Xi and Putin score wins as more Asian leaders want to join BRICS

As Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese Premier Li Qiang wrapped up separate meetings in Southeast Asia this week, the two partners in the BRICS economic bloc encountered a region keen to join a group seen as a hedge against Western-led institutions.

During an interview with Chinese media ahead of Li’s visit to Malaysia, Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim declared his intention to apply to the bloc after it doubled in size this year by luring Global South nations — partly by offering access to financing but also by providing a political venue independent of Washington’s influence. 

Thailand — a US treaty ally — last month announced its own bid to join BRICS, named after members Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. The bloc “represents a south-south cooperative framework which Thailand has long desired to be a part of,” Foreign Minister Maris Sangiampongsa told reporters last week.

For countries seeking to mitigate the economic risks of intensifying US-China competition, joining BRICS is an attempt to straddle some of those tensions. But it’s also a way of signaling increasing frustration with the US-led international order and key institutions that remain firmly in the control of Western powers, like the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. 

“Some of us, including people like myself, think that we need to find solutions to the unfair international financial and economic architecture,” former Malaysian Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah said in an interview. “So BRICS would probably be one of the ways to balance some things.”

For Putin and Xi, the interest in BRICS also shows their success at pushing back at attempts by the US and its allies to isolate them more broadly over the war in Ukraine and military threats to Taiwan, the Philippines, South Korea and Japan. Ukraine leader Volodymyr Zelenskiy struggled to convince Asian nations to back his peace summit in Switzerland earlier this month, and Putin this week signed a defense pact with North Korea while warning he had the right to arm US adversaries around the world.

A club that for years consisted of just five members expanded to nine with the inclusion of Saudi Arabia, Iran, the United Arab Emirates, Ethiopia and Egypt this January. That was a push largely driven by China as it tries to increase its clout on the global stage.

Another Southeast Asian nation, Indonesia, was considered an early favorite to join last year before President Joko Widodo indicated he would not be rushed into the decision.

Still, the momentum to add new members has continued. Despite US and European efforts to prevent countries from dealing with Moscow, representatives from 12 non-member nations appeared at a BRICS Dialogue in Russia this month. They included longtime US foes like Cuba and Venezuela, but also nations such as Turkey, Laos, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Kazakhstan.

Also present was Vietnam, which last year upgraded ties with Washington in a move seen as pushback on Beijing’s rising influence in the region. Hanoi has been following the grouping’s progress with “keen interest,” as state broadcaster Voice of Vietnam put it last month. 

“Vietnam is always ready to participate in and contribute actively to global and regional multilateral mechanisms,” Foreign Ministry spokesperson Pham Thu Hang said at the time.

Vietnam welcomed Russia’s leader this week despite strong objections from the US on the grounds that “no country should give Putin a platform to promote his war of aggression” in Ukraine. Vietnam and Russia have ties going back to the Cold War and Soviet era. 

In their joint statement issued at the conclusion of their talks, Russia welcomed Vietnam’s participation in the dialogue earlier this month and said they would “continue to strengthen ties between the BRICS countries and developing countries, including Vietnam.”

It wasn’t clear how much BRICS was part of Putin’s closed-door talks in Vietnam, though the two nations pledged to boost defense and energy cooperation. China’s Li used his trip to Malaysia deepen trade and economic ties and advance construction of major projects. 

Unwieldy Group

After this year’s expansion, BRICS plans to invite non-member countries to take part in its next summit in the Russian city of Kazan in October. Just hosting the event gives Moscow a chance to showcase to the world that it isn’t totally isolated by Western opposition to the war in Ukraine. 

“It’s no secret that Washington doesn’t love the BRICS, particularly with Iran and Russia’s membership,” said Scot Marciel, a former US ambassador to Indonesia, Myanmar and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. 

At the same time, the larger the bloc grows, the less likely it is to find consensus on key issues, he said. “My sense is, Washington is probably not applauding the move by Thailand and Malaysia to join it, but I don’t think it’s going to cause massive heartburn.”

Officials at the US State Department didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. 

The potential benefits for joining BRICS go beyond geopolitics. 

$33 Billion

The bloc’s members have agreed to pool $100 billion of foreign-currency reserves, which they can lend to each other during emergencies. The group also founded the New Development Bank — a World Bank-modeled institution that has approved almost $33 billion of loans mainly for water, transport and other infrastructure projects since it began operations in 2015.

That investment pool would be useful in Southeast Asia, where official development finance dwindled to a low of $26 billion in 2022, according to a report this month by the Sydney-based Lowy Institute.

Another draw to membership, Malaysia’s Saifuddin said, is the residual negative sentiment toward institutions like the IMF, which pushed austerity measures sometimes blamed in the region for worsening the economic hardship caused by the Asian financial crisis in the late 1990s.

Washington isn’t sitting still. It has deepened security links in the region on matters like counter-terrorism, and with countries like Vietnam and the Philippines who are increasingly worried about their disputes with Beijing in the South China Sea. But as the great power competition intensifies across the board, there is also a recognition the region needs to hedge its bets.

“There is increasingly less space for smaller countries to maneuver,” Ong Keng Yong, the former secretary general of Asean said in an interview. “By joining organizations like BRICS, countries are signaling that they want to be friendly to all sides, not just to the US and its allies.” –BLOOMBERG