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BRICS+: The More, the Merrier?

Updated: May 20

Expanding Horizons, Shifting Dynamics and Implications of the Expansion



BRIC: What started in 2001 as an acronym coined by a Goldman Sachs executive to refer to the rising economic powers of Brazil, Russia, India, and China,  that could potentially challenge the developed G7 economies, has since materialized into a full-fledged bloc of countries that is no longer restricted to the original four founders. In 2010, South Africa’s admission into the existing BRIC grouping gave birth to the BRICS that we know today. 13 years later, during the BRICS Summit in August 2023, the bloc captured the attention of the world again by announcing that Argentina, Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the UAE had been invited to join the bloc, with full membership set to take effect from 1st January 2024. 

The expansion has led to a resurgence of skepticism, with some still questioning the purpose of BRICS beyond “serving as a symbolic gesture” and some pointing out critical weaknesses of the bloc that render it ineffective, while others are speculating about the demise of the dollar’s hegemony, and the gradually diminishing influence of the West. Analyzing the various new additions to the grouping, and determining what strengths and weaknesses they bring to the table could reveal the answers to the aforementioned questions. While 6 members had been invited, only four joined BRICS on 1st January.

BRICS leaders in conference
Argentina declined the invitation soon after populist right-wing politician Javier Milei won the Presidential elections in November 2023. While the views of his predecessor, Peronist Alberto Fernández, aligned with those of the bloc’s members, Milei is critical of China and is a supporter of Ukraine. An admirer of Donald Trump, he has even considered dollarizing Argentina’s economy, and therefore it is rather unsurprising to conclude that Milei’s administration will tend to incline more towards Washington than Beijing. This comes in the way of Beijing’s attempts to strengthen ties with the country, given the existence of more than a dozen Chinese-owned lithium mining investments in Argentina -which happens to hold the world’s third-largest lithium reserves. Another motivating factor is Argentina’s recent shift to the yuan, especially in October 2023 when it used the yuan to pay the IMF due to its depleted dollar reserves. 

Besides Argentina’s refusal to join BRICS, even Saudi Arabia is “still considering the invitation” according to the country’s spokespersons at the World Economic Forum in Davos in January 2024. While the economic benefits from joining the bloc are ample, Riyadh is carefully analyzing the political implications of its membership. While US-Saudi ties are strong, Saudi’s growing defiance of American interests has concerned Washington.

Meanwhile, Saudi-China ties are becoming stronger, with China’s increasing investment in the kingdom via the BRI (Belt and Road Initiative) infrastructure projects, and the currency swap agreement in November 2023 worth 50 billion yuan or 26 billion Saudi riyals ($6.93 billion) [1], aimed at increasing the use of local currencies and promoting financial cooperation. If Saudi joins the BRICS, it will restrict petrodollar recycling. Indeed, oil exports in USD keep its value high, however, the decision of BRICS countries to stop using dollars to buy oil from Saudi Arabia and the other major oil exporters will weaken the dollar, and make it more difficult for the United States to borrow money,  which could adversely impact the US economy. However, merely joining the BRICS would hardly reflect an anti-West stance. Rather, it echoes the need to diversify relations in the increasingly multipolar world, which is exactly what Saudi, and even the UAE, seek to achieve. The UAE has officially joined the BRICS, explicitly claiming “pure economic considerations to be the driver behind the decision rather than any political stance”.  For the Saudis and the Emiratis, the appeal of the BRICS lies in the prospect it holds for economic diversification. Both countries are seeking to reduce reliance on hydrocarbons and aim to broaden the structure of their economies by investing in developed and emerging markets abroad as an alternative source of long-term revenue.

