The BRICS countries’ efforts to expand the group’s influence in the Global South is giving momentum to Argentina’s bid for membership, but the timeline and outcome of the admission process is far from certain. During a virtual summit hosted by Beijing in June, the BRICS – Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa – continued efforts to revitalize the group and follow up on expansion proposals initially agreed to in 2017.
Conceived as an alternative to the G7 when launched in 2009, the BRICS represent 42 percent of the planet’s population, 24 percent of world GDP, and more than 16 percent of global growth, according to 2019 World Bank estimates. Each member plays a significantly different role in international affairs, but the group is moving in a unified fashion to position themselves as a decisive factor in the global governance architecture and as a voice of the “Global South” that advocates an economic and political alternative for emerging economies. Brazilian analyst Oliver Stuenkel notes that the five “share a profound skepticism of the U.S. international liberal order and perceived danger that unipolarity represents to their interests.”
The June summit reviewed initiatives to increase economic cooperation and development, promote multilateralism and world peace, and create a vaccine research and development center. As a reaction to Western economic sanctions, Russia proposed the development of a “de-dollarized” financial space for trade between the group’s economies – a proposal already introduced in the discussions of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the main Eurasian cooperation institution. The group also took up China’s 2017 proposal for a “BRICS Plus” – expansion to incorporate new members of the Global South, including Argentina.
The Argentina proposal faces obstacles within the BRICS even though Russia, China, and India (whose foreign minister visited Buenos Aires last week) support it and Celso Amorim, former and likely future foreign minister if Brazilian President Lula da Silva is reelected, has said Brazil will support as well.
Political and geopolitical challenges within the group include differences in how members relate to the international liberal order. Ties to the West vary from Russia’s more belligerent position to China’s more cautious one and India’s ambiguity. There are marked differences in their foreign policies that potential new members could aggravate.
Members also have different viewpoints on whether to incorporate regional integration blocs such MERCOSUR, whose own heterogeneities, tensions, and conflicts can hinder the expansion process and bloc effectiveness. At a MERCOSUR Summit in July, key leaders’ absences and a divisive debate about the signing of an FTA between Uruguay and China revealed differences. While Paraguay keeps diplomatic relations with Taiwan, the other three full members of the group have close diplomatic and economic ties with the PRC.
Argentina’s application has also given rise to divided views and opinions in the country itself. Despite the fact that all sectors of the ruling coalition can be considered “Peronists,” the current government has pursued an erratic and at times contradictory foreign policy, including conflicting positions regarding international relations, alignments, and alliances. Argentine sinologists disagree on the feasibility of membership, and many more Argentines object because it would hurt relations with the United States, Europe, and the IMF, which has recently helped the country avoid defaulting on $44 billion the Fund previously loaned it. A simultaneous application by Iran – some of whose government officials Argentine justice blames for several terrorist acts in Argentina, including the bombing of Israel’s Embassy and the Jewish local organization AMIA – doesn’t help to build consensus on the issue.
Notwithstanding the divergent opinions in Argentina and among the BRICS, interest on both sides has been persistent and shows signs of growing – even if not necessarily resulting in admission in the near future. Argentina’s interest in pursuing a relationship with the BRICS has continued through governments of different political persuasions since 2014. The need to maintain good relations with traditional partners is key, and the agreement with the IMF presents another reason for caution. It is not clear if Argentina’s incorporation could complicate its geopolitical position without yielding tangible benefits.
For the BRICS, the shared interest – a desire to curtail U.S. and Western influence and create a counterweight to it – helps them overcome their differences and seems unlikely to change soon, but obstacles to the evolution of the global transition they seek will also remain in the short term. However, in the context of the current debate in Latin America, BRICS expansion fits the increasing regional aspiration to promote active non-alignment amid an increasingly turbulent international order.
Andrés Serbin is an international analyst and president of the Regional Coordinator of Economic and Social Research (CRIES), a regional think tank and network focused on Latin America and the Caribbean. He is also co-chair of the Asia and the Americas section of the Latin American Studies Association (LASA) and author of Guerra y transición global (War and Global Transition), recently published.