BRICS Expansion and the Quest for Leadership: India, China, and Beyond

March 26, 2024 Mohit Gajbhiye


The BRICS group, comprising Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa, has evolved into a significant force on the global stage since its inception in 2006. Recently, there has been a surge of interest from nations worldwide, eager to join the BRICS ranks, reflecting its growing prominence in the international arena. Countries like Iran, Saudi Arabia, Argentina, and the UAE have expressed their aspirations to become part of this influential alliance. This expansion of BRICS raises multifaceted questions about power dynamics and the alliance's future direction, especially regarding the roles and influence of India and China.

This research article, delves into the intricacies of BRICS expansion, analysing the perspectives and strategies of India and China in this evolving geopolitical landscape. While BRICS does not employ a formal veto system, the subtle competition between these two Asian giants holds the potential to reshape the alliance's leadership. The aim is to assess which country is likely to take the lead in shaping the future of this alliance and whether such leadership could truly provide an alternative or counterbalance to Western dominance.

The main issue at hand is the question of expansion, which has garnered significant attention in recent times. A notable number of nations, including Saudi Arabia, Iran, United Arab Emirates, Argentina, and more, have formally applied to join BRICS, with many others expressing interest. Reports suggest that China is pushing for swift expansion, with support from Russia, while India and Brazil have expressed reservations. This divide within the group highlights the complexities that arise when countries with diverse political systems and interests collaborate under the BRICS umbrella.

At its core, BRICS aims to represent the interests of the Global South, and it's noteworthy that none of its current members have formally criticised Russia for its invasion of Ukraine. However, the expansion dilemma has exposed fault lines within the bloc, which includes a mix of democracies and autocracies, with varying degrees of political freedom.

BRICS has the potential to play a pivotal role in global affairs, much like the Group of Seven (G7), but the direction it takes hinges on whether India's or China's vision prevails. India's reluctance to endorse China's rapid expansion proposal highlights their differing ideas about the group's future. If India's vision gains traction, BRICS could evolve as an inclusive forum for reforming the international economic and financial system without explicitly aligning with the United States or China. In contrast, if China prevails, BRICS may adopt an anti-US stance, potentially diminishing its ability to deliver concrete benefits to many developing countries.

Given the global implications of BRICS expansion, it is vital for the Group of Seven (G7) to develop an effective approach to engage with BRICS constructively while countering any negative tendencies. The recent BRICS summit, attended by over 60 countries alongside the five member nations, including the newly added South Africa, confirmed the transition to a multipolar world order. As BRICS grows to include Saudi Arabia, Iran, Ethiopia, Egypt, Argentina, and the UAE, its reach and influence are set to expand significantly, with 42% of the world's population and 36% of global GDP now represented.

This research article aims to provide a comprehensive analysis of the BRICS expansion, the roles of India and China within the alliance, and the potential implications of this expansion on the global stage. By exploring the motivations, concerns, and strategies of these two Asian giants, we seek to offer insights into the future of BRICS and its capacity to offer an alternative or opposition to Western dominance in the international arena.


                                                                                                         Image Source: Swarajya

The Rise of BRICS

The rise of BRICS, an acronym originally coined by Goldman Sachs economist Jim O'Neill in 2001, signifies the ascent of four major emerging economies: Brazil, Russia, India, and China. O'Neill foresaw their potential to reshape the global economy by 2050. BRICS began to take shape when the foreign ministers of these four nations convened during the 2006 United Nations General Assembly in New York, formalising the group known as BRIC. Subsequently, in 2009, the first summit of leaders was held, with annual meetings following suit. By 2010, the group expanded to include South Africa, resulting in the birth of BRICS.

BRICS was conceived with the objective of enhancing consultation and coordination among these five major developing countries. Their collective aim was to transform the Western-dominated world order into a multipolar system, granting developing nations a more equitable share of global influence. While their economic trajectories have differed over the years, with China and India experiencing remarkable growth compared to the other three members, BRICS has made substantial progress.

Today, BRICS represents a significant demographic and economic force, comprising 41% of the world's population and accounting for 60% of the GDP when measured against the G7 countries. Yet, in terms of voting power at the International Monetary Fund, BRICS nations hold only 15%, prompting discontent over the governance of international financial institutions.