China and Russia’s relations with the Gulf, particularly Saudi and the Emirates,  have become even more robust in the past few years.  Ever since the war in Ukraine began, the UAE has become a safe harbor for the Russians and their invaluable capital, which is now being invested in Dubai’s booming real estate market. Russia-UAE bilateral trade 
[2] has also increased drastically, rising by 68 percent in 2022 to a record $9 billion. Russian exports alone were worth $8.5 billion, a 71% increase compared to 2021. With regards to gold, Russia overcame Mali to become the UAE’s primary gold supplier: Russian gold exports to the UAE increased from 1.3 tonnes in 2021 to a staggering 96.4 tonnes in 2022. The UAE’s exports to Russia, while still negligible, have soared since the war. In 2022, the UAE exported $233m worth of computer components and communications and electronic equipment to Russia, compared to just $2m during the same period in 2021. While concerns voiced by high-level European and American officials were initially ignored by the UAE, local financial institutions have had to exercise more caution in their dealings with Russian clients, given the surveillance of the UAE’s banking system by U.S. regulators as well as the addition of the UAE to the Financial Action Task Force’s “gray list” in March 2022, which was a serious blow to the UAE’s ambitions of becoming a global financial center. Similarly, Saudi Arabia has continued to strengthen its energy partnership with Moscow to inflate oil prices despite pressure from Western allies. Moreover, the kingdom has imported record quantities of discounted Russian oil products, hitting 2.86 million metric tons by mid-2023, exceeding the 1.63 million metric tons for the entirety of 2022 [3]. Both of them have pledged to increase bilateral trade to $5 Billion by 2030. Meanwhile, China has become the largest single buyer of GCC oil and gas with more than 41% of its crude imports coming from the GCC. 210 million tons of crude oil were exported from the GCC to China in 2022, out of which Saudi supplied 85 million tons. Despite security concerns from the West, Chinese firm Huawei has dominated the GCC market for digital infrastructure, and China has stakes in various ports across the UAE (Jebel Ali Free Zone) as well as Saudi Arabia (Jeddah Islamic Port). Recently, at the China-Saudi Conference in December 2023,  60 agreements worth $25 Billion were signed between the two countries, covering various key sectors like energy, technology, agriculture, financial institutions, etc. China has also tried to establish its diplomatic influence over the Gulf. Having brokered a normalization deal between Saudi and Iran in March 2023, China now seeks to present itself as an alternative to U.S. leadership in the region. The BRICS membership will further solidify these relations, glued together by a shared aversion to Western sanctions, and a desire to diversify trade and investments while at the same time actively working towards circumventing the dollar. 
Having the UAE and Saudi Arabia in BRICS also bolsters the potential influence of BRICS in the global oil market- with 6 out of the top 10 producers under its umbrella, accounting for about 41% of the global oil supply [4]. Moreover, Russia and other Gulf countries in BRICS also export to two of the largest oil importers, China and India,  both of which refused to follow the “price cap coalition” targeting Russia. Countries in this group have a common interest in developing trading methods to bypass the G7 financial sector. This opens up new avenues for de-dollarisation in intra-BRICS trade, with India paying the UAE in rupees, and China buying oil in yuan too, therefore giving birth to the “petroyuan”.


The recent admission of members also has implications for the BRICS’ New Development Bank, which was established in 2014 along with the Contingency Reserve Arrangement, a pool of $100 Billion contributed unequally by the member countries, with China contributing $41 Billion. It was a pledge to support each other during balance-of-payments crises or short-term liquidity problems. Current members of the NDB, besides the original five founders of BRICS, are Egypt, the UAE, Uruguay, and Bangladesh.  The UAE’s  [5] role in the NDB is primarily that of a creditor, but the recent expansion offers greater scope for co-financing as well as enhanced market access within individual BRICS countries. Emirati sovereign investors such as the Mubadala Investment Company have expanded their global presence by setting up regional offices as well as undertaking investment in BRICS countries. 12% of Mubadala’s $300 Billion assets under management are in Asia, and it now seeks to bring that number to 25% by 2030 [6]. The firm is eyeing Indian infrastructure projects and state-owned assets, planning $50 billion worth of investments. China, while being a lucrative option, has put the UAE in a dilemma, facing greater scrutiny from the USA. NDB membership is a strategic decision that balances the positioning of the UAE, facilitating dialogue with non-west partners, without assuming an anti-west stance. Saudi Arabia will play a similar role in the NDB after it officially joins. This would be a relief for the Bank, especially after recent concerns about its creditworthiness in light of the sanctions on Russia, and whether the NDB, a Russian co-founded multilateral bank, would comply with them or not. Despite stopping loans to Russia, the Fitch downgrade [7] in July 2022 had spiked borrowing costs. The NDB has since recovered and with the credit rating restored to “stable”, a vital injection of financial resources from the kingdom would help it achieve its ambitions.
 Economic interests also motivate Egypt, for which BRICS is a  potential source of much-needed funding. The NDB as a lender is potentially less likely to demand conditions that other, more established institutions like the IMF or World Bank would. Besides the NDB, Egypt will likely turn to Saudi for help in rescuing the country from its economic crisis. Cairo has repeatedly borrowed from Riyadh and other regional partners, but now its partners in the GCC have united with the International Monetary Fund to pressurize Egypt to implement structural reforms. The creditor-driven policy reform that is perhaps the most controversial is regarding reducing state- and military-owned- companies’ holdings.

