On 1 January 2024, BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) expanded to include Saudi Arabia, Iran, the UAE, Egypt, and Ethiopia. A sixth new member, Argentina, chose to withdraw at the last minute.
One assumes the acronym won’t be changing to reflect the new members, as BRICSUISEE certainly doesn’t sound as catchy. But was BRICS ever a useful term for a disparate group of countries, whose only real bond is being arguably the largest emerging economy in their respective geographies?
The original aim of the bloc was to promote the economic interests of the five founding nations. In reality, however, internal conflicts have hindered BRICS’ impact, such as the ongoing border dispute between India and China. A further point of contention between member countries is their varying closeness with the West. Brazil and India nurture these relationships, in stark contrast to the other BRICS members. In fact, Argentina cited its desire to strengthen international ties as a reason against joining BRICS.
From an economic perspective, BRICS appears to have achieved relatively little. Nevertheless, 23 countries formally applied to join. Saudi Arabia and UAE bring both geographical diversity and wealth to the bloc, while South Africa’s appetite for increasing African representation is whetted thanks to Ethiopia and Egypt’s membership.
For what self-identifies as a primarily economic bloc, it seems that the selection criteria were somewhat more focused on China’s international relations. The expansion has been described by international commentators as a diplomatic victory for the country, and indeed, all incoming BRICS members have signed up to China’s Belt and Road Initiative reinforcing China’s connection to the five new entrants.
Despite some Western concerns about the BRICS expansion, there have been few alarm bells. This could be attributed to BRICS’ short list of achievements so far or to the fact many of its decisions are politically steered. The latter may be a detriment in the eyes of the West when it comes to selecting new members, but it is a positive when considering BRICS’ own internal tensions.
These very reasons are why the usability of the term BRICS has been restricted. With its expansion, the acronym will now represent less than half of the constituent members. The key challenge is whether the bloc is able to maintain a sense of unity in the face of this expanding membership and a likely increase in diverging views.
Indeed, many investment funds that were launched as BRICS-focused have since closed or been merged into broader Emerging Markets portfolios, a trend that whilst taking place prior to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was certainly also consolidated by it.
So is BRICS still, or was it ever, a useful term when talking about emerging or developing economies?
Language is a constantly evolving medium and as ‘archaic’ terms like third world gave way to developing or emerging economies, so too do more modern acronyms fall out of favour. Unless the expanded BRICS bloc is able to deliver coherent policy decisions across its member base, it may well have run its course. For those commenting on emerging markets, it may be advisable to minimise the use of the term BRICS until they have a better indication of what this new iteration actually represents.