Both Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping were no-shows at the opening session of the BRICS summit in South Africa, even though the summit will play a key role in their plans to remake the global order. Yet the divisions in the members’ positions were apparent from the first speeches on the first day.
For months pundits have debated whether Putin would attend the summit after the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued an arrest warrant for his arrest in March for the Russian army's policy of kidnapping children from Ukraine. South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, who is hosting the event, worked hard to ignore the warrant, which he is obliged by South Africa’s constitution to fulfil, but in the end the Kremlin decided it was safer for Putin to attend by video link and send Russia’s veteran Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in his place.
Xi had made the trip to South Africa and held a bilateral morning meeting with Ramaphosa, but did not appear at the opening of the summit along with his host and the leaders of Brazil and India at the primary summit venue in Johannesburg’s financial district of Sandton. No reason was given for his absence. Chinese Commerce Minister Wang Wentao read Xi’s speech instead.
"Right now, changes in the world, in our times, and in history are unfolding in ways like never before, bringing human society to a critical juncture," China's President Xi Jinping said in the remarks delivered for him at a BRICS business forum. "The course of history will be shaped by the choices we make."
The main business of the summit occurred on August 23, when Xi, Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Ramaphosa were expected to meet to discuss expanding the BRICS membership.
A reported 23 other countries have applied to join, although the full list of candidates has not been published. The expansion is part of plans for the BRICS to challenge Western hegemony. The bloc is already home to about 40% of the world’s population and more than half of its economic output in PPP terms.
Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister, Prince Faisal bin Farhan, and Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi both planned to attend the summit and both are leading candidates to join the club.
One of the big unanswered questions is what the BRICS bloc aspires to become. One option is to create a political bloc that will represent the collective interests of the emerging world and challenge the West’s centuries long domination of geopolitics. Russia and China are believed to favour this version.
An alternative is to create an economic club similar to the EU to promote trade and development. India and South Africa are believed to favour this version. Brazil reportedly remains the most sceptical of expansion, worrying that adding more members will diminish the BRICS authority on the global stage.
A split in the positions was already apparent as both Russia and China would like to see the BRICS develop into a political organisation that can challenge the West. In their first comments Brazil and South Africa made it clear they want to strike a more conciliatory tone with the West.
As bne IntelliNews reported, Ramaphosa made it clear the day before the summit started that South Africa “will not take sides in a fractured world.” India has also made it clear before the summit started that it doesn’t want to increase east-west tensions further.
Speaking on the first day of the summit, President, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva threw his hat into the non-aggressive ring as well, insisting that it was not the group’s aim to compete with Western institutions.
“We do not want to be a counterpoint to the G7, G20 or the United States,” he said on August 22 as reported by The Guardian. “We just want to organise ourselves.”
These disagreements on the basic concept of what the BRICS organisation should become will occupy the bulk of the talks in the coming days.
Speaking in Washington on the same day, White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan told reporters he does not see BRICS turning into a geopolitical rival of the United States.
"This is a very diverse collection of countries ... with differences of view on critical issues," he said, reports Reuters.
Putin’s speech was largely predictable and moved in lockstep with many of the key talking points that China has been pushing, as Beijing also finds itself increasingly in conflict with the US.
Putin called for a global trading bloc that represented the “global majority”, referring to the billions of people that live in the BRICS. Between them China and India are home to 2.5bn, or more than a quarter of the entire world’s population. Russia is by far the most populous country in Europe by almost a factor of two. Brazil has 214mn inhabitants, almost half the population of all of South America. South Africa has just under 60mn inhabitants compared to the total African population of around one billion, and in this regard is the anomaly in the BRICS organisation.
The economies of the BRICS countries outperform the G7 states in terms of purchasing power parity, Putin told his audience, always one to roll out positive economic results in his speeches.
"In terms of purchasing power parity, the "five" bypasses the Group of Seven," the head of state said. "The forecast for 2023 is 31.5% against 30%," Putin stressed.
The Russian president also pointed out that the share of the BRICS countries, which account for more than three billion people of global population, has reached almost 26% of world GDP.
Putin took a backhanded swipe at the Western powers, who were not invited to the summit, criticising the “trampling of all rules of free trade and economic life which we thought to be immovable before, is not acceptable.” Putin also took a dig at Europe, saying Russia was interested in the “post-colonial” development of countries, using a phase that he hopes will resonate with the African audience, as bne IntelliNews described in a recent feature on Russia in Africa.
But his main message was that the “BRICS are based on cooperation and to ensure sustainable development and economic growth is the centre of our attention”.
“The main thing is we cooperate on the basis of parity and mutual support and respect of each other’s interests. This is the essence of the future economic association we are in,” said Putin.
The theme of parity in international relations is in lockstep with the foreign policy principle China has been pushing of “true multilateralism”, where all countries have an equal status, as opposed to what Beijing decries as the Western multilateralism that is nothing more than bloc politics dressed up as equality.
These are ideas that are part of China’s “Global Development Initiative”, a foundation stone in China’s blueprint for an alternative world order to challenge that of the US-led West, the Financial Times reports.
“Ostensibly, the GDI is a Chinese-led multilateral programme to promote development, alleviate poverty and improve health in the developing world. But along with two follow-up initiatives also announced by Xi — the Global Security Initiative and the Global Civilisation Initiative — it represents China’s boldest move yet to enlist the support of the “global south” to amplify Beijing’s voice on the world stage and build up China’s profile in the UN, Chinese officials and commentators say,” the Financial Times said in a report.
Putin went on to remind his listeners that the developing world is now in the majority in terms of PPP weighted economic power, land masses and population. Like Xi, Russia is keen to hitch its wagon to the more populous countries in the world that are growing the fastest.
And Russia’s trade with the BRICS countries have been growing fast in the last year and will continue as the countries of the Global South are all growing fast themselves.
Putin went on to say that more international trade should be done in local currencies as both China and Russia attempt to ditch the dollar as the preferred currency for settlement of trade deals. Putin singled out the New Development Bank (formerly known as the BRICS Bank) as a key piece of infrastructure in remaking the globe’s finances.
The term BRIC was coined by legendary Goldman Sachs analyst Jim O’Neill in 2001 as a marketing term to sell emerging markets equities. The BRIC political entity came into being at the first summit in Russia’s Yekaterinburg in 2006 and South Africa was added to create BRICS in 2010.
Overall, around 1,200 delegates from the five BRICS nations and dozens of other developing countries are in South Africa’s biggest city, and more than 40 heads of state were expected to take part in some of the summit meetings, according to Ramaphosa.