The authorities will be required to set clear criteria for government intervention in the economy, enhance transparency around public procurement processes, increase privatization of non-strategic companies, and abolish tax exemptions and other advantages for these enterprises. The goal is to bring in much-needed foreign investment by loosening government and military control. These were the conditions spelled out in Egypt’s $3 billion IMF loan arrangement in December 2022 [8]. While the mere membership of BRICS may not patch up Egypt’s economy in the short term, it has been speculated that it could eventually help the country attract more investment, establish stronger relations with ‘Emerging Market’ economies, and lower its debt burden too. 

Ethiopia finds itself in the same boat as Egypt, sailing steadily towards the BRICS. The US dollar’s strength and high Federal Reserve interest rates have led to a surge in the cost of their imports. The BRICS, as well as the NDB itself,  would act as alternatives to Western lending streams. This is a strategic move by Ethiopia in response to the deteriorating relations with the West, especially after the US leveled severe allegations of human rights violations by the Ethiopian President Abiy Ahmed’s administration during the Tigray Conflict, in response to which the Nobel Peace Prize winner accused both America and the European Union of overlooking terrorism by the Tigray rebels.

This is where China comes into the picture as Ethiopia’s “knight in shining armor”. The Chinese policy of non-interference in the domestic affairs of its debtors has portrayed China as a benignant alternative to the ‘hegemonic’ Western creditors. This has enabled China to boost solidarity with African nations, while at the same time maintaining a defensive stance. As China’s second-largest debtor in Africa, Ethiopia has amassed $13.7 Billion worth of Chinese loans [9], which is almost half of its total foreign debt. However, in August 2023, soon after Ethiopia accepted BRICS membership, China allowed Ethiopia to suspend debt payments for the fiscal year until July 7, 2024. Then again in November 2023, Ethiopia reached an agreement with other bilateral creditors for suspending debt service worth $1.5 Billion due from 1st January 2023 to 31st December 2024 [10].

Notably, this agreement was reached through the Official Creditor Committee of Ethiopia, which is co-chaired by none other than China. Fueled with confidence, Ethiopia sought further debt relief by negotiating the restructuring of its $1 Billion Eurobond. However, on December 8, 2023, negotiations broke down, and 14 days later, Ethiopia defaulted on the $33 million debt coupon payment.  Consequently, Fitch downgraded Ethiopia’s Long-Term Foreign-Currency Issuer Default Rating (IDR) from ‘C’ to ‘Restricted Default’, and S&P Global downgraded Ethiopia’s debt to ‘default’. Not only has debt become more costly for Ethiopia, but it also risks losing its debt-suspension agreement with its bilateral creditors, which was contingent on Ethiopia’s ability to secure an IMF loan by 31st March 2024, failing which the creditors could declare this suspension null and void. After the IMF visit to Ethiopia in April 2024 ended without a deal, the creditors agreed to extend the deadline for the IMF deal to the end of June. Ethiopia finds itself in a precarious position; the default has temporarily stopped the inflow of new funds, which can potentially annul the existing debt-relief agreements, thereby exacerbating Ethiopia’s financial woes and increasing the risk of further defaults. Although unlikely, it remains to be seen whether Ethiopia will seek China’s help to re-negotiate with other creditors, highlighting the geo-economic advantage of the BRICS membership.

