BRICS will continue to receive membership applications

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One day prior to the 5th BRICS Leaders Summit, the South African public debate largely revolved around the death of thirteen South African peacekeepers, who were killed in the Central African Republic as rebels seized the capital, Bangui. The incident perhaps symbolized the cost of South Africa's growing ambitions as a regional leader and - as hotly debated - a 'representative' and 'gateway to Africa'. Yet among many of those who had come from Brazil, Russia, India and China, Egypt's recent informal request to join the BRICS was the topic of the day.

Rather than causing discussions about the possibility of accepting Egypt - neither the country's size nor its growth rates or current political situation justify its admission - President Morsi's reference to "E-BRICS" powerfully symbolized the continued attraction of the emerging power grouping. This is particularly notable since several BRICS - Brazil and South Africa in particular - are no longer among the fastest growing economies. Brazil, for instance, may grow slower in 2013 than the United States, and Nigeria is almost certain to grow faster than South Africa.

Still, the BRICS continue to be seen as a highly exclusive grouping that others seek to be part of. Indeed, for any emerging power, be it Mexico, Nigeria, Indonesia, Egypt or Turkey, joining the BRICS would today be seen as a step towards increasing a country's international status. In the eyes of policy makers and commentators, the BRICS label strengthens a country’s status as dynamic and emerging power with a growing role in global affairs, provides additional legitimacy and authority, and helps it be recognized as such by established powers. Being a BRICs member thus implies a social recognition – partly provided by the other members of the international community but also by Goldman Sachs forecasters and global opinion (even though Goldman Sachs only included 4 countries) - which is likely to enhance each country’s individual bargaining power.

This explains South Africa's activism to join the BRICS. In 2010, South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma visited the four BRIC countries in what was the most systematic attempt by any country to join the exclusive alliance of emerging powers. In April 2010, Zuma visited Brasília for the 4th IBSA Summit, which coincided with the 2nd BRIC Summit. This gave the South African President the opportunity to hold bilateral meetings with all BRIC leaders. Two months later, he visited India. Next, in early August, Zuma took a delegation of cabinet ministers and more than 100 South African business people to Russia, where he sought to promote trade ties and his country’s inclusion into the BRIC alliance.

Later in the same month, Zuma, heading a delegation of 400 business representatives and eleven government ministers, visited China to promote the idea of his country’s entry into the BRIC grouping. During a speech in Beijing, he argued that South Africa's participation in BRIC "would mean that an entire continent that has a population of over one billion people is represented.” At the same time, he sought to downplay growing criticism of China’s role in Africa, saying that labeling China's engagement with Africa as "new colonialism" was untruthful. At the meeting, China and South Africa upgraded relations to a ‘comprehensive strategic partnership’. In December 2010, Zuma's efforts led to South Africa's admission to the BRICS group. Since then, it has been seen as the country's most significant foreign policy achievement over the past years.

As long as the BRICS term retains the capacity to provide increased international status, the grouping will not only continue to exist to provide benefits to its members - particularly given the low cost of particpation - but also continue to attract others who seek to join it.

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Photo credit: Islamedia