BRICS sees strength in numbers as it envisions a multipolar world order

Special BRICS sees strength in numbers as it envisions a multipolar world order
Foreign ministers of BRICS nations with representatives of new prospective members in Cape Town. (Reuters)
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Updated 21 August 2023

BRICS sees strength in numbers as it envisions a multipolar world order

BRICS sees strength in numbers as it envisions a multipolar world order
  • BRICS foreign ministers’ summit sets stage for a more ambitious role for five-nation bloc
  • Prince Faisal bin Farhan, Saudi minister of foreign affairs, joins ministerial meeting of the ‘Friends of BRICS’

LONDON: Foreign ministers from BRICS countries Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa have expressed their willingness to admit new members, including Saudi Arabia, as the bloc seeks a larger voice in the international arena. 

At a two-day conference in Cape Town on Thursday and Friday, attended by Prince Faisal bin Farhan, the Saudi minister of foreign affairs, the group presented itself as a force for a “rebalancing” of the global order away from Western-dominated institutions. 

Prince Faisal held bilateral talks with several of his counterparts and attended a ministerial meeting of the “Friends of BRICS” under the theme “Partnership for Mutually Accelerated Growth, Sustainable Development, and Inclusive Multilateralism.”

He also held talks with Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, Iran’s foreign minister, to examine steps “to implement the agreement between the two countries signed in Beijing, including intensifying bilateral work to ensure international peace and security,” according to a statement from the Saudi delegation. 

Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan with Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov. (MOFA/Twitter)

Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Iran, Cuba, DRC, Comoros, Gabon, and Kazakhstan all sent representatives to Cape Town for the talks, while Egypt, Argentina, Bangladesh, Guinea-Bissau and Indonesia participated virtually.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said “more than a dozen” countries have expressed interest in joining BRICS. Meanwhile, Ma Zhaoxu, China’s vice foreign minister, told a press conference: “We expect more countries to join our big family.”

According to reports, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Algeria, Egypt, Bahrain, and Iran have all formally asked to join the BRICS, as have several other nations who appear intent upon recalibrating international ties in line with an increasingly multipolar world order.

According to the Financial Times, Saudi Arabia is also in talks with the New Development Bank, the Shanghai-based lender better known as the “BRICS bank,” to admit the Kingdom as its ninth member.   

A heads of state summit is scheduled to take place in Johannesburg in August.

The BRICS economic bloc is positioning itself as an alternative to Western-dominated centers of power. However, experts seem uncertain about its potential, pointing to innate divisions between the central BRICS powers and a lack of clarity on what membership might entail.

Nevertheless, for several countries seeking financial assistance, the stringent demands often attached to bailouts by Western-dominated institutions like the IMF and World Bank have proved increasingly unpalatable, leading many nations to look elsewhere for partnerships.

A Tunisian man and his children return home on their cart in the central Tunisian city of Sidi Bouzid. (AFP)

One such example is Tunisia. 

Battered by diminishing output, high debt and rampant inflation, with food and fuel prices spiking, many saw the IMF’s offer of a $1.9 billion loan as Tunisia’s only way out of an escalating economic and political crisis.

President Kais Saied disagreed with this perspective, however, making his views on the deal very clear at the start of April, rejecting demands to cut energy and food subsidies and reduce the public wage bill, which the loan had been made contingent upon.

“I will not hear diktats,” Saied said, noting the deadly riots that ensued in 1983 after bread prices were raised, telling Tunisians they instead had to “count on themselves.”

Others close to Saied seem to think that he has different plans to stop the country’s economic rot.

Echoing Saied, Mahmoud bin Mabrouk, a spokesperson for the pro-presidential July 25 Movement, told Arab News that Tunisia would “not accept diktats or interference” and would now look to the BRICS as “a political, economic and financial alternative that will enable Tunisia to open up to the new world.”

Should bin Mabrouk’s claim hold weight, Tunisia would become the latest North African country to gravitate toward the bloc after Algeria applied to join late last year.

Such a move would suggest that the BRICS bloc is an expanding entity offering an alternative to the IMF and World Bank for states seeking bailouts.

However, Jim O’Neill, the economist who coined the BRICS acronym, questions “what” Tunisia would actually be signing up for, describing the bloc as more of a “political club” than any defined economic grouping, and one that seems to have had negative effects financially.

“As I’ve argued before, since the politic club came around, ironically, its economic strength has weakened,” O’Neill told Arab News. He further questions what criteria the bloc would seek in new members, suggesting that in the case of Algeria and Tunisia “it all just seems (like) symbolism.”

Symbolism or not, Algeria and Tunisia are not alone in their pivot toward the nascent bloc, with Argentina, Egypt, Indonesia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkiye all considering tethering their futures to it.

Sarah Yerkes, a senior fellow at Carnegie’s Middle East Program, believes that Tunisia’s move should be taken seriously as it represents “an intentional geopolitical shift on its behalf,” noting the increased criticism of Tunisia from both Europe and the US.

“Tunisia is desperate for financial assistance and since the West is focused on conditioning aid to Tunisia on democratic reforms, it makes sense that Saied would seek assistance from countries that are less concerned with human rights and freedom,” Yerkes told Arab News.

However, like O’Neill, she questions whether the BRICS can offer an alternative to the IMF and World Bank, pointing to the bloc’s weak record when it comes to “assisting other countries and helping them achieve real, sustained economic prosperity.”

