What to look out for in the run-up to the 9th BRICS Summit in Xiamen

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In less than two weeks, the leaders of the five BRICS nations will gather in the charming city of Xiamen in Fujian Province. It will be a high-point of a year that has seen an unprecedented degree of Chinese diplomatic activism, ranging from the Belt and Road Forum held in Beijing last weekend to a flurry of intra-BRICS activities, including issues such as cybersecurity, G20 and strengthening people-to-people exchanges. What are the key dynamics that will shape the summit? 

First of all, it becomes increasingly evident that, due to the growing power asymmetry within the grouping, BRICS must be understood as one element in a much broader Chinese effort to reshape global affairs. This does not mean that Chinese diplomacy does not prioritize the grouping – quite to the contrary: the Foreign Ministry in Beijing carefully picks its diplomats posted in capitals in BRICS countries, and we can expect the 9th summit to get the full attention of both Xi Jinping and the country’s propaganda machine. While both India and Russia continue to articulate new ideas of what to do with the BRICS grouping, Beijing’s preferences are becoming ever more important. That points to the greater need for other members such as Brazil to work together with Delhi or South Africa when articulating proposals.

Greater Chinese influence will be amplified this year by the fact that the summit host enjoys, by definition, greater freedom to articulate the grouping’s narrative during the year-long presidency. China’s top foreign policy priority at this stage is to consolidate and substantiate its regional leadership ambitions, so it can be expected that the BRICS presidency and the Xiamen summit will be used with this goal in mind. Specifically, this means that China will most likely give special emphasis to the so-called outreach-process, initiated by the South African government during the 2013 Summit, when Pretoria invited countries in the region to participate in parts of the summit.

Beijing may take this process a step further, and some have privately suggested China is interested in inviting Indonesia to the club. This would fit nicely into Bejiing’s narrative that its rise is inclusive, participatory and, above all, good for Asia as a whole.

The other members may be wary at such a step, as it might dilute the status membership of the BRICS grouping confers. Yet one may also argue that including Indonesia could, in theory, increase the grouping’s legitimacy to participate in the global agenda setting process. After all, Indonesia is the world’s most populous Muslim country, and certainly a rising power to be reckoned with in the coming decades. It may also help BRICS members other than China establish more institutionalized ties to a nation that remains largely off the radar in foreign ministries in Moscow, Brasília and Pretoria.

Any kind of expansion would fuel debates about other candidates such Turkey, a nation that is clearly undergoing a strategic reorientation, above all a away from Europe. Yet Ankara would bring several complexities into the grouping that Russia in particular will dislike. After all, Ankara is a member of NATO. 

Both Brazil and South Africa face internal crises of such intensity that their capacity to bring new ideas to the table about the future of the grouping stands at a historic low. Still, given the usefulness of the grouping for all those involved, we can expect the summit to continue to figure prominently in all leaders' agendas in the coming years.

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