general of the India China Economic and Cultural Council, told Newsweek.
Saqib, who attended a two-day forum on BRICS cooperation in the eastern Chinese city of Yangzhou in April, argued that the bloc still has a "huge potential" to achieve, but he asserted that it was not this potential that primarily "attracts other countries to BRICS."
Rather, he said, "it is the quest for multilateralism and breaking the hegemony of the West which is driving countries to join BRICS."
Riyadh and Tehran's common interest in BRICS comes in parallel to their mutual desire to join another bloc led by Beijing and Moscow, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, and is underscored by a deal brokered by China in March for the two Middle Eastern rivals to resume diplomatic relations. The U.S., meanwhile, has contended with worsening tensions with Iran and cooling relations with longtime partner Saudi Arabia.
As Washington and Beijing battle for global influence, Saqib argued that "the USA is turning BRICS into a geopolitical tool to contain China, coercing, coaxing, and threatening countries to somehow fail BRICS."
So far, however, the strategy appears to be backfiring as calls grow within BRICS and its New Development Bank to push back against the global dominance of the U.S. dollar, which currently accounts for roughly 58 percent of the world's currency reserves.
"It is the de-dollarization that is most important," Saqib said. "This could be achieved by a basket of members' currency or some sort of virtual currency. De-dollarization will save countries from currency terrorism or sanctions and also offer fair terms of trade and influence of the West."
Joseph W. Sullivan, a senior advisor at the Lindsey Group and a former special advisor and staff economist at the White House Council of Economic Advisers, also viewed U.S. policies, including the use of sanctions, as a factor that is driving rather countering this movement.
"The interest in de-dollarization among BRICS would be aroused to some extent no matter what," Sullivan told Newsweek. "But Washington's addiction to sanctions has certainly heightened their interest in it. America's policy towards the BRICS is incoherent. But that's because it has yet to formulate a coherent policy towards the Global South that is more than just, 'Hey, don't play with China.'"
And in this de-dollarization endeavor, he argued that the expansion of BRICS would only increase the chances of success.
"If the BRICS were trying to dethrone English as the global second language, having other countries agree to also stop teaching America's language in schools would make their success more plausible," Sullivan said. "So, it is now with the BRICS and other countries as they attempt to dethrone America's currency."
"That's because currencies, like languages, have network effects," he added, "using them becomes more valuable once lots of other people use them, too."
But the growth of BRICS presents both risk and opportunity for the bloc.
"If the BRICS were to vote in August to add new members and expand, on one hand, it would enhance the institution's clout and visibility as an alternative to Western-led institutions," Manjari Chatterjee Miller, a senior fellow at the Council of Foreign Relations, told Newsweek. "It could also speak to both China and India's ambitions to lead the Global south."
"But on the other," she added, "expanding could end up being a stumbling block for the organization."
Miller pointed out how "the China-India relationship is already at a low point due to their border dispute," and that, while "BRICS offers a forum where they can both focus instead on immediate issues of mutual interest," if "BRICS keeps adding members at loggerheads with each other—Egypt and Iran have both expressed interest in joining—those differences will become more difficult to subsume."
Still, the China-mediated deal between Iran and Saudi Arabia has brought a tide of diplomatic rapprochement that has swept across the Middle East, and both Cairo and Tehran have signaled a willingness to reach an agreement of their own.
Given the rising trajectory of interest in BRICS, Miller argued that U.S. policymakers should be paying more attention to the group.
"I think BRICS serves the interests of its members very well," Miller said. "Western audiences often fail to realize this because they pay attention to the acrimony between BRICS members (e.g. China and India) obscuring the fact that even acrimonious BRICS members (again, both China and India) agree that current economic governance structures were designed to benefit the West and not them."
"Moreover, for other BRICS countries, such as Russia, the institution offers legitimacy—it's the opportunity to be on a global stage without condemnation from other participants," she added. "Even without calls for multipolarity, the question is why wouldn't countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran want to be a part of it?"
Washington, for its part, has been cautious in its messaging toward the bloc.
"Participating in BRICS is a sovereign decision for member countries," a U.S. State Department spokesperson told Newsweek. "We support and respect countries' right to define the contours of their foreign policy. We continue to engage with countries including China, South Africa, Brazil and India on our concerns over Russia's illegal war against Ukraine."
These concerns, however, have at times boiled over into open diplomatic disputes, as was the case last month when the U.S. ambassador to South Africa accused the country of illicitly shipping arms to Russia to be used in Ukraine. The allegation was met with denial and condemnation from both South African President Cyril Ramaphosa and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, whose participation in the BRICS meeting comes in the midst of an Africa tour shoring up Moscow's relations across the continent.
"South Africa is a sovereign nation. Russia is a sovereign nation, too," Lavrov said Wednesday during a news conference in Mozambique, "and we build our relations in full compliance with the norms and principles of international law that exist in this sphere."
He called on foreign diplomats to "mind their own business" on such bilateral affairs, and accused the U.S. and Western allies of being the side that "violates international norms" by supplying a growing and increasingly advanced level of military aid to Ukraine.
As India too maintains security and economic ties with Russia, both Brazil and China have also sought to challenge U.S. attempts to isolate adversaries through economic means.
Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva voiced support for Venezuela's addition to BRICS on Tuesday during the first visit by fellow socialist President Nicolás Maduro to Brazil since the U.S. and a number of countries in the region, including Brazil, then led-by right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro, cut ties with Caracas in 2019. In response, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning reiterated Beijing's desire for BRICS expansion.
"As an important platform for cooperation among emerging markets and developing countries," Mao told reporters Wednesday, "BRICS is committed to upholding multilateralism, vigorously advancing the reform of the global governance system and increasing the representation and say of emerging markets and developing countries. It has become a positive, stable and constructive force in international affairs."
"China always believes that BRICS is an open and inclusive mechanism and supports the BRICS expansion process," she added. "More and more countries have applied to join BRICS and hope to join BRICS cooperation. We stand ready to bring more like-minded partners into the big family of BRICS."
Another U.S.-sanctioned leader rebuilding ties in his region, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, has also expressed interest in BRICS in a move that would likely prompt more backlash from Washington.
In spite of the geopolitical challenges playing out amid BRICS' rise under South Africa's tenure as chair, Ambassador-at-Large Sooklal said the country "remains positive" about the bloc's ability to tackle the tasks at hand on three levels: the political and security, the financial and economic and the social and people-to-people.
And it's his wish to do so in partnership with other economic blocs, rather than in confrontation.
"I think we are living in a highly polarized, fractured world, which is very unfortunate," Sooklal told Newsweek. "I think we need to work as a collective. We shouldn't see the various configurations on the global front as working in opposition to each other. I think all of us should have a common agenda to create a more inclusive, more equitable, and a better world for all of our people."