The leaders from the five-member group of nations known as BRICS — Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa — are beginning a three-day summit in Johannesburg on Tuesday, where they are discussing expanding the club that harbors ambitions of becoming a geopolitical alternative to Western-led forums like the Group of 7.
The latest gathering of leaders has garnered a level of international interest rarely seen since the group was first formed 14 years ago.
Chinese President Xi Jinping landed in South Africa on Monday morning. He held a state visit with President Cyril Ramaphosa in Pretoria before he is expected to travel to Johannesberg for the summit, according to Chinese state media. Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India arrived in Johannesburg in the afternoon, the Times of India reported.
A trade war between Beijing and Washington and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have reinvigorated the debate over whether the bloc will remain a loose trade alliance or become a new international coalition. Dozens of countries have expressed interest in joining, including Argentina, Nigeria, Iran, Belarus, Saudi Arabia and Indonesia. The candidates are as diverse as the BRICS bloc, which represents 40 percent of the world’s population and a quarter of its economy.
China, the biggest economy in the group, favors expansion to shore up its own influence, while an isolated Russia needs new allies as it digs in for a protracted war in Ukraine. India and Brazil, with strong alliances among industrialized nations, favor a more cautious approach. South Africa, the smallest economy of the group, is pushing to have more African members and has invited more than 30 African leaders to join this year’s meeting.
These divergent views are likely to play out over the summit’s other key question, so-called de-dollarization. The BRICS countries are expected to discuss how to decrease their reliance on the U.S. dollar as the currency of global trade while also balancing existing trade relationships. But the slow growth of the bloc’s development bank, established in 2015 as a counter to the World Bank, is a sign that consensus will not come easily.
The diplomatic challenges South Africa has faced over the summit reflects the geopolitical interests BRICS nations must balance — particularly the smaller countries that have to navigate their allegiances to more wealthy and powerful nations.
Mr. Putin is wanted by the International Criminal Court, which accuses him of being responsible for the abduction of Ukrainian children and their deportation to Russia. He had planned on attending in person, but spared South Africa the dilemma of whether to arrest him by deciding to appear virtually. Even so, South Africa has continued to face pressure from its Western allies over its close ties with the Kremlin.
In a show of neutrality, President Cyril Ramaphosa called for abducted Ukrainian children to be returned and the re-establishment of the Black Sea Grain deal, which allowed Ukraine to export grain to the world, especially countries in Africa with food shortages.
“We have resisted pressure to align ourselves with any one of the global powers or with influential blocs of nations,” he said in a televised address on Sunday.