A railway in Ethiopia
China has also established its influence by reeling Ethiopia into its worldwide ‘Belt and Road Initiative’. Washington is aware of the BRI’s rapidly rising influence, and that is why the US and its partners announced their version of the BRI along the sidelines of the 2023 G20 Summit: The India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor (IMEC) [11], which aims to link India, the Arabian Gulf, and Europe via railways and shipping lines. IMEC also includes electricity and digital infrastructure as well as pipelines for exporting clean hydrogen. In Africa, plans for a Trans-African Corridor (the Lobito Corridor) have been discussed, which will connect Angola to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Zambia, ultimately reaching the Indian Ocean. The trade of critical minerals through this corridor can eventually reduce reliance on China for the electric vehicle supply chain, as well as promote reduced dependence on Russia for energy. However, the IMEC’s vision as an alternative to the BRI will not be shared by countries like the UAE and Saudi Arabia, who intend to use their geo-strategic position to maximize their ties with the West as well as China. The IMEC simply reinforces this objective by providing superior connectivity between their partners in the West as well as South Asia.

Iran, which has been excluded from the IMEC, is wary of such connectivity projects in the region. Rather, it will likely try to push for the use of the existing International North-South Transport Corridor passing through Iranian territory, which connects Russia, Azerbaijan, Central Asia, Iran, and India. Iran recently permitted Armenia to use the INSTC to reach India. Iranian officials have long claimed that the INSTC is more cost-efficient, and effective, and even asserted that “those who try to find an alternative path are wasting their time”. This is where Iran’s alliance with BRICS will ease some pressure. For instance, Russia and Iran recently expressed interest to collectively invest around $38 Billion in the INSTC, which is a vital route used by the two to bypass Western sanctions. Moreover, India and Iran continue to develop the Chabahar Port in southeastern Iran, which provides an alternative route that circumvents Pakistan, which has denied land access to India for trade with Central Asia. 

The Iranian government sees the potential to broaden its trade relations with the BRICS member states. Non-oil trade between Iran and the five original BRICS members grew by 14 percent to $38.43 billion in 2022-23, which accounted for almost 41% of Iran’s total non-oil trade in the same year [12].  Iran’s biggest trade partner was China, with $30.32 billion, followed by India with $4.99 billion, Russia with $2.32 billion, Brazil with $466.55 million, and South Africa with $322.04 million. The U.S. will encounter a significant challenge in imposing sanctions on several nations once they all engage in trade with Iran, given that BRICS+ members account for almost half the global population. However, U.S. sanctions will prevent Iran from selling oil in U.S. dollars, which can pose significant difficulties. Notwithstanding these implications,  Iran can still boost its oil and non-oil exports to BRICS members using local currencies and barter arrangements. The most suitable candidate would be the Chinese yuan, especially considering that several other  BRICS members — Brazil, Russia, and Saudi Arabia—already utilize the yuan to make payments. This strategy could substantially alleviate the problems arising due to U.S. sanctions.

While all the BRICS member states might not share the same positions on most political issues, there is something that they all are actively exploring: pathways to de-dollarization. Given that BRICS accounts for a 35% share of global GDP (PPP), and almost half the global population, the shift to non-dollar alternatives can seriously threaten the hegemony of the greenback. Such initiatives were introduced way back in 2010, with the BRICS Interbank co-operation mechanism to facilitate payments in local currencies between banks within the bloc.

Moreover, at the 2023 summit, the member countries agreed to expedite their shift away from the US-dollar-based global financial system by increasing the use of their local currencies to settle trade and investment transactions. Such alternatives are beneficial for Russia and Iran, given that the international sanctions prohibit them from using the Belgium-based SWIFT. Indeed, Iran’s Central Bank announced in January 2023 that the two countries have integrated their banking systems, with almost 700 Russian banks and 100 Iranian banks coming under the purview of this initiative [13]. Iran and Russia have also finalized an agreement to ditch the dollar and trade in local currencies instead, while Egypt has been indicating its plan to pay for imports from India, China, and Russia in their respective currencies. In July 2023, the Reserve Bank of India signed an MoU with the Central Bank of the UAE to settle trade in rupees, leading to the Indian Oil Corp.’s purchase of one million barrels of oil from the Abu Dhabi National Oil Corp. in rupees. India initially pursued the same strategy with Russia but had to discontinue it due to disagreements. This is primarily attributed to India’s enormous trade deficit with Russia, which reached $43 Billion in Russia’s favour during 2022-23 [14], as a result of which Russia has amassed a huge stockpile of unusable rupees. Although Russia prefers the yuan, India is using the UAE’s dirham instead and has decided to discourage oil payments in yuan partly due to geopolitical tensions, as well as the increased costs associated with using the yuan, since Indian importers must first convert their rupees into Hong Kong dollars and then yuan. This system is 2% to 3% more expensive [15] than directly using the dirham. With regards to China, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Andrei Belusov stated that  “in 2023, the use of the Russian ruble and China’s yuan in trade between the two countries reached 95%”. Clearly, the share of the dollar in intra-BRICS transactions is diminishing.

