by Simone Galimberti
The lack of new members from Southeast Asia in the recently expanded ASEAN should be seen as an opportunity to rethink the responsibilities of the founding members of ASEAN.
Perhaps Ethiopia is the only country that can boast about its new membership in the BRICS – a grouping of the world economies of Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa.
While it is the second-most populous nation in Africa and a regional power that has seen impressive growth in the last two decades, Ethiopia, until recently, was marred by a catastrophic civil war.
This conflict’s reverberations are still felt by millions of citizens. The associated tensions and violence, combined with the accompanying starvation, remain a constant daily threat to the nation’s future.
Only such a daring scenario can justify the jubilation shown by PM Abiy Ahmed of Ethiopia when his country was added to the list of the six new countries joining the BRICS.
Similarly, Argentina, grappling with hyperinflation, a shattered economy, and the looming prospect of a populist and libertarian politician becoming a presidential contender next year, might find some pride in being admitted to the BRICS.
From South East Asia’s perspective, the situation is quite the opposite.
The exclusion of any ASEAN members from the expanded BRICS didn’t cause an uproar. Instead, it was met with a realistic assessment that understands the delicate dynamics of power in the region and the wider Asia Pacific.
The rationale for such a reaction can be discerned from understanding what the BRICS truly represents.
“They’re geographically separated and have all sorts of political differences,” says historian Michael Dillon, emphasizing the border conflicts between China and India and noting that “the expanding Indian economy is certainly competing with the Chinese economy.”
The King’s College academic isn’t alone in expressing scepticism about the BRICS enlargement discussed last week at the Johannesburg Summit. Many pundits share concerns about the future prospects of this expanded group.
Even experts from Indonesia, one of the South East Asian countries frequently mentioned as a potential BRICS member, express reservations. While there would be trade and investment benefits, Indonesia must consider the trade-offs of potential BRICS membership.
“Analyzing how BRICS membership would affect regional relations and stability is key to understanding the long-term consequences,” explains Nailul Huda, an economist from the Institute for Development of Economics and Finance, in the Malaysian daily, The Star.
This view is shared by President Jokowi of Indonesia, who remains cautious about the impact of his country joining the BRICS. Although Indonesia has forged close ties with Beijing, current geopolitical dynamics necessitate that Asia-Pacific leaders avoid disrupting the existing balance of power.
Vietnam, another country seen as a strong potential BRICS candidate, has similarly been hesitant despite its ideology-driven foreign policy.
Before delving deeper into the implications for Southeast Asian nations of joining or abstaining from the BRICS, it’s worth comparing the BRICS with entities it seeks to emulate.
While one of the BRICS’ aims is to counterbalance the G7, the latter is primarily symbolic. Similarly, the G20, though more significant, remains symbolic. The position of the expanded BRICS among these groups remains uncertain.
The BRICS nations haven’t been a tight-knit geopolitical alliance and often diverge on key issues. Their collaboration arises more from intersecting interests among varied stakeholders than from shared values or geography. This lack of value coherence, coupled with geographical diversity, weakens the BRICS forum.
Leaders like President Lula of Brazil and President Ramaphosa of South Africa might criticize American imperialism and European self-righteousness. Still, their views differ sharply from the aggressive foreign policies of President Putin of Russia and President Xi of China.
While shared concerns might exist among some BRICS nations, the democratic mandates of countries like Brazil and South Africa align them more with the USA, Canada, and the EU than with China and Russia.
Thus, President Jokowi likely made a wise decision not to advocate for Indonesia’s BRICS membership. While the Philippines under President Duterte might have pushed to join, the new administration of Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos has shifted the narrative.
A novel solution could involve ASEAN, as a regional legal entity, becoming an observer in the BRICS. This move, while symbolic, wouldn’t risk jeopardizing ASEAN’s Western relations. However, ASEAN’s effectiveness and relevance are in question, evidenced by US President Biden’s potential absence from upcoming ASEAN Summits.
The potential for increased regional cooperation and eventual integration exists in Southeast Asia, but it remains a distant dream. This challenging reality is something that proponents of a united ASEAN must confront.
A possible way forward involves approaching geopolitics and foreign relations creatively to identify untapped partnership paths. The ASEAN 5, the bloc’s founders, could brainstorm and formulate a strategy for enhanced intra-regional cooperation outside of ASEAN’s framework.
This doesn’t imply neglecting their ASEAN duties. It’s beneficial to maintain the facade of ASEAN’s relevance. But allowing a less central player like the ASEAN Secretariat to represent them in BRICS might be wise.
Hopefully, the ASEAN 5 will recognize the advantages of closer cooperation and partnership. Such a move would have a transformative impact on the region and the broader Asia Pacific.
Simone Galimberti writes on democracy, social inclusion, youth development, regional integration, SDGs and human rights in the context of Asia Pacific.