The journey from BRIC to BRICS underscores the group's evolving role and priorities. Initially focused on economic matters, BRICS has broadened its scope to address security, climate change, sustainable development, and global financial system reform. This coalition has gained prominence in advocating for the representation of developing countries in international institutions, playing an increasingly vital role in reshaping the landscape of global affairs.

Expansion of BRICS; The Story of twist and turns

The expansion of BRICS has taken a surprising turn, with the recent announcement of six new member countries, namely Argentina, Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, set to join the alliance on January 1, 2024. This move adds significant weight to BRICS, increasing its global prominence.

However, this expansion is not without its complexities. The introduction of these diverse nations into the BRICS fold presents challenges and opportunities. While it strengthens BRICS' claim as a 'voice of the Global South,' it also raises concerns about China's increasing dominance within the group. The addition of these new members reflects BRICS' promise to rebalance the global order, perceived as skewed against many developing nations.

The decision to expand BRICS was marked by intense lobbying from aspiring member countries. India, initially hesitant about expansion, succumbed to mounting diplomatic pressure from nations vying to join. As BRICS transitions from its original 'BRIC' identity, the inclusion of such a disparate group of nations, including struggling economies like Argentina and Egypt, carries potential economic and geopolitical implications.

The enlarged BRICS now comprises countries with significant oil exporting capabilities, making it more diversified in terms of natural resources. Yet, it also includes nations with complex geopolitical relationships, such as the rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia. This mix of countries, each with its unique challenges and alliances, adds layers of complexity to BRICS' decision-making processes and goals.

While BRICS' expansion adds a new chapter to its story, it also underscores the complexities of consensus-based decision-making within the group. The coming together of these nations may enhance BRICS' influence but could also introduce divisions in a bloc known for its unity. BRICS' ability to effectively address global issues and promote the
interests of developing countries will be closely watched as it embarks on this new phase of expansion.

Contributions of New Members to the Bloc's Growth and Diversification

The admission of six new countries - Iran, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Argentina, the United Arab Emirates, and Ethiopia - to the BRICS group is expected to have significant implications for the global economy and geostrategic dynamics. The new members, particularly Saudi Arabia, Iran, and the United Arab Emirates, bring economic heft to BRICS, as they are among the top-10 oil-producing countries in the world. This expansion could also amplify BRICS' ambition to become a champion of the Global South. The addition of Argentina will strengthen the bloc’s lithium supply, as Argentina has the third-largest lithium reserves in the world. The admission of these new members is a historic move that is expected to reshape the global world order and provide a counterweight to the influence of the US and its allies. However, the admission of these new members has raised concerns about the potential impact on the group's dynamics, as it now includes a mix of powerful autocracies with middle-income and developing countries.

The long-term implications of this expansion on the global stage are still uncertain, and it remains to be seen how the group will be able to act in unison with the addition of these new members. The expansion of BRICS could have important implications for energy investment and trade, as it brings together large mineral resource holders and major oil producers, as well as some of the fastest-growing energy consumers. The admission of these new members is a significant change for a bloc that added it's only members 13 years ago. Overall, the admission of these new members to BRICS is expected to have far-reaching implications for the global economy and geostrategic landscape, and it will be important to monitor how this expansion shapes the dynamics of the group and its impact on the world stage.

China's Role and Stakes in Expanded BRICS Countries

China plays a central and transformative role in the expansion of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) bloc, with a strong focus on its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Its involvement in the BRICS expansion is not just a geopolitical move; it's a strategic step aimed at upending Western geo-economic hegemony and establishing itself as a dominant global player.

China's proactive role in BRICS expansion can be understood through its deepening economic and political connections with the member countries:

    1. Brazil: Although Brazil doesn't directly participate in the BRI, China has leveraged its economic prowess to establish influential ties with the country. Chinese investments and commitments to develop electric vehicle production complexes in Brazil showcase the extent of its economic involvement, effectively making China Brazil's strategic partner within the BRICS context.

    2. Argentina: Argentina's embrace of the BRI in 2022 marked a significant diplomatic win for China. China's robust trade relations, military deals, and financial assistance have solidified its position as Argentina's key partner. The ability to transact in Chinese Yuan instead of U.S. dollars reflects the increasing economic symbiosis between the two nations.

