BRICS: In China-hosted summit, Putin is back on the world stage
For Putin, this could offer a welcome picture: his face beamed onscreen alongside other leaders whose countries make up this acronymous grouping: China’s Xi Jinping, India’s Narendra Modi, Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, and South Africa’s Cyril Ramaphosa — a signal that Russia, though battered by sanctions and remonstrations for the invasion, is not alone.
Below the surface, Putin’s invasion is likely to throw another complication into BRICS, a more than a decade-old grouping of major emerging economies, which already suffers from mistrust between members and mismatched ideologies.
But the decision by the group to press ahead with its 14th annual summit does reflect a view held by BRICS countries on the global order and, by extension, the situation in Ukraine, that departs from that of the West, experts say.
“We’re talking about some very major economies whose leadership is willing to be seen with Putin, even if it is only on a virtual platform,” said Sushant Singh, a senior fellow at the Center for Policy Research (CPR) in New Delhi.
“The fact that Putin is welcome, he’s not a pariah, he’s not being pushed out — and this is a normal engagement, which has taken place every year and it’s still taking place — that is a big plus for Putin,” he said.
Unlike the G7, BRICS is expected to tread carefully when it comes to Ukraine at Thursday’s summit, likely speaking in favor of peaceful resolution, even as its members may carefully call for Western countries to examine the impact of their sanctions on the global economy, observers say.
Beijing — this year’s host and by far the most economically powerful of the five nations, which together make up around a quarter of worldwide GDP — appears set to focus on its own agenda: promoting its new global development and security initiatives and pushing back on what it sees as “bloc”-building by the United States.
BRICS countries should “strengthen political mutual trust and security cooperation,” coordinate on major international and regional issues, accommodate each other’s core interests, and “oppose hegemonism and power politics,” Xi said in a speech to BRICS foreign ministers last month, where he called on the group to promote development in this “period of turbulence and transformation.”
Some of the crises of this period, like food insecurity and a rising debt crisis in the developing world, are those that the group — established in 2009 as a means to “serve common interests of emerging market economies and developing countries” — was ostensibly formed to address.
It’s also seen the countries discussing issues like how to settle trade in their own currencies — outside the US dollar system — an issue that could now take more relevance for BRICS following Western sanctions on Russia, according to Shahar Hameiri, a professor and political economist at the University of Queensland in Australia.
“There’s not going to be any full-throated embrace of Russia (at this summit), there’s no doubt about it, and I’m sure there’s gonna be plenty of awkwardness there … but behind the awkwardness (de-dollarization) is one area where these governments do have a shared interest,” Hameiri said.
“Any kind of meaningful steps away from (a US dollar-denominated system) are potentially significant.”
Despite some common interests, the BRICS group has long been plagued by questions of cohesion, given outsized differences in its members’ political and economic systems, and their divergent geopolitical interests.
In addition, the complexities of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine may tone down any major outcomes of this week’s summit, even as — with the exception of Brazil — the BRICS nations other than Russia abstained from voting in a United Nations General Assembly resolution supported by 141 countries that called on Moscow to withdraw from Ukraine.
Under normal circumstances, China would take the usual steps — touting BRICS as “a kind of soft alternative to the G7” and seeking to “portray BRICS as a leader for the developing world … against the club of wealthy capitalist democracies,” according to Sino-Russia relations analyst Alexander Gabuev. This would include members endorsing each others’ key projects, he added.
“Now it’s just harder to do because of Putin in the room,” said Gabuev, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
On the one hand, BRICS has been a “way of ensuring some form of engagement with China” for India, according to CPR’s Singh. And this remains critical, as New Delhi is wary of provoking Beijing, especially as it has partnered with the United States, Japan and Australia on their Quad security grouping and is increasingly viewed by the US as part of its strategy to counter China, he said.
But these ties also make India more reticent to back major outcomes from a BRICS summit.
“I would be surprised if any substantive initiative is announced, because India would then be sending a message to the Quad and to its Western partners that it is willing to work very closely with China and Russia,” he said. “That would make India’s position very complicated.”
Another question is how other nations in the bloc will view a drive, long under discussion and expected to be spearheaded by China at Thursday’s summit, to expand the bloc to include more developing countries.
In a meeting with his BRICS counterparts last month, China’s foreign minister Wang Yi called for the group to start a member country “expansion process.”
Such an enlargement could play into perceptions from some parts that the West has shown a double standard in how it upholds international norms, according to Carnegie Endowments’s Gabuev, who says this has fueled an argument that the developing world, instead, should formulate those norms.
“Bringing more countries on board is something that gives it more legitimacy, but again, whether that will go beyond symbolism for now, I’m not so sure,” he said.