How BRICS Was Expanded: The Inside Story of Twists and Turns

When the delegations arrived in Johannesburg, all countries – except one – were prepared with an initial list of candidates for membership.

New Delhi: When it was announced that the bloc of emerging economies would more than double its group by adding six new members, it was a surprise to the rest of the world. Inside the group, it took a lot of twists and turns to reach that decision.

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa declared at a press appearance with the leaders of the other countries on August 24 that BRICS had invited Argentina, Egypt, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia and Iran. The doubling of a group in terms of numbers at one stroke was unprecedented in recent years.

China had been advocating for bringing in new members for a long time, but the other countries had not displayed the same level of enthusiasm. 

It was rather clear that India had been resisting an expansion, worried about the direction such a move would take. With China and then South Africa taking over the chairmanship in consecutive years, the writing on the wall was getting clearer.

India’s resistance was also worn down by the personal requests made by various countries who were vying to get in. While it was publicly acknowledged that the Iranian president had engaged with Prime Minister Narendra Modi regarding BRICS, similar approaches were made by various other nations. The mounting diplomatic pressure was becoming untenable.

Just ahead of the summit, India claimed to have a “positive intent and an open mind when it comes to BRICS expansion”.

The logo of the BRICS summit in Johannesburg, South Africa. Photo: PIB

When the delegations arrived in Johannesburg, all countries – except one – were prepared with an initial list of candidates for membership. Russia and South Africa had a list of three countries, China had four and India, somewhat unexpectedly, had the largest with five candidates. “It was a bit of a surprise to see the Indians with the biggest list after all the history,” said a well-informed official of one of the BRICS members.

The only country that didn’t have any list of names to put forward was Brazil. While President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva in the run-up to the BRICS summit had even talked about supporting Argentina and Venezuela, diplomatic sources said that Brazilian officials did not furnish any candidates but left the final decision to their leadership.

It is learnt that Russia’s initial list of priority candidates was Indonesia, Saudi Arabia and Argentina, while China had the same names with the addition of Egypt. India’s five names were those with whom it had a strategic partnership. It also included Indonesia, which withdrew from the race after all the members agreed to it. 

Indonesian President Joko Widodo issued a statement on Thursday, after the expansion announcement, that Jakarta was “not in a rush” and wanted to “examine” the membership issues further.

Sources, however, dismissed speculation that Indonesia was hesitant due to the perceived anti-West agenda of the group, noting that President Widodo had seemed happy enough in South Africa when he was informed about the green light for Jakarta’s entry. The official reason that Jakarta provided the BRICS members is that there were some internal approvals and rules for which it needed some ASEAN approval.

Incidentally, sources insisted that Indonesia had apparently not formally applied for membership, even though it was on the top of the list of candidates. It had apparently expressed its interest verbally through China earlier.

After Indonesia withdrew, Iran’s candidature came more sharply into the picture. China had been the strongest advocate for Saudi Arabia that also been vigorously lobbying for membership, but the other members felt that there needed to be a regional balance. Moreover, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi had actively engaged in personal lobbying efforts with each member state, which made it diplomatically challenging to turn him down.

While Russia had strongly supported Iran’s candidacy, to the surprise of many, China displayed hesitance. According to well-informed sources, China even raised questions about the necessity of expanding the group by incorporating numerous new entrants.

This year, China had a major diplomatic victory in West Asia, when it brokered an agreement between Saudi Arabia and Iran to restore diplomatic ties after seven years.

Most observers inferred from the negotiations that China’s enthusiasm was somewhat dampened, possibly due to objections from Saudi Arabia. This was against the backdrop of Beijing and Riyadh having grown steadily closer in recent years. 

It also appeared that the Saudis were also not too happy that the UAE was part of the new group.

India had also concluded that if Saudi Arabia was brought into BRICS, Iran could be the balance, The Wire has learnt. 

At one time during the negotiations, Iran’s candidature made it almost seem like it was China versus the rest of the BRICS group, said a diplomatic source. Sensing the mood in the room and unwilling to be seen to obstruct, China acquiesced. It seemed that the candidate selection process was now done.

The final twist in the tale took place at the official dinner hosted by South Africa for the BRICS members and the other heads of state on the night of August 23. Since the decision on the five countries had been already made, the participants at the dinner got an inkling of who made the cut.

When he learnt that his country was not on the list, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed put his foot down during the dinner. He apparently conveyed that it was inconceivable that an African country, which was the “cradle of humankind” was not being included in the expanded BRICS.

The South African president then persuaded the other BRICS member that Ethiopia should be included at the last minute on Wednesday night, sources confirmed. 

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and Narendra Modi during the 15th BRICS Summit at Johannesburg, in South Africa on August 24, 2023. Photo: PIB

The criteria for becoming a BRICS member has not been made public so far, with the Indian foreign secretary terming it as an “internal document”. 

In an interview, the South African foreign minister Naledi Pandor said that the criteria used in selecting the new members included commitment to progressive ideas, recognising the UN as a “premier global institution”, belief in peace and respect for international law.

“Most of the BRICS countries come from backgrounds where we experienced colonialism and different forms of oppression so we believe in freedom and justice and the pursuit of equity and development. These are the underlying general principles that we elaborated on in the guideline document,” she said.

Sources said that while these are the ideals that news members would agree with, there were also economic parameters that were drawn up. These included limits like trade with BRICS members at around $50 billion or a GDP of around $400 billion.

However, it was stressed that these were just general parameters. “Potential members don’t have to meet all these economic criteria,” sources said.