The “BRICS expansion dilemma”: size vs representation

One of the key themes to be discussed at the BRICS summit in South Africa in 2023 is set to be the theme of BRICS expansion, namely the widening of the ranks of emerging market economies that form the BRICS core. With nearly 20 developing countries expressing interest in joining the BRICS ranks, there is now an active discussion within the block on the criteria to be used in deciding on the modalities of the expansion. And while BRICS history of 15 years of summits is relatively short, it does set certain elements of path-dependence and guidelines that will need to be taken into account in designing the future trajectories of BRICS expansion.

One of such elements of path-dependence is that while size and weight clearly has been important in bringing the block together so too has been the representation by each BRICS economy of its own region in the developing world – in the case of Brazil it was Latin America, in the case of China – East Asia, India represents South Asia, Russia represents Northern Eurasia, South Africa represents the African continent. If this key principle of representation were to be followed through further then the expansion of the block would need to prioritize the leading economies from those regions that are yet to be represented by the BRICS core. At this stage there appear to be two regions of the Global South that are yet to find their place within the BRICS core – these regions are the Middle East and South-East Asia. The largest economies coming from these regions that are also members of the G20 are Saudi Arabia and Indonesia – they are also the largest representatives of the respective regional blocks – GCC and ASEAN. 

Such a limited expansion to include two more developing economies would essentially allow the BRICS to cover all of the main sub-regions of the Global South, including the main regional integration blocks of the developing world. The problem is that such an expansion would tilt the representation of developing countries in BRICS even further in favour of Asia – Asia would raise its membership to 5 countries, with Africa and Latin America still having only one country in the core. There may be other modalities that could attenuate this imbalance somewhat – for example the “second-wave format” may be based on second-generation BRICS advanced from the same regions as the BRICS core – in case the selection of countries is based on GDP size in PPP terms the resulting second-generation wave (denoted as PEAKS) may include Pakistan (South Asia), Egypt (Africa), Argentina (Latin America), Kazakhstan (Eurasia), Saudi Arabia (Asia). An alternative version based on GDP at market exchange rates and that includes more countries from outside of Asia can be denoted as BEAMS and would comprise Bangladesh (South Asia), Egypt (Africa), Argentina (Latin America), Mexico (Latin America) and Saudi Arabia (Asia).

But while the imbalance between Asia and the rest of the Global South may be attenuated in some of the above formats, there is still a sense that in the longer term BRICS expansion needs to accord greater representation to Africa and Latin America. One way to explore this venue is to look at the share of the top 3 developing economies in Latin America, Africa and Asia. Across these three regions of the Global South Latin America has the highest degree of concentration – in terms of GDP the top 3 economies (Brazil, Mexico and Argentina) command a share of more than 80% (more than 60% of the population), the first 4 economies (together with Colombia) rise above 90% (nearly 70% of the population), while the top two economies (Brazil and Mexico) account for more than 70% of regional GDP and nearly 54% of the regional population.

Africa has the lowest concentration of the three Global South regions – In terms of GDP the top 3 economies (Nigeria, Egypt and South Africa) command 43% of the total and only the addition of Algeria allows the group to rise above the 50% mark. The level of concentration is significantly lower for the population – the top 3 economies (Nigeria, Ethiopia and Egypt) account for less than a third of the total. 

As regards Asia, the share of the top 3 economies by GDP (China, Japan, India) is less than ¾ of the total, while the top 2 developing economies in Asia (China and India) account for close to 57% of the Asian total. If Indonesia is added to the list the share of China, India and Indonesia in Asia is around 60% of Asia’s GDP. Together with Russia the RICs (Russia, India, China) account for around 60% of the total GDP formed by Asia and Russia. In terms of population the share of China and India in Asia’s total is close to 62%, while together with Indonesia the three most populous Asian economies would account for around 68%. 

What the figures above suggest is that a “3+3+3” format of top 3 economies from Asia, Africa and Latin America may provide a greater representation of Latin American and African countries in the BRICS core, while also covering the bulk of the GDP and population of the respective key regions of the Global South. There may be additional membership accorded to Asia due to its greater share in global GDP and population – 38% and 60% respectively compared to 3% and 17% for Africa and 4% and 8.4% for Latin America. For example, a medium-term expansion of the core may imply a “2+2+2” formula with two more countries coming to the core from Latin America (Argentina and Mexico), two countries from Africa (Egypt and Algeria or Ethiopia) and two more economies from Asia (Saudi Arabia and Indonesia). This would bring the total number of developing economies in the BRICS core to 11 – 3 from Africa, 3 from Latin America and 5 from Asia. Alternatively, these six economies from the Global South could form a permanent partnership circle alongside the BRICS core that participates on a regular basis in BRICS summits. 

Still, any of the above expansion modalities or even the admission of most of the developing economies that have expressed interest in joining the BRICS, will not fully address the issue of the representation of the Global South. One key reason is Africa – not even the three top African economies account for the majority of the continent’s GDP and even less so with respect to the share in Africa’s population. At this stage a full-fledged representation of Africa within the BRICS platform can be only done by the African Union within the framework of BRICS+. Another problem is ASEAN – even if Indonesia were to join BRICS at some stage in the future, there would still be the question of how to build BRICS relations with other dynamic and increasingly important players from ASEAN such as Vietnam, Malaysia, Thailand and Philippines. The same goes for systemically important economies from the GCC that play an important role in the balancing of the oil and gas market globally. 

This in turn means that apart from the formation of a second wave of heavy-weights that may complement the BRICS core or form another layer of partnership with BRICS there also needs to be a layer for regional blocks where BRICS/BRICS+ countries are members. This would open up the possibility for BRICS to establish economic partnership linkages with the majority of the Global South – in this case a BEAMS platform for the regional arrangements of the Global South could include BIMSTEC, the Eurasian Economic Union, the African Union, Mercosur and the Shanghai Cooperation organization. ASEAN could increasingly be part of that regional circle, including within the framework of FTAs that it has with BRICS members such as China and India.     

In the end, the “size-representation” dilemma for BRICS is becoming one of the key issues for its expansion and long term development. Balancing size/weight on the one hand and the coverage/representation of the main regions of the Global South will require some combination of the regional BRICS+ format (that brings together the regional arrangements and organizations of the developing countries) and the addition of some of the heavy-weights in the BRICS core/”partnership circle”. In discussions concerning BRICS expansion it is important to understand that it is not just about the 20 or so countries that have expressed an interest in working together with BRICS – the majority of the Global South community is increasingly hopeful that BRICS will become an inclusive platform that will establish cooperative links across all of the developing world. In this respect, it is important that in designing their expansion BRICS stay ahead of the curve and rather than merely reacting to membership applications they also create a long-term inclusive framework that can offer a range of cooperation modalities to any developing economy in the Global South universe. 

Author’s note: first published at BRICS+ Analytics

Yaroslav Lissovolik
Yaroslav Lissovolik
Founder, BRICS+ Analytics contact: yl[at]