A Difficult Balancing Act: Latin America and the BRICS
Created in 2009 and expanded with the addition of South Africa the following year, the BRICS group (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) has become an alternative forum for emerging economies that aspires to promote cooperation and eventually play a more active role in reforming and reconfiguring global economic governance. As an informal multilateral mechanism that differs from established financial organizations, other informal forums for consultation, and traditional multilateral mechanisms, BRICS, from its inception, has aimed to give a voice to emerging economies from the Global South to counter the hegemony of the more industrialized and wealthier nations of the West (including Japan). The XV BRICS Summit constitutes a turning point in this regard, to the extent that it has made a decisive impact on the configuration of a multipolar international system with the presence of various actors and without US hegemony, similar to other organizations - particularly in Eurasia - such as the SCO, which serves as an inspiration in many aspects.
This fits perfectly within the traditional objectives of BRICS, not only in terms of questioning global financial governance mechanisms but also in terms of reforming or complementing agencies and mechanisms associated with the United Nations and dominated by the West.
The return of geopolitics and the confrontation between major powers and emerging blocs following the COVID-19 pandemic and Western sanctions imposed on Russia due to the war in Ukraine contributed to the revitalization of the group starting in 2019 and its growing politicization in the face of ongoing geopolitical changes in the international system.
In this context, the XV BRICS Summit held in Johannesburg in August of this year stirred up a wide range of expectations regarding its growing influence in the international system. Some of these expectations were highly critical, as they questioned its role as a counterweight to existing organizations and its effective ability to become a prominent actor, particularly in Western media, where it is perceived as an "anti-Western alliance led by Beijing and Moscow" that contributes to the construction of a sinocentric global order1. Together with these criticisms, the predominant role of China as the most powerful economy in the group and Russia's "special military operation" in Ukraine raised a wide range of questions about a group perceived as aligned with the interests of this tandem, and whose potential expansion could threaten Western interests. Others, broadly favorable in terms of the emergence of a mechanism capable of balancing or reforming global governance in favor of the Global South and emerging economies, aimed to highlight the role of the bloc as a fundamental actor in a multipolar reconfiguration of the international system that could dilute Western primacy.
Beyond these criticisms and perceptions, before the Summit, there were a series of questions about whether the group sought to deepen its institutionalization - in terms of structure, procedures, budget, and permanent location - building on some of its previous achievements such as the creation of the New Development Bank in 2014 and the Contingent Reserve Arrangements, among others, which have already benefited some developing countries that were not yet members of the group, and whether the group should proceed to expand - forming a BRICS+ - to increase its weight, representativeness, and legitimacy in the international system, given the list of more than 23 countries aspiring to join the group2.
However, the Summit's agenda envisaged two prominent issues to address. On one hand, particularly in light of movements favoring the use of international currencies in trade and financial transactions among group members and other nations in the Global South, there was the idea to create a common currency with the aim of displacing the US dollar as the dominant currency3 and on the other hand, there was the expansion of the bloc to a broader platform, taking into account numerous membership requests from Global South countries. Additionally, two foreseeable issues were associated with the group's projection in Africa due to the host country's regional leadership and positions regarding the situation in Ukraine and the resolution of the conflict. Beyond condemnations or alignments, China and Brazil, as well as the African countries, had launched initiatives to promote dialogue for peace between Ukraine and Russia.
After several international organizations pointed out that BRICS had become the world's largest GDP bloc in terms of Purchasing Power Parity (PPP), currently contributing 31.5% of the world GDP compared to the G7's 30.7%, and that most members of the bloc had largely ignored Western economic sanctions against Russia, the issue of creating a single currency, strongly promoted by Brazil, did not advance at the Summit as expected. Instead, it was reiterated that there was a need to strengthen and resort to trading in national currencies before creating a common currency that could displace the dollar. Beyond suspicions of "yuanization" of the dominant currency due to China's significant economic weight, the difficulties faced by China and other economies in liberalizing capital flows discouraged this initiative in the short term.
However, the second issue - the expansion of the bloc advanced significantly, and the immediate inclusion of six new members - Argentina, Egypt, Ethiopia, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, and Iran - into a BRICS+ was approved, despite resistance from some members like India, which proposed limiting the expansion to three new members, in contrast to China's proposal for a larger expansion of the bloc. In fact, both this and other debates highlighted differences between China and Russia's positions in their aspiration to make the group an instrument of their global projection; India and Brazil, which were more focused on their own development interests; and South Africa, which aspired not only to this but also to greater global projection.
