BRICS leaders holding summit in South Africa, but Putin won't be there in person

BRICS leaders holding summit in South Africa, but Putin won’t be there in person

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — Leaders from three continents are gathering here for a major summit of BRICS, the informal grouping of nations that was created more than a decade ago to align the world’s top emerging economies but has struggled since to achieve diplomatic harmony, especially amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

BRICS is an abbreviation for Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, and one of the top line realities of the summit opening in Johannesburg on Tuesday is that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s reputation has become so tarnished on the world stage, he can’t attend in person.

Mr. Putin will only address the summit via video link because South Africa is a founding member of the International Criminal Court (ICC) at The Hague and would have been obliged to arrest the Russian strongman on an ICC warrant for war crimes in Ukraine if he were to show up in Johannesburg.

It’s a situation that underscores how divisive an issue the war has become among the top non-aligned powers of the so-called Global South.

Chinese President Xi Jinping, who rhetorically backs Mr. Putin on Ukraine, is attending the BRICS summit and will combine his trip with an official state visit in South Africa. President Lula da Silva of Brazil, which like China is buying record amounts of Russian oil despite Western sanctions on Moscow, is also slated to attend.

So is Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, although reports have swirled since early August that he had planned to avoid the meeting altogether until South African President Cyril Ramaphosa persuaded him to change his mind in an urgent phone call earlier this month.

The gathering, which is expected to anchor on how the BRICS nations might develop a new currency to challenge the dominance of the U.S. dollar globally, is being watched closely in Washington, where several Republican and Democratic lawmakers accuse the Ramaphosa government of supporting Mr. Putin’s war.

Despite that backdrop, analysts say there is still hope for a successful talkfest, even if BRICS is struggling for relevance in the face of the Ukraine war along with South Africa’s economic difficulties, and widening competition between China and India: the world’s second and fifth largest economies.

China, which has held the number two spot in GDP behind the United States since BRICS was formed, is facing an increasing challenge from India, which was only ninth on the biggest economies list back in 2010, when the bloc held its first major summit.

BRICS meetings have taken place in all five member states since then, although this week marks the first in-person gathering since 2019.

While the appearance of disunity looms, there are signs of momentum. More than 40 countries have applied to join the bloc in recent years as a counter-balance to what they claim is American dominance in trade, diplomacy and at the United Nations.

Even without new members, the current BRICS nations cover a quarter of the world’s landmass, make up more than 40 percent of its population and have a combined GDP of $28 trillion — collectively greater than the $25 trillion boasted by the United States.

The China factor

This week’s summit is likely to be a showcase for China, the largest trade partner for both Brazil and South Africa.

Despite a surge in Russia-China ties following Western efforts to isolate Moscow with sanctions in response to the Ukraine invasion, trade between the Chinese and Russian economies remains relatively modest.

Beijing, for instance, sells more to its rival, Taiwan, than to neighboring Russia.

Africa, meanwhile, has been one of the core destinations of loans from China tied to Mr. Xi’s Belt and Road Initiative aimed at growing Beijing’s global influence and connectivity via lending for development projects in poorer nations around the world.

Although China’s economy has continued to take a hit in the post-COVID era — Chinese exports in July were down 14% on the same month last year — the Xi government will likely use the gathering in Johannesburg to show its growing influence on the continent.

But the question of how South Africa fits into Beijing’s long-term calculus is debatable.

Like India and Brazil, South Africa is struggling with rapid urbanization and high levels of unemployment especially among the youth; more than a third of the population is aged under 20.

The BRICS summit is taking place in the northern Johannesburg suburb of Sandton, dubbed “Africa’s richest square mile,” where commercial turnover on sales — including brands like Chanel, Gucci, Rolls Royce and Jaguar — exceeds the GDP of Africa’s poorer states.

The extent to which the summit can grow political cohesion between South Africa, China and those other states remains to be seen.

BRICS is not the first effort by developing nations to combine their influence.

The Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), dating from 1961, includes every country in Africa except South Sudan, along with much of Asia and Latin America. At its core is neutrality in the tussle for dominance between Moscow and Washington, although, in the 1970s the NAM was chaired by the late-Fidel Castro whose rule over Cuba was underpinned at the time by financial and military dependence on the former Soviet Union.

Other Soviet-aligned members of that era included Angola, Mozambique, Ethiopia and Vietnam.

In more than 60 years of existence, NAM has had little impact on trade or diplomacy.

Pushing a new currency?

Analysts say the central focus of discussions at the summit will be on how the BRICS group might expand, along with the potential creation of a new currency to replace the U.S. dollar in international transactions.

According to data from the International Monetary Fund, a global institution headquartered in Washington, the dollar is currently used for close to 90% of world trade, and accounts for more than half of all currency reserves.

As the researcher Michael Roach wrote recently for The Interpreter, a flagship publication of the Lowy Institute think tank in Australia, there has been “increasing talk of BRICS nations…developing a new currency that will rival the U.S. dollar as the global reserve standard.”

The push for such comes in response to what Mr. Roach described as “weaponization” of the dollar in the form of sanctions and trade wars.

“Many countries are seeking greater independence from the U.S. financial system,” he claimed.

Ironically, the five BRICS nations quote everything from hotel rates to state-imposed visa fees in dollars.

There is also little diplomatic congruence within the bloc.

Passport holders from South Africa and Brazil can enter Russia at will, but for the two Asian members, India and China, it’s more complicated. Indians must obtain a visa in advance while citizens of China may only stay in Russia for two weeks without a permit.

Mr. Ramaphosa, meanwhile, has invited all African heads of state to attend this week’s summit occurring on a continent notorious for last-minute no-shows.

In July, Mr. Putin hosted a similar gathering of African leaders in St. Petersburg, but only 17 attended.

Some of those invited to Johannesburg this week have indicated unease over Russia’s war in Ukraine.

President George Weah of Liberia was one of a few to make clear he will be staying away from any Russian events until Mr. Putin’s forces withdraw from occupied territory.

However, the war does have some vocal supporters, including President Emmerson Mnangagwa of Zimbabwe, although elections in his country are slated to occur Wednesday and officials say that if he comes to Johannesburg it will only be for a few hours.

Those attending may hope for a sign from China that the collective billions owed to Beijing by developing nations — from more than a decade of loans — might be forgiven or reduced.

Whether or not such debt forgiveness comes to the fore, local businesses in the area where this week’s summit is being held say they’re expecting a lively diplomatic scene of big spenders.

Brigidah Khumalo is originally from Zimbabwe but has waited tables at a Sandton restaurant for more than 20 years. In that time, she’s served delegations from the United Nations, NAM, BRICS and the African Union.

“We are used to it,” she said, “and we plan ahead. Our restaurant has ordered more than double the usual stock of champagne. The parties will run very late.”

She said African leaders and their officials were courteous.

“They treat us well and they tip big. It’s going to be a good week.”