Leaders of the group of five nations known as BRICS – Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa – begin a three-day summit in Johannesburg on Tuesday, where they discuss expanding a club that has ambitions to become a major country. The geopolitical alternative to Western-led forums such as the G7.
The recent leaders’ meeting garnered a level of international attention seldom seen since the group was first formed 14 years ago.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, along with the trade war between Beijing and Washington, has reinvigorated the debate over whether the bloc should remain a loose trade alliance or become a new international alliance. 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.
Chinese leader Xi Jinping paid a state visit with South African President Cyril Ramaphosa in Pretoria, after which he is expected to travel to Johannesburg for the summit. The Times of India reported that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi arrived in Johannesburg in the afternoon. Russian President Vladimir Putin will appear virtually, to avoid an international arrest warrant for crimes against humanity committed during the war in Ukraine.
Mr. Xi met Mr. Ramaphosa at the Union Building, the presidential residence in the administrative capital of Pretoria. On the state visit, Mr. Xi inspected the guard of honor and shook hands with a line of ministers as cannon fire blared, announcing the state visit. The two leaders held a brief press conference afterward, during which they reaffirmed their longstanding political and economic ties, but did not take any questions.
In Putin’s absence, the Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, has been leading the country’s delegation. After shaking hands with a line of officials upon his arrival, Lavrov joined a group of traditional dancers. After a few uncertain steps, he clapped for a few minutes before giving up his thumb and walking away.
China, the group’s largest economy, would prefer expansion to boost its influence, while isolated Russia needs new allies as it fights a protracted war in Ukraine. India and Brazil, which enjoy strong alliances among industrialized nations, would prefer a more cautious approach. South Africa, the smallest economy in the group, is seeking more African members and has invited more than 30 African leaders to join this year’s meeting.
The diplomatic challenges South Africa faced during the summit reflect the geopolitical interests that the BRICS countries must balance – especially smaller nations that must shift their loyalties to richer and more powerful states.
Mr. Putin is wanted by the International Criminal Court, which accuses him of being responsible for the kidnapping of Ukrainian children and their deportation to Russia. He had planned to attend in person, but spared South Africa the dilemma of being arrested by deciding to appear virtually. However, South Africa continued to face pressure from its Western allies because of its close ties to the Kremlin.
In a display of neutrality, Mr. Ramaphosa called for the return of kidnapped Ukrainian children and a reactivation of the Black Sea grain deal, which allowed Ukraine to export grain to the world, especially food-starved African countries.
“We have resisted pressure to align with any of the world powers or influential international blocs,” he said in a televised address on Sunday.
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