Undoubtedly, this expansion gives more weight to the bloc in the international system, among other reasons because it sees itself as a spokesperson for the Global South, in contrast to the Western North, and seeks to project and expand into Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Despite the ambiguity of the concept of the Global South - which partially assumes the legacy of concepts like the "Third World" and "developing countries" - this marks the rise of a group of nations with increasing protagonism and global influence that aspire to play a more active role in the international system despite their disparities and asymmetries4.
The geographical balance of the new additions to BRICS illustrates this intention clearly, particularly because the bloc sees itself as a potential spokesperson for the Global South despite its internal differences. Nevertheless, just like the original group, the current expanded BRICS, present heterogeneities and asymmetries that will likely complicate the future construction of consensus and raise questions about the inclusion of other Latin American nations.
The Challenges for Latin America
Beyond its strategic marginalization in the international system and the region's great heterogeneity - which makes it difficult to form a regional bloc despite the existence of mechanisms such as CELAC and various attempts at regional and sub-regional integration that have not been able to overcome a series of obstacles - the potential inclusion of Latin American or Caribbean countries in BRICS entails a series of opportunities but also risks. In terms of opportunities, participation in the bloc expands the range of trade and investment options with other members and provides access to NDB credit. However, while it can also increase collective bargaining capacity in organizations such as the G20, the IMF, and the World Bank, where some have demanded greater participation for years5, countries face the risk of alienating their ties with the West and being perceived as associates or allies of countries like China, Russia, and Iran, which are subject to various sanctions by the United States and the European Union.
This dilemma between economic benefits and geopolitical risks is clearly illustrated by the case of Argentina. With the support of one of its largest trading partners – Brazil - Argentina formally joins BRICS and will operate as a member as of January 1, 2023. Alongside Brazil, China and India are among Argentina's top five trading partners, and its membership will likely enhance these relationships and open up the possibility of a broader and more diversified range of international links. However, the economic benefits could be overshadowed by political and geopolitical risks. First, although membership in the RIC, BRICS, and SCO may have helped ease tensions - very recently - between India and China, which were embroiled in a territorial dispute and regional leadership rivalry, Argentina and Iran have outstanding issues due to terrorist attacks on Argentine territory, for which Buenos Aires places responsibility on senior Iranian officials. This could increase tensions and disparities within the bloc. In addition to this, in the context of the upcoming presidential elections in October of this year, two of the leading right-wing presidential candidates have flatly rejected this membership and announced that they will withdraw from the bloc if they win the presidency. One of the candidates has even announced that he will not deal with "communists," a campaign promise that could affect relations with one of the country's major trading partners - the People's Republic of China.
In fact, as two Argentine analysts point out, the underlying problem is the persistence among Argentine political elites of limited cognitive maps and narratives that are firmly attached to outdated frameworks, summarily referring to contrasting views between hyper-Westernism, which forces them to align with the United States and the European Union, and Sinophilism, which brings them closer to China on the international stage and is not the only case in Latin America6.
The benefits and risks posed by this combination of economic, political, and geopolitical factors in Argentina, with different nuances and unique characteristics, extend to other countries in the region. While Argentina has joined thanks to the mediation of Brazil and the support of China, Russia, and India, it could serve as a spearhead for the inclusion of other countries such as South American nations like Uruguay, Bolivia, and Venezuela, as well as Central American and Caribbean countries like Cuba (whose President Diaz Canel attended the Summit as the representative of the G77), Honduras, and more recently, Nicaragua. It is evident that a majority of these countries have a clear alignment against the United States and in favor of Russia and China, but this does not prevent other countries from considering applying for membership, like Colombia, torn between seeking OSCE affiliation and potentially joining BRICS under a left-wing government. It is evident that the weight of two emerging economies like Brazil and Argentina (although the latter is going through a serious economic crisis and uncertain political transition) in South America may tempt other South American countries - particularly those with significant economic ties to China - to aspire to join BRICS, possibly contributing to greater heterogeneity within the group. However, this decision may also be influenced by respective geopolitical alignments. Mexico - for numerous reasons, apart from its close ties with the United States and Canada - has shown ambiguity, if not clear negativity, regarding the possibility of applying for BRICS membership.
In the context of tensions and disputes during the current transition from a unipolar to multipolar international system, it seems that the strategy of multi-alignment or the doctrine of active non-alignment promoted by some Latin American7 analysts and diplomats can help maintain a balanced diversification of relationships in an uncertain and changing international environment within the framework of a complex process of global geopolitical reconfiguration. However, as demonstrated by India's case in the process of convening, organizing, and building consensus at the recent G20 meeting, multi-alignment demands a delicate balancing act that is not easy to maintain.
Andrés Serbin is Chair of the Academic Council of CRIES and Global South Distinguished Scholar of the International Studies Association (ISA), author of "Guerra y Transición Global” (Areté/CRIES, 2022).