A table of Renminbi use worldwide in comparison

The dominance of the dollar over competing global currencies
However, dethroning the dollar is a long and arduous path, riddled with numerous potholes and obstacles. Dollar-denominated trade thrives due to the dollar’s liquidity and free convertibility. In BRICS, the evident candidate for replacing the dollar is the yuan. China can attract investors by permitting free capital flows, but a prerequisite for that is exchange rate flexibility, which China refuses to accept. This means that International investors and Sovereign entities cannot trust the yuan enough for it to be the reserve currency of international trade.

Moreover, the relatively higher costs and inefficiencies associated with using non-dollar currencies in international trade and finance pose a major hurdle to de-dollarization. The dollar, therefore, retains its position as an integral part of the global financial system. Even the BRICS-sponsored NDB primarily uses the dollar for its lending activities. Of more than $30 billion in loans approved by the NDB to date, two-thirds were in dollars. Local currencies such as the yuan and the South African rand accounted for only 22% of all loans [16].

In 2022, the International Monetary Fund’s data emphasized the dominance of the dollar. Notably, the dollar was on one side of the trade for over 90% of global forex transactions. Particularly, it was on one side of the trade for 97%, 95%, 94%, and 88% of the rupee, real, yuan, and rand forex transactions, respectively [17]. The dollar’s liquidity makes currency pairs involving the dollar less costly to exchange than non-dollar pairs. Interestingly, sometimes even when trade is invoiced in a local currency, the dollar has to be used as an intermediary to facilitate the exchange, simply because there is no well-functioning market to directly exchange the two currencies in question. Research indicates that almost 40% of the dollar’s Forex turnover is attributed to its use in exchanging two currencies [18].

Inevitably, the dollar ends up being the most-used currency in Global trade and financial transactions. The BRICS countries should refrain from rushing the process of de-dollarization, given the sheer significance it holds for their international trade prospects. The dollar comprised 80.42% (approx $261 Billion) of Brazil’s Forex reserves in 2022, and nearly all Brazilian exports are settled using the dollar. About 50% of India and China’s reserves were dollar assets, and nearly 86% of India’s exports and imports are invoiced in dollars [19], while approx. 47% of China’s cross-border transactions were settled using the dollar. Likewise, over 52% of South Africa’s exports are invoiced in dollars even though only 5% of them are headed for the US [20]. Even Russia, despite the American sanctions, had to settle a third of its exports in dollars in 2022. Moreover, commodity-dependent countries like the UAE and Saudi have already pegged their currencies to the dollar, thereby de-incentivizing them from pursuing extensive anti-dollar strategies. 

The expansion of BRICS is indeed an interesting development, and while it seems to provide substantial opportunities to the members, it also brings forth greater difficulties. After all, the heterogeneity of BRICS has been one of its vulnerabilities, and the recent expansion has merely exacerbated this problem. It is undoubtedly very tricky to establish a united global presence, when the member countries in question are engaged in conflicts with each other. Saudi-Iran relations have been restored, but remain tense and uncertain over conflicts in the Middle East. Meanwhile, the Nile Dispute between Egypt and Ethiopia persists, with Egypt attempting to strengthen ties with Somalia to undermine Ethiopian interests in the region. Now and then, Indian and Chinese troops clash along the Sino-Indian border, reminding the world of their ongoing border dispute.

Besides these conflicts, there are a myriad of political and economic factors that pose challenges to the bloc’s ambitions. In light of these hurdles, rivaling the West still remains an unrealistic aspiration for the BRICS. While not without their flaws, the BRICS’ Western counterparts are considerably more homogenous and do not experience the same intensity of geopolitical tensions among each other. The key to BRICS’ success will be a unified mission and vision shared by all the members, despite their differences. It takes both brick and mortar to build a wall. Without the mortar binding the BRICS together, the “wall” will collapse, painfully burying the ambitions of what could have been a powerful alliance…….


References:

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