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President of China Xi Jinping (1st row L) and Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (1st row R) attend a meeting during the 2023 BRICS Summit at the Sandton Convention Centre in Johannesburg on August 24, 2023.MARCO LONGARI/AFP/Getty Images

The BRICS bloc of countries has agreed to add six new members in a major expansion drive that strengthens the hand of China and Russia in their battle against the power of Western sanctions.

The six new countries – Iran, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Ethiopia, Argentina and the United Arab Emirates – will bolster the economic and political power of the BRICS group when they formally join in January. It is the first expansion of the bloc since 2010, when South Africa was added to the original four members: Brazil, Russia, India and China.

The expansion was announced Thursday morning at the end of the three-day BRICS summit in Johannesburg. It means the bloc will represent 47 per cent of the world’s population and 36 per cent of the global economy, according to Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.

BRICS leaders have been careful to insist the bloc is not an anti-Western organization. But its members are united by a hostility to Western sanctions, which have targeted Moscow since the Russian invasion of Ukraine last year.

“We express concern about the use of unilateral coercive measures, which are incompatible with the principles of the Charter of the United Nations and produce negative effects notably in the developing world,” the bloc’s leaders said in their final declaration at the end of the summit.

BRICS members are also united by a desire to reduce their dependence on the U.S. dollar for global trade, although they are still considering how to do that. They agreed to ask their finance ministers and central bank governors to study the issue, which could eventually lead to a BRICS currency for internal trade.

The bloc, dominated economically by China, is emerging as a major rival to the Western-dominated Group of Seven advanced economies. While the G7 will continue to boast a larger share of global GDP, the new, expanded BRICS bloc will significantly surpass the G7 when economies are measured on the basis of purchasing power parity, which adjusts GDP to reflect local prices and currency values.

“This membership expansion is historic,” Chinese President Xi Jinping said after the announcement.

“It shows the determination of BRICS countries for unity and co-operation with the broader developing countries.”

The bloc could expand again. More than 20 countries had applied for membership before the summit, and as many as 40 had expressed some level of interest. “We have consensus on the first phase of this expansion process and other phases will follow,” said South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, who hosted the summit.

The announcement was something of a surprise, since the summit was expected to decide only on the criteria for new members, not a formal decision to expand the bloc. China has been strongly pushing for expansion, but India and Brazil had reportedly been reluctant to support the scheme, partly because they feared a dilution of their influence in the group.

After extensive backroom talks, however, BRICS leaders came out in support of expansion in their public comments Wednesday. But until Thursday morning, it was unclear whether specific new members would be added immediately.

The BRICS statement gave no hint of the reasons for choosing the six new members. Most are authoritarian states with regional ambitions to expand their spheres of influence in the Middle East or the Horn of Africa. One conspicuous absence is Indonesia, which had reportedly applied to join.

“BRICS is a diverse group of nations,” Mr. Ramaphosa said. “It is an equal partnership of countries that have differing views but a shared vision for a better world.”

Despite its diversity, however, BRICS has provided a platform to Mr. Xi and Russian President Vladimir Putin to launch verbal attacks on the West. In a speech to the summit on Wednesday, for example, Mr. Putin accused the West of “neo-colonialism” and claimed that the war in Ukraine had been “unleashed by the West.” He was speaking via video link, having decided to cancel his trip to the summit because South Africa is a member of the International Criminal Court, which has issued an arrest warrant for him.

Analysts have said the political divisions among BRICS members – including border disputes and other tensions between China and India – which will prevent the bloc from operating as a coherent alliance. But its economic clout is undeniable. The expanded BRICS group, for example, will include six of the world’s 10 biggest oil-producing countries. This will make it easier for members such as Russia and China to withstand any Western sanctions in the future.

In addition to its opposition to Western sanctions, BRICS is providing another boost to Russia: the bloc is seeking alternatives to the SWIFT international payments system. The West blocked several Russian banks’ access to the SWIFT system last year, shortly after the invasion of Ukraine – a move that made Russian trade more difficult. In their final declaration Thursday, the BRICS leaders said they had agreed to co-operate on payment instruments to facilitate trade and investment among members and other developing countries.

“We are concerned that global financial and payments systems are increasingly being used as instruments of geopolitical contestation,” Mr. Ramaphosa said in a speech to the summit Wednesday – a clear reference to the banning of some Russian banks from SWIFT.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres, in a speech to the summit Thursday, did not directly address the BRICS expansion announcement but voiced concern at the “fragmentation” of the world. He called for greater global co-operation to reform and strengthen multilateral institutions such as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the UN Security Council.

“We cannot afford a world with a divided global economy and financial system, with diverging strategies on technology, including artificial intelligence, and with conflicting security frameworks,” Mr. Guterres said. “In a fracturing world with overwhelming crises, there is simply no alternative to co-operation.”

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