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What national perspectives informed the BRICS group’s unanimous decision to expand membership from five to 11 states?

During the 15th BRICS summit held in Johannesburg on 22–24 August 2023, existing members of the minilateral grouping – Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa – agreed to admit six new countries in 2024: Argentina, Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). 

A previous IISS analysis of this development explored what it meant for relations between China and the Middle Eastern countries joining. Here, our experts offer their views on the individual national interests and calculations that contributed to the decision to expand the grouping from 1 January 2024.   


Irene Mia  

Brazil likely welcomed the enlargement of the BRICS group as an important step towards achieving a more multilateral and representative global order. The latter is a long-held goal of President Luiz Inacio ‘Lula’ da Silva, who sees himself as a champion of the countries of the Global South. Lula, however, may have been less enthusiastic about both the pace of the enlargement and some of the countries included, notably Iran, which may pull the bloc towards a more anti-Western position than Brazil would like. The number of joiners will dilute Brazil’s leverage within the group while their diversity may make it more difficult to develop common external positions. 

Brasilia has been walking a fine line since Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine by continuing to pursue its traditional non-aligned foreign policy. While China has been Brazil’s largest trading partner since 2009, it has important political, economic and cultural links with Western powers – the United States in particular and with respect to climate financing – that it will not be willing to jeopardise. 

While the decision of the BRICS countries to admit Argentina was somewhat surprising, it appears to be a diplomatic success for Brazil. Lula sees Argentina as a crucial counterpart for revitalising the Mercosur trade-bloc and for concluding a Mercosur–European Union trade agreement on acceptable terms. He also views a politically aligned government in Buenos Aires as a key piece for building a more multilateral order both in Latin America and beyond. Meanwhile, the embattled Peronist administration in Argentina is facing a close general election in October 2023 and can now argue that it has achieved a diplomatic victory that will unlock much-needed international financing from the New Development Bank (formerly the BRICS Development Bank).  


Nigel Gould-Davies 

Russia’s war in Ukraine has brought it wide diplomatic condemnation and severe international sanctions. Russia thus saw the BRICS summit, and especially the admission of six new members, as an opportunity to pursue three goals: demonstrate its lack of isolation, promote economic ties among BRICS members and burnish its appeal in the Global South (a priority set out in its 2023 foreign-policy concept). 

But the summit achieved little for Russia. Its isolation was emphasised by President Vladimir Putin’s failure to attend in person following the International Criminal Court’s issuance in March 2023 of an arrest warrant for unlawful deportation of Ukrainian children to Russia. 

Russia also failed to advance its economic agenda. Other BRICS countries showed limited interest in promoting payments in national currencies or establishing a non-Western payments system. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, representing Russia at the summit, complained that the New Development Bank – whose creation in 2015 is arguably the only real achievement of the BRICS – had not only stopped lending to Russia but had suspended already-agreed investments. 

Russia hosted the first BRICS summit in 2009 and will host the next one in 2024. The symbolism of being treated with respect by a group of major states matters more than ever to it. But both Russia’s influence on, and the practical utility of, BRICS is limited. And as a developed yet poorly performing economy largely isolated from the richest countries, Russia’s position in the group looks increasingly anomalous. 


Viraj Solanki 

New Delhi does not place a high priority on engagement with the BRICS group. Indeed, India is relatively inactive compared with its participation in other minilateral groupings, such as the Quad or I2U2. These formats, unlike the BRICS, allow it to engage with partners on its key foreign-policy priority: countering China’s growing influence in the Indo-Pacific region and reducing the economic dependence of regional countries on Beijing. 

India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi stated at the conclusion of the summit that ‘India has always fully supported the expansion’ of the BRICS bloc, though he is likely hoping that expansion will make the group less China-centric rather than more so. There is some risk that expansion will cause BRICS to become incoherent, but New Delhi will find in 2024 and beyond that it has new opportunities to engage with partners such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE, and strengthen engagement in the Global South more broadly, particularly with Ethiopia and South Africa.  