    3. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE): China's economic influence in the Middle East is palpable through its substantial investments and trade partnerships. In Saudi Arabia, the signing of a $10 billion deal for mining, electric vehicles, and renewables further deepened economic ties. China's position as the largest trading partner in Saudi Arabia and the UAE underscores its growing regional clout.

    4. Iran: China's strategic engagement with Iran involves substantial investments and a long-term economic and military agreement. Although the full implications of this agreement are yet to be revealed, China's status as Iran's largest trading partner and investor underscores its role as a key stakeholder in the geopolitics of the Middle East.

    5. Egypt and Ethiopia: China's investments in Egypt and Ethiopia, while not the largest, have witnessed remarkable growth. The fact that China is the largest investor in Ethiopia, accounting for the majority of foreign investments, signals its growing economic footprint in Africa. In Egypt, China's increased trade and investments position it as a significant player in the region.

    6. India: India, while somewhat restrained in accepting Chinese investments, still maintains China as its second-largest trading partner. This indicates that, despite political tensions affecting investment dynamics, economic ties between the two nations are far from insignificant.

In sum, China's role in the BRICS expansion is pivotal. It leverages its economic prowess, political acumen, and the BRI to strengthen its position in these diverse and strategically important regions. By cultivating strong economic and political relationships within the BRICS bloc and beyond, China is not only challenging Western economic hegemony but also actively shaping the future of global geopolitics. The BRICS expansion serves as a platform for these emerging and established powers to redefine their roles on the global stage, with China at the forefront of this transformation.

India's Role and Stakes in expanded BRICS Countries

India plays a crucial role in the expansion of the BRICS group, balancing its relationships with Russia and the West, managing the group's expansion, and addressing border tensions with China. India acts as a diplomatic buffer within BRICS to moderate China's influence, particularly in the wake of Russia's invasion of Ukraine. India has sought to preserve its privileged status as a founding member, advance its leadership as a voice of the Global South, and resist China's dominance in the group.
India's Stakes in Expanded BRICS Countries:

    1. Argentina: India has a strategic partnership with Argentina, with discussions on defence deals and joint mine exploration projects. Argentina's entry into BRICS could open up opportunities for India to enhance its economic ties with the South American nation.

    2. Egypt: India signed a strategic partnership with Egypt, indicating a strong commitment to bilateral ties. India is likely to back Egypt's BRICS membership as both countries share strategic interests in the region.

    3. Iran: Despite occasional challenges, India has a strategic partnership with Iran. India's deep engagement with Iran, especially in areas like energy and Chabahar Port, makes it an advocate for Iran's BRICS membership.

    4. Saudi Arabia: India's relationship with Saudi Arabia has evolved into a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership. While there may be political differences over Iran and China, India's strong ties with the Gulf nation can translate into support for Saudi Arabia's entry into BRICS.

    5. UAE: India's Comprehensive Strategic Partnership with the UAE and their growing economic cooperation make the UAE a strong candidate for BRICS. India is likely to endorse its entry as it aligns with India's interest in expanding its influence in the Middle East.

    6. Ethiopia: India views Ethiopia as a key African partner and has supported its positions at international forums. With India advocating for greater African representation, it is expected to welcome Ethiopia's inclusion in BRICS, despite its ties with China.

In the context of BRICS expansion, India's primary objective is to maintain a balance between its various diplomatic and economic relationships. It aims to safeguard its status as a founding member and continue being a voice for the Global South, while also advocating for the inclusion of partner countries that align with its interests. India's multi-faceted approach to the expansion is aimed at ensuring its influence within the group while pursuing its broader geopolitical and economic goals.

India China Odds over BRICS Expansion

Competing Vision
India and China are at odds over the expansion of BRICS, revealing internal divisions within the group. India is cautious about BRICS becoming a support organisation for China's geopolitical agenda, which includes promoting initiatives like the Belt and Road Initiative and adopting an explicit anti-US stance. India prefers to focus BRICS discussions on South-South economic cooperation, reducing reliance on the US dollar-based financial system, and enhancing representation for developing countries in international financial institutions.

