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BRICS XV declaration: what it says and what it does not

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Picture: GCIS – BRICS heads of state from left, Lula da Silva, Brazil; Xi Jinping, China; Cyril Ramaphosa, South Africa; Narendra Modi, India; and Russia’s Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, representing Russian President Vladimir Putin, who did not attend the Summit held in South Africa, August 19 to 24, 2023.

By Bhaso Ndzendze

The 2023 BRICS summit hosted by South Africa between August 19 and August 24 is bound to be one of its most historic.

The resultant communique, named the Johannesburg II Declaration, is notable for five areas – four by commission and one by omission (i.e. what the summit did not deliver on).

These are as follows: firstly, reaffirmations made in line with previous declarations which showed consistency; secondly, the deliverables it produced in line with its declared theme; thirdly, more upfront language on the inclusion of Brazil, India and South Africa in the United Nations Security Council as part of its reform; fourthly, there was the admission of new members; finally, there is silence on the highly anticipated “de-dollarisation“. Each of these merits a close examination.

Reaffirmations

From the very first summit in 2009, hosted by Russia in Yekaterinburg, Russia, the BRICS has made its commitment to certain principles known. These have made their way into all subsequent declarations. This year’s was no different, it stated that, “We reaffirm our commitment to the BRICS spirit of mutual respect and understanding, sovereign equality, solidarity, democracy, openness, inclusiveness, strengthened collaboration and consensus.”

The five-member “strategic partnership” as it calls itself, rehashed its objectives of peace, multilateralism, representativity, and sustainable development.

Additionally, several of the BRICS’ policy positions were reaffirmed, encompassing areas such as business (with a focus on the importance of gender equality within it), climate change (including a renewed commitment to the Paris Agreement), agriculture (notably addressing concerns about restrictions on the flow of some of these goods due to sanctions), terrorism, pharmaceuticals, and education (committing to working towards mutual recognition of qualifications), among various other topics.

The pairings of Egypt and Ethiopia (recently at loggerheads over use of the waters of the Nile River), Iran and Saudi Arabia (engaged in a decades-long proxy conflict in the Middle East), seem set to import tensions into the group, and might pose a major challenge to internal cohesion.

Fulfilling the theme

The theme for this year’s BRICS summit was “BRICS and Africa: Partnership for Mutually Accelerated Growth, Sustainable Development and Inclusive Multilateralism.” It would thus raise expectations about ways in which the association would engage with the continent. Although the continent’s potential was noted, there were no firm commitments beyond support for the African Union Agenda 2063 and the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA).

The declaration simply stated that, “The African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA) and BRICS co-operation presents opportunities for the continent to transition away from its historic role as a commodity exporter towards higher productivity value addition.” No specific measures for cooperation were introduced, however. Nevertheless, two African countries (Egypt and Ethiopia) have been formally invited to join from January next year.

The African leaders’ peace mission initiative, undertaken in June of this year to Ukraine and Russia, was acknowledged and commended for its efforts and proposed roadmap. Finally, the BRICS also committed to supporting the African Union’s desire for membership in the G20, hosted by India this year from the 9th to the 10th of September. This commitment was fulfilled.

More direct statement on the UN Security Council Reform

In its seventh paragraph, the declaration stated, “We support a comprehensive reform of the UN, including its Security Council, with a view to making it more democratic, representative, effective and efficient, and to increase the representation of developing countries in the Council’s memberships so that it can adequately respond to prevailing global challenges and support the legitimate aspirations of emerging and developing countries from Africa, Asia and Latin America, including Brazil, India and South Africa, to play a greater role in international affairs, in particular in the United Nations, including its Security Council.”

This is a departure from all previous summit declarations which have always been non-committal on the push for the inclusion of Brazil, India and South Africa in the UNSC. As noted elsewhere, the language of previous summits (including as recently as last year) has always followed this formula: “China and Russia reiterated the importance they attach to the status and role of Brazil, India and South Africa in international affairs and supported their aspiration to play a greater role in the UN.” It remains to be seen whether China and Russia will, going forward, take any concrete steps to achieve this goal.

Six new members – but what do they bring?

By far the most important takeaway from the summit is the invitation to Argentina, Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to take up full membership from January of 2024. The reasons for these specific six countries being added were not stated. Some of the countries seem odd choices and misplaced within the BRICS if its goal is to pose a challenge to the US-led world order. Notably, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE are home to numerous American military bases and have been reliable allies for Washington for decades.

The pairings of Egypt and Ethiopia (recently at loggerheads over use of the waters of the Nile River), Iran and Saudi Arabia (engaged in a decades-long proxy conflict in the Middle East), seem set to import tensions into the group, and might pose a major challenge to internal cohesion. The economic situation in Argentina is also quite shaky, with the country experiencing an inflation rate of more than 110% so far this year, and has defaulted numerous times on its IMF loans, which it currently owes US$44-billion.

At the start of the summit, there was widespread and intense speculation regarding the objective of decreased dependence on the US dollar, with some even anticipating a new ‘BRICS currency’. This did not come into being.

De-dollarisation can be kicked down the road (at best)

At the start of the summit, there was widespread and intense speculation regarding the objective of decreased dependence on the US dollar, with some even anticipating a new ‘BRICS currency’. This did not come into being. Instead, the association committed to continued work to enhance trade conducted in one another’s currencies.

This makes sense; creation of a single currency would be complex, as it would require the creation of a central bank, and would only be accomplished through a monetary union, the starting point of which is a free trade agreement. As it stands, there is no such agreement among the BRICS, who continue to collaborate and coordinate, but on a project-based (particularly its New Development Bank) and otherwise uncodified basis.

The Declaration’s statement on payment systems is worth quoting at some length. Starting with an acknowledgment of the association’s recognition of “the wide-ranging advantages of rapid, inexpensive, transparent, secure, and inclusive payment systems,” it also expressed appreciation for “the exchange of experiences by BRICS members regarding payment infrastructures, which included discussions on the interlinking of cross-border payment systems”.

It further encouraged member countries’ banks to enable settlements in local currencies. Finally, it concluded by tasking “Finance Ministers and/or Central Bank Governors, as appropriate, to consider the issue of local currencies, payment instruments and platforms and to report back to us by the next Summit.” In this regard, neither the “dollar” nor “de-dollarisation” were ever mentioned.

Bhaso Ndzendze is an Associate Professor and HOD in the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Johannesburg. He is co-editor of the 2021 volume The BRICS Order: Assertive or Complementing the West?

This article was published on ACCORD