Russia and China will look to gain more political and economic ground in the developing world at a summit in South Africa this week, when an expected joint dose of anti-West grumbling from them may take on a sharper edge with a formal move to bring Saudi Arabia closer.
Leaders from the BRICS economic bloc of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa will hold three days of meetings in Johannesburg's financial district of Sandton, with Chinese premier Xi Jinping's attendance underlining the diplomatic capital his country has invested in the bloc over the last decade-and-a-bit as an avenue for its ambitions.
Russian President Vladimir Putin will appear on a video link after his travel to South Africa was complicated by an International Criminal Court arrest warrant against him over the war in Ukraine. Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and South African President Cyril Ramaphosa will be at the summit alongside Xi.
The main summit on Wednesday — and sideline meetings Tuesday and Thursday — are expected to produce general calls for more cooperation among countries in the Global South amid their rising discontent over perceived Western dominance of global institutions.
That's a sentiment that Russia and China are more than happy to lean into. Leaders or representatives of dozens more developing countries are set to attend the sideline meetings in Africa's wealthiest city to give Xi and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who will represent Putin in South Africa, a sizeable audience.
One specific policy point with more direct implications will be discussed and possibly decided on -- the proposed expansion of the BRICS bloc, which was formed in 2009 by the emerging market countries of Brazil, Russia, India and China, and added South Africa the following year.
Saudi Arabia is one of more than 20 countries to have formally applied to join BRICS in another possible expansion, South African officials say. Any move toward the inclusion of the world's second-biggest oil producer in an economic bloc with Russia and China would clearly draw attention from the United States and its allies in an extra-frosty geopolitical climate, and amid a recent move by Beijing to exert some influence in the Persian Gulf.
“If Saudi Arabia were to enter BRICS, it will bring extraordinary importance to this grouping,” said Talmiz Ahmad, India’s former ambassador to Saudi Arabia.
Even an agreement on the principle of expanding BRICS, which already consists of a large chunk of the developing world's biggest economies, is a moral victory for the Russian and Chinese vision for the bloc as a counterbalance to the G-7, analysts say.
Both favor adding more countries to bolster a kind of coalition -- even if it's only symbolic — amid China's economic friction with the U.S. and Russia's Cold War-like standoff with the West because of the war in Ukraine.
Nations ranging from Argentina to Algeria, Egypt, Iran, Indonesia and United Arab Emirates have all formally applied to join alongside the Saudis, and are also possible new members.
If a number of them are brought in, “then you end up with a bigger economic bloc, and from that a sense of power," said Prof. Alexis Habiyaremye of the College of Business and Economics at the University of Johannesburg.
While Brazil, India and South Africa are less keen on expansion and seeing their influence diluted in what's currently an exclusive developing world club, there is momentum for it. Nothing has been decided, though, and the five countries must first agree on the criteria new members need to meet. That's on the agenda in Johannesburg amid Beijing's push.
“BRICS expansion has become the top trending issue at the moment," said Chen Xiaodong, China's ambassador to South Africa. “Expansion is key to enhancing (the) BRICS mechanism’s vitality. I believe that this year’s summit will witness a new and solid step on this front.”
The U.S. has stressed its bilateral ties with South Africa, Brazil and India in an attempt to offset any outsized Russian and Chinese influence emanating from BRICS. In the buildup to the summit, the State Department said that the U.S. was “deeply engaged with many of the leading members of the BRICS association.”
The European Union also will closely follow happenings in Johannesburg, but with almost sole focus on the war in Ukraine and the bloc's continued effort to draw united condemnation for Russia's invasion from the developing world, which has largely failed so far.
With Xi, Lula, Modi and Ramaphosa coming together, European Commission spokesman Peter Stano said the EU was calling on them to use the moment to uphold international law.
“We look forward to their contribution to make Putin stop his illegal, destabilizing behavior,” Stano said.
If a BRICS foreign ministers meeting in Cape Town in June, the precursor to the main summit, is anything to go by, there will be no public criticism of Russia or Putin over the war. A planned protest by the Amnesty International rights group and the Ukrainian Association of South Africa outside the Sandton Convention Centre will likely be the only condemnation heard.
If anything, Russia might see the summit as an opportunity to leverage some favor.
Having halted a deal allowing the passage of grain out of Ukraine last month, Putin might use the BRICS gathering to announce more free Russian grain shipments to developing countries, as he has already done for several African nations, said Maria Snegovaya, senior fellow at the Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.
It would allow Putin to demonstrate “goodwill” to the developing world, Snegovaya said, while cutting Ukraine out of the process.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Putin would have “full-fledged participation” in the summit despite appearing on a video link and would make a speech.
What's also likely to be aired regularly over the three days in Johannesburg is the developing world's gripes over current global financial systems. That has streamlined in the months and weeks leading up to the summit into a criticism of the dominance of the U.S. dollar as the world's currency for international trade.
BRICS experts are generally united in pointing out the difficulties the bloc has in implementing policy due to the five countries' differing economic and political priorities, and the tensions and rivalry between China and India.
But a focus on more trade in local currencies is something all of them can get behind, said Cobus van Staden, an analyst at the China Global South Project, which tracks Chinese engagement across the developing world.
He sees BRICS pushing a move away from the dollar in regional trade in some parts of the world in the same way he sees this summit as a whole.
“None of this is the big sword that’s going to slay the dollar. That’s not the play," said van Staden. "It’s not one big sword wound, it’s a lot of paper cuts. It won’t kill the dollar, but it’s definitely making the world a more complicated place.”
“They don’t need to defeat the dollar ... and they don’t need to defeat the G7. All they particularly want to do is raise an alternative to it. It’s this much longer play,” he said.