China and Russia are keen on rapid BRICS expansion to bolster their influence in key developing nations. This has raised concerns for India, as it worries about diminishing its own influence within the group, particularly if new members align closely with China's interests.

India has proposed discussing and establishing membership criteria before admitting new members. The expansion of BRICS carries the risk of diluting the group's effectiveness, particularly if it continues to operate on a consensus basis. This disagreement will significantly impact the prospects of aspiring BRICS countries and the future of the organisation.

India–China protracted rivalry
The ongoing rivalry between India and China is rooted in their ambitions to become global powers and differing national security perspectives, resulting in a classic security dilemma marked by deterrence and escalation. These nations, both proud of their historical empires and civilizational greatness, aim to assert themselves as major global players.

The competition between India and China encompasses multiple domains, including efforts to gain influence in the developing world. China has been unsupportive of India's aspirations for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council and its membership in the Nuclear Suppliers Group. Their 1962 border conflict initiated antagonistic relations, compounded by disputes over Tibet, the Dalai Lama, and struggles for influence in South Asia, East Asia, and the Indian Ocean.

China's strategic partnership with Pakistan has been a persistent concern for India, which perceives it as an attempt to counter India in South Asian affairs and hinder its global rise. Conversely, India's resistance to China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and its flagship project, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, has strained relations.

The dispute over BRICS expansion further fuels the India-China rivalry, with India wary of a "swift" expansion that might give the bloc an "anti-Western" tilt. The differences over membership expansion will significantly influence the future of both aspiring BRICS countries and the organisation itself. This divergence reflects their broader geopolitical contest.

India–China clashes along the LAC and consequences for BRICS
The India-China border clashes along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) have given rise to tensions and conflicts between the two nations. The deadly clash in the Galwan Valley in June 2020 intensified anti-China sentiments in India, leading to calls for economic decoupling from China. The Indian government implemented measures to reduce its economic dependence on China, such as specifying the country of origin for products and banning Chinese mobile apps.

Furthermore, the standoff has pushed India closer to the United States, as the two countries have strengthened their diplomatic, strategic, and defence ties. The United States sees India as a crucial partner in its Indo-Pacific strategy to counterbalance China's influence in the region.

The conflict has also influenced India's participation in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD), which includes the US, Japan, and Australia. India's decision to invite Australia to join the Malabar naval exercises with the US and Japan has reactivated the QUAD, potentially posing challenges to China in the Indo-Pacific.

Despite the India-China conflict, both countries have shown a willingness to enhance security cooperation within BRICS, particularly in the area of counter-terrorism. This research examines the impact of the India-China conflict on BRICS and whether BRICS can continue to serve as a platform for cooperation amid bilateral tensions.

Pakistan in BRICS? China pushes for expansion
China's push for the expansion of the BRICS alliance to include Pakistan has sparked diplomatic complexity. While China advocates for broader membership to accommodate more developing nations, India firmly opposes this move. India is concerned that expanding BRICS membership could dilute the alliance's core objectives and consensus. Earlier in 2023, Pakistan, along with countries like Argentina, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia, expressed interest in joining BRICS. Their motivation is rooted in dissatisfaction with Western-dominated institutions' strict conditions and scepticism about Western values. This tension between China's expansion efforts and India's resistance highlights the challenges of BRICS enlargement.

The BRICS Expansion Puzzle: Who Takes the Lead?

Determining which country is more likely to emerge as the leader in the BRICS expansion is complex and multifaceted. India brings the advantage of a growing economy and a democratic model, which resonates with some potential new members. Moreover, India's diplomatic stronghold and soft power projection could sway opinion in its favour. Recent economic commitments in African nations demonstrate India's potential to influence through investments and partnerships. On the other hand, China's economic prowess, experience in international forums, and willingness to invest heavily in BRICS can't be underestimated. Its Belt and Road Initiative, despite concerns, attracts countries looking for infrastructure development. However, China also faces challenges related to its authoritarian system and international backlash.


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About the Author:

Mohit Gajbhiye is working as a Research Intern at Indic Researchers Forum. He holds a Master's in Defense and Strategic Studies. He has also completed PG Diploma in counter terrorism studies.


The research article reflects the opinion of the author and not necessarily the views of the organisation.

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