Expansion through the inclusion of new full members has been talked about since the first years of the BRICS. Since the concept of BRICS as an alliance of civilizations initially prevailed, where each macro-region is represented by one leader, the inclusion of a large Islamic country was most likely. Indonesia, as the world’s largest Islamic country in terms of population, and Egypt were usually considered. The recent application for the entry of Shiite Iran alters this logic, since, apparently, when inviting Tehran to the recent 14th Summit, China was guided by the exceptional importance of the country precisely from the point of view of its energy potential as one of the leaders in hydrocarbon reserves.
The possibility of Argentina joining the BRICS was also discussed for a long time, but Brazil was interested in maintaining its role as a regional leader, representing all of Latin America. The possibility of competition from Buenos Aires did not rouse enthusiasm among the authorities of the Tropical Giant, even during the reign of the left, despite the friendly relations between the countries at that time. Argentina then did not yet face the economic problems that it is experiencing today; the country’s economy was one of the most dynamic in the region. At present, the countries are going through a difficult period in the history of their bilateral relations; the leaders have no trusting, friendly contact. In BRICS, any decision on the admission of new members is made by consensus, but how easy it will be to get the support of the Brazilian authorities for the entry of Argentina remains a big question. Argentina’s entry into the association will not only exacerbate political rivalry; the countries are the largest food producers, competing in many markets. The appearance of a second country from one continent in BRICS will finally move the organisation away from its original concept of uniting the political and economic leaders of their continents (or civilizations). However, these challenges also present opportunities. The new global situation requires developing countries to push old grievances to the background, so that they may work on the task of increasing the representative nature of the BRICS, expanding its potential in addressing the food and energy crises.
Without Argentina, achieving this goal will be much more difficult, since together the two Latin American countries are able to provide food for more than 1 billion people. Participation in the BRICS of another state of the region, especially a partner in Mercosur, despite the competition, creates more opportunities to convey the Latin American agenda and priorities.
At the time of writing, Jair Bolsonaro had not officially commented on his decision to support or not support the entry of Argentina, while the statements were limited to the words of the Minister of Economy Paulo Guedes about the possibility of connecting Buenos Aires to the New Development Bank. However, the mere fact of the official application for membership may indicate that there may be some informal arrangements between Brasilia and Buenos Aires.
The inclusion of new full members of the BRICS is a long process, which, even with the consent of all participants, could take several years. The Chinese approach to foreign policy is traditionally characterised by flexibility and action on several tracks at once. It is this “second track” that BRICS+ is intended to become. There are two approaches to the implementation of cooperation within the framework of this format. The approach of Russia is known, which promoted the concept of “integration of integrations”, which implies the cooperation of integration projects, where the participating countries are leaders (EAEU, Mercosur, South African Customs Union). China could participate through the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. If to consider the concept of “integration” precisely as a formalized process of trade liberalisation, then at present individual regional integration blocs would really be interested in implementing deep forms of integration, for example, through the signing of free trade agreements (FTAs). Mercosur, having signed a Memorandum of Cooperation with the EAEU, consistently offers the Eurasian bloc the opportunity to start trade negotiations. China would also be interested in rapprochement with all associations, but many countries see significant risks from such agreements for their producers. It may seem paradoxical that the “integration of integrations” format was promoted by Moscow, whose foreign trade policy is conservative; the EAEU has only a few FTAs with third countries. Despite the optimism of many experts about the prospects for establishing such a network of trade agreements between integration blocs, the author sees such breakthroughs as unlikely in the medium term. Today, in many countries or associations, there is a growing demand for closeness and the protection of national producers in order to achieve greater industrial and technological independence. The willingness to actively cooperate in creating a common financial or logistics infrastructure does not mean the willingness of Brazil, Russia or perhaps Argentina to open their markets and increase competition with imports from China.
China’s approach to the implementation of the BRICS+ format implies rather a “union of regionalisms”, when not trade blocs, but regional associations (SCO, CELAC, African Union) participate in the dialogue. China has established a dialogue with all these organisations (or being a member); there is a broad agenda of cooperation related to economic, political, scientific and technological areas and other topics. Obviously, the advantage of the Chinese approach is flexibility, as there is no need to talk about trade agreements by imposing rigid standards. The only formal obstacle to the implementation of the model today is the non-participation of Brazil (by Bolsonaro’s decision) in CELAC since 2019, the return of the country to the organisation has not yet been discussed. However, it is possible to expect that the position of the Brazilian leader in a reasonable perspective will change amid disappointment in the stalled rapprochement with the United States. A softening of the position is also noticeable in relations with the left-wing radical governments of Latin America, primarily Venezuela (it was precisely the preservation of this country’s participation in CELAC that became the reason for Brazil’s withdrawal). In any case, the decision on the possible resumption of participation in the regional union, if it is made, looks most likely after the elections in October 2022. If the left-wing politician Lula da Silva wins, the country’s return to CELAC can be considered a foregone conclusion. Therefore, Beijing is ready to bide its time. Chinese approaches to diplomacy and international politics are known for their strategic vision for the long term, the current formal obstacles to the implementation of their plans are perceived as temporary, and simply to be waited out. When communicating with our Chinese colleagues dealing with the topic of BRICS, one can feel a similar conviction in the objective mutual benefit and usefulness of the format for all participants.
New realities — new agenda
In the year of its presidency, China was noted not only for initiatives to expand the BRICS; it also significantly developed the agenda, including 23 priorities in 5 areas. There have not been such a number of initiatives within the BRICS for a long time, although most areas of work continue to develop the previous priorities. However, attention is drawn to the surprising similarity of the agenda of all major international forums in 2022. For example, within the framework of the 9th Summit of the Americas, held in early June under the chairmanship of the United States, Washington promoted an agenda that included the problems of post-pandemic recovery, combating the food and energy crises, cooperation in the field of healthcare, innovation, security, ecology, and trade. The intersections with China’s priorities in BRICS are significant. Washington’s main message during the Summit can be formulated as a desire to limit the presence of external players in the zone of their traditional interests. China, which did not participate in any way at the Summit of the Americas and was not mentioned by US officials in speeches, was in fact invisibly present. During his keynote speech at the opening of the forum on June 6, Joe Biden, after the announcement of new proposals for cooperation, emphasised, clearly in defiance of China, that the Western Hemisphere has enough of its own resources to solve all its main problems. The competition of the main financial development instruments is also obvious. For example, the United States promised to capitalise the Inter-American Development Bank (IADB) as it is concerned about the growing presence of the Chinese New Infrastructure Investment Bank and the BRICS New Development Bank, financed mainly by Beijing.
Certain signs of rivalry with China can also be seen on the agenda of the 48th G7 summit at the end of June. Developed countries, largely in opposition to the Chinese Belt and Road project, announced their own infrastructure development project in developing countries. There was also talk about the food crisis and assistance to poor countries in counteracting rising prices, where Argentina was also invited to participate.