BRIC(S) by BRIC(S) East vs. West or North vs. South?
The East vs. West dilemma that has characterised the latter half of the twentieth century was put on hold following the collapse of the Soviet Union, only to be brought again into the mainstream following the Russian annexation of Crimea (and the subsequent invasion of Ukraine in 2022). However, the situation is complex and constantly evolving, the invasion itself managing to shake the way we perceive geopolitics. A paradoxical organisation is making bold announcements (in light of the recent summit), pushing rhetoric meant to represent the “Global South” as an actor, in opposition to the West, or as an up-to-date version of the Non-Aligned Movement. All this, while the Global South looks like a lucrative market for Russian exports, amidst the Western-imposed economic sanctions. Will East vs. West become North vs. South?
Apples and oranges
How would the European Union have looked like with the current-day borders, but with the 1960s national politics and economics? How would NAFTA have worked if it included North Korea? These questions seem bizarre, but the BRICS grouping manages to offer us a similar paradoxical view of international affairs. The group’s leaders recently met in South Africa and announced the expansion of the organisation, with Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Argentina planning to join in 2024 (Khumal, 2023). This is in addition to the states that have declared an interest to join in the future (Algeria, Bahrain, Kuwait, Palestine, Bangladesh, Iran, Kazakhstan, Nigeria, Senegal, Belarus, Bolivia, Venezuela, Vietnam, Cuba, Honduras, Thailand and Indonesia) (Middle East Monitor, 2023)
China and India being already in the group can be viewed as a “red flag”, given their rivalry and border disputes, however the new composition features even more similar scenarios. Brazil’s and Argentina’s attitude towards each other is mostly left out of politics, being reserved instead for football matches. However, relations between Ethiopia and Egypt are colder than usual due to the construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on the Blue Nile and the risk of tampering with Egypt’s (and Sudan’s) water supply. Furthermore, the ideological rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran is dominating the geopolitical landscape of the Middle East. Unity through diversity seems an understatement in this case. If it wasn’t for the war, maybe Ukraine might have been a candidate.
Furthermore, the group’s agenda at this year’s summit featured talks regarding “De-Dollarization”, even going so far as proposing a single currency for its members, an impressive endeavour if it will ever be implemented (Tan, 2023). The plan is ambitious as it will facilitate trade between these countries while also weakening the American-led economic hegemony (as in most cases the G7 is mentioned as the organisation most comparable to the BRICS). It is hard to imagine a single currency for eleven countries that barely share a border with one another, closely resembling more of an archipelago, not to mention economic ties that are in no way comparable to what we see inside the EU.
An important goal is also the creation of a payment system meant to rival or replace, in the case of Russia, SWIFT, even if the South African finance minister assured that the new system is not meant to be a replacement, but a means to further develop economies ties between the partner countries. (Reuters, 2023)
The main objective of the group is economic development through investment, given that the original reason behind the formation was to group together the world’s most important emerging economies (even if China is currently the second biggest economy in the world). This is how the New Development Bank came to be, a bank meant to represent an alternative to the International Monetary Fund or to the World Bank (Llewellyn, 2023). However, the objectives seem to have changed and gradually increased in ambiguity as members are quick to assert their neutrality regarding the war in Ukraine, while the purposes stated above are surprisingly advantageous to the Russian economy in the current sanctions landscape.
The winds of trade
The Russian oil market seems to have found new customers in the context of the G7 imposed price cap and that of the European goal of reducing its dependence on Russian energy imports.
Countries such as China and India started importing more Russian crude oil than ever before, with 40% of India’s recent oil imports coming from Russia, a sharp increase to the detriment of Saudi Arabia, as oil exports coming from OPEC countries fell in the region. (Verma, 2023)
This shift in the global oil market is due to the fact that these countries have, in the main, not joined the global community’s effort to hit the Kremlin’s war chest through economic sanctions, invoking the concept of neutrality. Moreover, the states involved in this shift in the oil market are all members of the BRICS group (or will be).
Indonesia might also provide an interesting example, as the country does not want to fully dedicate itself to joining the organisation nor to further integrate into the American-led bloc in Asia-Pacific, in an effort to maintain its neutrality (Llewellyn, 2023). Are we witnessing a rebirth of the Non-Aligned Movement or the creation of a faction in opposition to the policies of D.C. and Brussels?
The enemy of my enemy is my enemy
The criteria for the selection of new member-states for the BRICS are ambiguous as it seems that the only common feature is that of being non-Western countries (in terms of economic development, and internal and international politics). Moreover, the organisation seems to lack identity, clear objectives, and unity, not to mention an institutional framework necessary to meet certain goals. The membership is filled with countries that are in a state of constant rivalry with each other, even more so since Saudi Arabia and Russia have found themselves in direct competition regarding the oil market in Asia.
Given the paradoxical nature of BRICS, one can only question: Does non-Western imply anti-Western?
Khumal, T. (2023). BRICS expansion sparks joy in Africa – DW – 08/25/2023. [online] dw.com. Available at: https://www.dw.com/en/brics-expansion-sparks-joy-in-africa/a-66633777.
Llewellyn, A. (2023). Indonesia’s absence from bigger BRICS echoes decades of non-aligned policy. [online] www.aljazeera.com. Available at: https://www.aljazeera.com/economy/2023/8/28/indonesias-absence-from-bigger-brics-echoesdecadesof-non-alignedpolicy.
Middle East Monitor (2023). South Africa: 8 Arab countries request to join BRICS. [online] Middle East Monitor. Available at: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20230815-south-africa-8-arab-countries-request-to-join-brics/.
Reuters (2023). BRICS payment system would not replace SWIFT -S.Africa finance minister. Reuters. [online] 24 Aug. Available at: https://www.reuters.com/world/africa/brics-payment-system-would-not-replace-swift-safrica-finance-minister-2023-08-24/.
Tan, H. (2023). The BRICS summit ended with no new currency and all 5 members issuing differing and contradictory commentary on de-dollarization. [online] Markets Insider. Available at: https://markets.businessinsider.com/news/currencies/dedollarization-china-india-russia-leaders-brics-summit-yuan-rupee-2023-8.
Verma, N. (2023). India’s Russian oil buying scales new highs in May. Reuters. [online] 21 Jun. Available at: https://www.reuters.com/business/energy/indias-russian-oil-buying-scales-new-highs-may-trade-2023-06-21/.