What are the modalities of BRICS expansion?

BRICS expansion is set to become the main topic of discussion at the BRICS summit in South Africa and as with so many actively discussed matters there is enormous confusion about what this expansion actually means. Is it just about the expansion in the BRICS core membership or a BRICS+ format? In the latter case, does the BRICS+ format amount to simply adding the BRICS candidate countries into a “group of friends of the BRICS” or could there be various categories of members with observer status or with a permanent right to participate in BRICS summits. And is there scope for the developed economies to become part of the expanding BRICS platform? While the summit is to decide on the short-term exigencies of the expansion process, the reality is that most of the above formats could well be accommodated within the various modalities of BRICS outreach to the economies of the developing and developed world.

One possible mode of expansion is the widening of the circle of developing economies forming the BRICS core. Starting from 2022 this track of BRICS expansion has been prioritized by China, with a high probability of new members being admitted to the core during the 2023 BRICS summit in South Africa. There have been numerous proposals concerning the country composition of the next waves of BRICS core expansion – from including most of the developing economies that are members of the G20 to incorporating two economies (Indonesia and Saudi Arabia) that play a key role in their respective regions. Further rounds of core expansion, however, will likely be constrained by the rising difficulties of arriving at a consensus and the reservations on expansion coming from some of the founding BRICS members.

The other possible modality for expansion is BRICS+ – a format launched by China in 2017 and reserved for the building of economic ties with partners from the Global South. Together with the outreach activities conducted by South Africa in 2023 there were altogether four BRICS+ outreach undertakings – two conducted by China and two more by South Africa. In the span of the 7 years since the first BRICS+ summit in China, the scale of these outreach formats has grown substantially – something that played a major role in triggering a wave of applications to join BRICS from other parts of the Global South. But the importance of BRICS+ role for the developing world may not be in the sheer number of countries that are joining the block, but rather in a structure that this format may accord to the rising impulses of South-South cooperation. Some of the structured foundations of BRICS+ may include:

  • A platform for the regional trade arrangements of developing economies
  • A platform for the regional development institutions (regional development banks and regional financing arrangements)
  • A platform for the sovereign wealth funds of developing economies

There may be numerous other BRICS+ formats/platforms, including a grouping of “observers” as well as regular participants at the annual BRICS summits. The multiplicity of these and other possible platforms of South-South economic cooperation can all come under the umbrella of BRICS+ cooperation. The benefit of such a format is that it relieves in part the pressures from other economies to expand the BRICS core, while providing both structure and flexibility/optionality to expanding economic cooperation with the Global South.   

The third trajectory for BRICS expansion could be a BRICS++ format that has not yet been implemented and remains largely a theoretical possibility. The BRICS++ proposal advanced in 2017-2018 was to extend the economic cooperation between BRICS/BRICS+ with advanced economies and their development institutions[1]. In effect, the BRICS++ framework allows the BRICS outreach to embrace the entire world economy and create a platform for a renewed globalization effort. Importantly, however, this would be a globalization with a different starting point, a different foundation and a different technology of implementation. It would represent a platform that is complementary to G20 and that would base globalization impulses on the set of values and priorities advanced by the Global South, most notably:

  • “no core, no periphery” development paradigm
  • scope for divergence in economic models pursued by various countries and regional blocks
  • Alternatives and optionality in the key elements of the global financial system, including alternative reserve currencies and payment systems
  • Depoliticization of conditionality and avoidance of politicized trade restrictions
  • Greater weight in international organizations accorded to developing economies in line with their share in the world economy
  • Greater role for the United Nations and its economic institutions within the framework of international economic cooperation
  • Prioritization of international economic assistance in areas ranging from technology transfers to fighting pandemics to be granted to least developed countries (LDCs)

In effect BRICS++ may be the platform for a revitalized globalization effort to be carried out with due regard to the role and weight of developing economies. This was precisely the vision of an “alternative globalization” that was formulated back in 2017-2018 with a particular role envisaged for a BRICS-induced momentum to economic openness and cooperation[2]. And this may be not the only vision of globalization that is likely to emerge in the coming years as a rising number of countries and regions are likely to advance their visions and platforms[3]. The hope is that from this rising number of “globalization ideologies” a convergence of visions[4] will provide scope for cooperation between the BRICS++ framework and the competing projects from the advanced world[5]. The latter scenario would be greatly facilitated if there would be greater connectivity in the BRICS++ framework/BRICS+ summits with the IMF, World Bank, WTO, NDB, BRICS CRA as well as the regional development institutions from the Global South and the developed world.

Overall, within BRICS different members may lead or prioritize the pursuit of the various tracks of the block’s expansion. In particular, China is likely to prioritize the expansion of the BRICS core as well as BRICS+ as the platform for the Global South. Russia may opt for the “integration of integrations” track of the BRICS+ platform, a format that may be also favoured by South Africa that will continue to seek formats that will bring the African continent into closer proximity with the BRICS block. India and Brazil may accord greater importance to the BRICS++ format that will explore the possibilities of building ties between the BRICS-related platforms of the Global South and those of the developed world. And the advancement of the BRICS++ framework will make it more difficult to level unsubstantiated claims that BRICS is an anti-Western/confrontational club, while providing scope for neutral countries as well as West-leaning economies to become part of such an inclusive platform.   

At the end of the day, what seems quite clear is that an open, extrovert BRICS is far superior compared to an introvert and narrowly self-interested grouping. The BRICS+ and the BRICS++ formats offer a greater promise and potential than the mere expansion in BRICS core membership. The enthusiasm of the Global South about joining the expanding BRICS block should not overshadow the pressing need to forge ahead with pragmatic cooperative platforms and financial mechanisms that will result in a material improvement in the welfare and poverty reduction across the developing world. In this respect, BRICS has the potential and the capabilities to create not only the conditions for a more structured economic integration in the Global South, but also for a revitalized globalization drive that is more balanced and sustainable compared to earlier patterns.  

[1] https://news.cgtn.com/news/3d3d514d3459444d79457a6333566d54/share_p.html

[2] Lissovolik, Y. (2018, January 21). BRICS-plus: Alternative globalization in the making? World Economic Forum. https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2018/01/brics-plus-analternative-to-globalization-in-the-making

[3] Lissovolik, Y. (2019, February 28). The clash of globalizations: the next frontier in international competition. Valdai club. https://valdaiclub.com/a/highlights/the-clash-of-globalizations-the-next-frontier/

[4] The convergence that did not come about during the Cold War period, with adverse implications for global security and development.

[5] In the connectivity track signs of such competition are observed between BRI, the Global Gateway and B3W.

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