Vladimir Putin has told a summit of the Brics group of countries in South Africa that it should become a trading bloc representing the “global majority”.
However, differences among the group – comprising Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa – have become apparent at the summit over accepting new members, and whether to turn Brics into a geopolitical counterweight to the west.
Brazil’s president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, insisted on Tuesday that it was not the group’s aim to compete with western institutions.
“We do not want to be a counterpoint to the G7, G20 or the United States,” he said on Tuesday. “We just want to organise ourselves.”
The White House, too, played down the likelihood of Brics turning into a powerful and cohesive bloc.
“This is a very diverse collection of countries … with differences of view on critical issues,” the national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, said at a briefing.
In his recorded remarks to the meeting, Putin blamed the volatility in global markets for food and other commodities on western sanctions, and said that Brics would be a force for fairness in international relations.
“We cooperate on the principles of equality, mutual support and respect for each other’s interests,” he said. “This is the essence of the future-oriented strategic course of our association, a course that meets the aspirations of the main part of the world community, the so-called global majority.”
The Brics countries represent about 40% of the world’s population and a quarter of global GDP, but the group is considering expansion. Leaders from more than 40 countries, largely from Africa and elsewhere in the global south, flew in for the three-day summit in Johannesburg alongside Lula, China’s Xi Jinping and India’s Narendra Modi. According to the South African organisers, many of those countries have expressed interest in joining.
Among the disparate group of countries attending as observers and candidate members are Iran, Argentina, Saudi Arabia, Kazakhstan, Vietnam, Indonesia, Ethiopia and Venezuela. There is debate among members about how far expansion should go, India being the most cautious, and what criteria should be used in deciding membership. Brazil supports the admission of Argentina into Brics, but has warned that rapid expansion could dilute the group’s influence.
In his remarks to the summit, delivered on his behalf by the Chinese commerce minister, Wang Wentao, Xi insisted that the expansion of Brics was not aimed at “asking countries to take sides, or creating bloc confrontation, rather to expand the architect of peace and development”.
There is expected to be common ground in the discussion of alternatives to trading in dollars, and possible creation of parallel financial institutions to the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. However, the South African hosts have said there will be no proposals for a Brics common currency as an alternative to the dollar or euro.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is expected to be a significantly divisive issue. Putin did not attend in person and spoke instead by video, because he faces an arrest warrant for war crimes issued by the international criminal court.
The summit’s host, the South African president, Cyril Ramaphosa, has said he would use the meeting to push for the revival of the Black Sea Grain Initiative, which had facilitated the export of Ukrainian cereals to the rest of the world, and which Russia ended last month.
Speaking on Sunday, Ramaphosa said he would also press for the return of Ukrainian children who had been taken to Russia from occupied Ukrainian territory since the start of the full-scale invasion in February 2022.
Another substantial barrier to closer integration of the group is unresolved tension between China and India over their mutual border, which has escalated into brawls between their soldiers in recent years.