15.06.2024 Author: Ksenia Muratshina

SEA-BRICS: extending the new system of international cooperation

Thailand BRICS

At the end of May, Thailand officially announced its intention to become a member of BRICS. The international grouping, which has become a kind of symbol of the movement towards the multipolarity of the world, is currently experiencing a real wave of expansion. In addition to its ‘core’ (Russia, Brazil, India, China and the Republic of South Africa), Iran, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Ethiopia and Egypt have also become its participants since January 1, 2024, and the prospects for expanding membership to the group do not end there.

Not an organisation, but a system

Today, BRICS is an international structure of a rather atypical pattern. Having neither a charter nor permanent bodies, except for the New Development Bank (NDB) – which, by the way, is more correct to consider not a BRICS body, but a separate international association – it is, in fact, not an international organisation. At the same time, it is becoming increasingly difficult to label it just a forum whose activities are not legally binding. BRICS is increasing the number of diverse formats of multilateral cooperation in all areas: from trade to humanitarian, from ties between political parties to the interaction of emergency response services. These ties are becoming permanent and there is a classic expansion of international integration not only in depth, but also in breadth. The interactions between states are becoming more and more systematic, and the openness of the various BRICS formats attracts new and potential future participants.

At the same time, the group’s work objectively lacks supranational coercion, limitations of sovereignty, imposition of development models, obligations to accept foreign norms and values, i.e. everything that the world is used to seeing in most existing international organisations created according to the Western model.

As the initiator of the creation of the group in the days of the RIC and BRIC formats, Russia has put in a large effort to build the grouping throughout its existence. In the words of Russian President Vladimir Putin, BRICS has managed to ensure that such a partnership “not only makes a significant contribution to ensuring the sustainable growth of states, but also generally contributes to improving the global economy and successfully achieving the UN sustainable development goals” and the group itself acts as a “magnet that attracts a lot of countries”.

Throughout its history, the grouping has significantly evolved, and today it is has taken on an updated and modern form. Due to the forum type of interaction and the interests of participants and their individual vision of integration prospects not always coincide, this created objective risks of fragility and non-obligation to cooperation. Today, however, having withstood the serious test of time because of the commonality of participants’ main positions, consistency and diversification of contacts, BRICS is an example of the successful development of interregional relations between states from different parts of the world, but which, nevertheless, share common values and the desire for development in a multipolar environment.

‘Plus’ and ‘outreach’

Shortly after the initial composition of the group was finalised, i.e. after South Africa joined in 2011, BRICS began to build contacts with external partners. Since 2013, meetings with the heads of states from the region of the chair country have been on the agenda. In 2015 Russia managed to implement a new format of interregional contacts by organising a meeting of BRICS leaders and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. In 2017 China held a BRICS Plus meeting, bringing together a number of countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America (Egypt, Thailand, Tajikistan, Guinea and Mexico), which it considered necessary to include in the discussion of certain issues. The aforementioned countries were among Beijing’s usual economic partners, but the trend towards engagement through the BRICS Plus dialogue was further modified and developed, contributing to the expansion of the group’s external relations as an international structure.

The growing number of countries interested in cooperation with BRICS has contributed to the diversification of formats for external relations. Since 2018, BRICS has been holding both regional meetings (which received the name ‘BRICS Outreach’ during the South African presidency) and meetings with representatives of the “Global South”, who are chosen and invited by the chair country (‘BRICS Plus’). From that moment on, the approach to the selection of BRICS Plus participants was formalised; the leaders of the Global South, the states that headed various regional associations, and the chairs of international organisations were invited to the dialogue. In 2023, with the growing number of those wishing to join the association, South Africa put into practice a new format, i.e. ‘Friends of BRICS’ (it included countries officially preparing to join the BRICS), and held meetings at the level of foreign ministers and representatives from the security sphere.

Every state finds something of interest in BRICS; there are countries for which BRICS is, first and foremost, a symbol of a multipolar world and opposition to the hegemonic ambitions of the United States and the West, a similar vision of current threats to international security, “an alternative system of international relations based on respect for the sovereignty of states”. There are those who are primarily interested in strengthening economic cooperation with BRICS member states and international South–South relations generally. Some are counting on borrowing from the BRICS New Development Bank, some on BRICS participation in solving global problems of the world economy, while others are striving for de-dollarisation, trading in national currencies and (the unlikely, but desired by many) introduction of a possible BRICS single currency to simplify internal turnover. Some are also attracted by a common desire to reform pro-Western global financial institutions and the opposition to neo-colonial traditions in their various guises, other by high rates of economic development of the participating countries, equal interstate communication without ‘sanctions and counter-sanctions’ and the opportunity to change the world order towards a “more democratic” one.

Prospects for Southeast Asia

In 2023, a total of 65 states were involved in BRICS events. The members of the grouping and its various formats represent all regions of the world and Southeast Asia (SEA) are no exception. Thailand, as mentioned, became the first Southeast Asian country to officially announce its desire to join BRICS.

In addition, Vietnam, Indonesia, Laos and Myanmar have also expressed (to varying degrees) their opinion on the possibility of participating in BRICS. Southeast Asian countries have also managed to gain experience in participating in events in the BRICS Plus format in recent years. There are those who have not yet expressed their direct intention to join the grouping, but have interacted with it in one way or another in the international arena, for example Cambodia, which was to chair the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) at the BRICS Plus meeting in 2022. Cambodia advocated for the development of ASEAN ties with the group and Malaysia, which also has experience in BRICS Plus contacts, expressed its interest in developing cooperation with BRICS for example in space exploration.

In general, today, the states of the region are gradually looking towards BRICS. Their attention to it follows the principle of multi-vector foreign policy and is likely to intensify.

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The technical details of further BRICS expansion are still being worked out, however the main thing to note is the current trend towards increasing interregional representation in the grouping. In comparison to many other international associations, BRICS is a fairly open structure. According to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, around 30 countries have expressed their interest in joining BRICS. The possible emergence of a new category of ‘BRICS partner countries’, which was announced by the head of the Russian Foreign Ministry, will help gradually involve all interested parties in the work of the grouping.

Both during the period of its presidency and otherwise, Russia has been actively involved in the development of BRICS, aimed at providing as many states as possible with the opportunity to participate in this new type of international grouping. Among events involving BRICS Plus countries held in recent months are the launch of the League of BRICS-Plus Foundations to support innovation, the International Park Forum, the ‘Spirit of Fire Film Festival’ and the BRICS conference ‘on the way to a global centre of power’ and the youth music festival ‘BRICS: young winds’. The motto of the Russian presidency in 2024 is “Strengthening multilateralism for equitable global development and security”. In the future, BRICS not only plans to develop cooperation within the BRICS Plus format, but also to build stable and mutually beneficial ties with SCO, CIS and EAEU. The grouping has sufficient experience in multilateral contacts to continue inviting new partners to cooperate and take reciprocal steps in response to interest in joint work by like-minded states.

It is safe to say that BRICS has gradually evolved from a predominantly political forum into a new, large-scale system of international dialogue and cooperation in various fields. The fact that it attracts participants from all regions of the world, including Southeast Asia, is a positive sign. A reflection on the prospects of the international system and, in general, the fate of civilisation in the world is now being considered more actively and the ideas of multipolarity, equal cooperation and choosing one’s own path of development in accordance with national interests will naturally resonate with an increasingly wide range of people and states around the world.

 

Ksenia Muratshina, PhD in History, Senior Research Fellow at the Center for Southeast Asia, Australia and Oceania of the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook

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