Meia Nouwens 

By supporting the expansion of BRICS, China is seeking to create a bloc of emerging economies that can act as an anti-Western geopolitical counterbalance to the G7. This development should be seen as part of China’s effort to champion the Global South in addition to its other international diplomatic efforts such as: the Belt and Road Initiative, the Digital Silk Road and the Global Development, Global Security and Global Civilization initiatives.

The expanded BRICS will give heft to China’s diplomatic efforts in support of revising the international rules-based order. The group has also made calls for reform of the United Nations Security Council and the Bretton Woods institutions, and for a greater role for emerging markets and developing countries in leadership positions at international institutions.

Economically, the expansion of the BRICS also serves to potentially help China become less reliant on the West for trade and supply chains. President Xi Jinping’s focus has been on building China’s national resilience and self-sufficiency in response to tensions in the US–China bilateral relationships and, in particular, after the West imposed severe economic sanctions on Russia for its invasion of Ukraine. The expanded bloc will economically account for 37% of the world’s GDP and 47% of the global population. Added to this are energy and natural-resource benefits as the expanded group will also possess most global oil and gas reserves.

Ultimately, adding more countries to BRICS will not immediately translate into effectiveness. It remains unclear how China will deal with the political and economic challenges that the expanded group will present, and in particular, the geopolitical tensions between some of its members.

South Africa 

James Hamill 

South Africa’s hosting of the BRICS summit provided a much-needed fillip for President Cyril Ramaphosa and his government after a difficult year both at home and abroad. For Pretoria, the period just ahead of the summit was dominated by the controversy over Putin’s possible attendance, given his March indictment on war-crimes charges by the International Criminal Court. But Ramaphosa navigated the summit without damaging the country’s international relationships and may even have enhanced his reputation. This was assisted by Putin’s decision to attend the summit virtually, thus freeing South Africa from its legal obligation to arrest him had he arrived in person.  

South Africa strongly supported the expansion of the grouping, seeing it as part of the wider process of creating a more balanced and less Western-dominated global order, as well as giving impetus to the campaign for reforming the institutions of global governance.  

While the expansion will give added weight to BRICS as an economic and political actor, South Africa, as the weakest member of the existing organisation, must accept that its voice will count for even less in a significantly larger grouping. In addition, Pretoria will lose its unique status as the voice for African interests, given the pending accession of Egypt and Ethiopia.  

In a national pre-summit address on 20 August, Ramaphosa identified BRICS membership and non-alignment as vital pillars of South African foreign policy but did not acknowledge the obvious tension between the two. This tension is likely to grow, given the strongly anti-West positions of China, Russia, and now Iran.  

Joiners from the Middle East and North Africa 

Emile Hokayem 

The fact that four of the six countries invited to join the BRICS grouping are from the Middle East shows how this volatile region is both sensitive to, and being pulled into, the significant geopolitical re-ordering that is underway. 

Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the UAE are vastly different in size, capacity, stability and future prospects. The former two are large and historically significant but face considerable domestic headwinds, and therefore will seek the good will of and patronage from other BRICS powers. In contrast, the latter two are assertive and powerful geo-economic players eager to shape the global order, and they expect that joining BRICS will embed them in non-Western networks of trade, finance and influence. 

Tellingly, all are partially motivated by deteriorating relations with the US. For Iran, which has been ostracised internationally for decades, joining BRICS is a way to demonstrate that its global integration no longer depends on its acceptance by Western powers. In contrast, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have been firm US partners for decades. But unmet expectations, divergent views on the region and above all a reluctance to pick sides in the competition between China and the US – and to aggravate Russia – have sent them on diverging paths. That said, they are pursuing multi-alignment rather than seeking a break with the Western powers that remain central to their security and prosperity.  

BRICS will not solve their fundamental security, or even economic, challenges. These Middle Eastern powers will bring both simmering rivalries and high expectations to the BRICS grouping, but also will not be keen to antagonise Russia, and above all China and India. This guarantees complex, and at times awkward, statecraft in coming years.