Internally, the BRICS group, at least, seems confident that it can rival the West. And, with the group set to meet in Johannesburg this August, South Africa’s foreign minister Naledi Pandor has reportedly suggested the launch of the economic bloc’s own currency, intended as a rival to dollar hegemony, would be firmly on the discussion table.

Even so, few commentators offer a defense of BRICS as a new economic bloc, with Elie Abouaoun, director of MENA at the US Institute of Peace, seeing Tunisia’s addition as a weight around the neck of a limited pool of “GDP contributors.”

The foreign ministers of South Africa and India. (Supplied)

“At this stage, the main contributors to global GDP among the BRICS countries are China and India, and most of the countries listed as potential candidates to become members are loan consumers rather than solid contributors to the global GDP,” Abouaoun told Arab News.

“With seven or eight new consumer countries integrating into the alliance, I see challenges for the largest BRICS member states and less, if any, financial benefit to the new ones. The alliance will certainly be weaker with more members so desperate to receive economic aid.”

Similarly, Liam Campling, professor of international business and development at Queen Mary University’s School of Business and Management, London, said that agreement by the BRICS cohort to admit Tunisia would be “slightly puzzling, given that it is a mid-level power.”

“When you look at the existing members, they are all sub-regional powers, each dominant in their part of the world, but when you look at Tunisia it is not dominant in North Africa in the same way Egypt is,” Campling told Arab News.

“So, from the BRICS perspective, it is not an obvious ally, but from the Tunisia side, it could obviously be an effort to garner wider macroeconomic support. Although what I think is happening is it is playing both sides, which is part of the play for any mid-ranking country.”

Campling’s skepticism stems from his assertion that while Tunisia may have fallen foul of the US, with increased political acrimony between the two, it is still very much economically “in bed” with the Europeans, adding “it’s not going to jeopardize its EU connections for this.”

And like the others, Campling has wider reservations about the BRICS project, pointing to what he terms the “central tension at the heart of it,” namely the long-running border disputes between China and India.

This, he suggests, renders the bloc more of an ad-hoc alliance than a cohesive unit that can direct global trade, policy and finance in a manner akin to that of the IMF or World Bank, and thus he questions the assertion that BRICS could become an alternative economic bloc.

“Essentially, I do not see it being able to offer a sustained alternative until that central tension between India and China is resolved, and I do not see that being resolved, which means there is nothing really holding it together, leaving little space for a more sustained role,” he said.

Abouaoun says what is really missing is a “normative model” that other countries can buy into beyond the BRICS bloc’s defense of “multipolarity.” Scratch beneath the surface and there seems to be an absence of substance — an opinion shared by Yerkes.

“At this point it doesn’t seem much more than a potential counterweight to Europe and the US, and without a foundational ideology, particularly with members with vastly different economic philosophies, it doesn’t seem likely that it would be a strong competitor,” she said.

Consensus on BRICS’ prospects notwithstanding, O’Neill is at odds with the others when it comes to the question of whether the world needs another economic bloc, believing focus should instead be on strengthening every economy, rather than acting in collectives.

Yerkes, Campling and Abouaoun seem less opposed to the notion of a new bloc, recognizing that US unipolarity seems to be on the way out. Nevertheless, they stress that the bloc’s value would be dependent on its make-up and its intentions.

Indeed, with the likes of Saudi Arabia potentially among its ranks, the BRICS could attain new levels of financial and diplomatic clout, transforming the international arena. 

“Historically, the dominance of the West, and its various international bodies and institutions, has been extremely self-serving, producing contradictory outcomes leading to a world that is more volatile and more uneven and increasingly depending on indebtedness,” Campling said.

“This has all been pushed in the interest of Europeans and the US. Maybe we should look to the 1970s and the Non-Aligned Movement — made up of many of those purportedly looking to join BRICS — for inspiration.”

Chinese fighters, weather balloon cross Taiwan Strait a month before election

Chinese fighters, weather balloon cross Taiwan Strait a month before election
Updated 8 sec ago

Chinese fighters, weather balloon cross Taiwan Strait a month before election

Chinese fighters, weather balloon cross Taiwan Strait a month before election
  • Taiwan holds presidential and parliamentary polls on January 13 and campaigning has kicked into high gear
TAIPEI: Taiwan said on Friday that 12 Chinese fighter jets and a suspected weather balloon had crossed the Taiwan Strait’s sensitive median line, in a ratcheting up of tensions about a month before the island’s presidential election.
Democratically governed Taiwan, which China claims as its own territory, has complained for the past four years of regular Chinese military patrols and drills near the island.
Taiwan holds presidential and parliamentary polls on Jan. 13 and campaigning has kicked into high gear with how the next government handles relations with China a major point of contention.
Taiwan’s defense ministry, offering details of Chinese missions on Thursday night, said 12 fighter jets had crossed the median line, that once served as an unofficial barrier between the two sides but which Chinese planes now regularly fly over.
In an unusual addition to its statement, the ministry said that around midday on Thursday it had also detected a Chinese balloon 101 nautical miles (187 km) southwest of the northern Taiwanese city of Keelung, which traveled eastward for about an hour, crossing the strait before disappearing.
Taiwan Defense Minister Chiu Kuo-cheng told reporters at parliament that their “initial understanding” was it was probably a weather balloon, but felt the ministry had an obligation to report this to be public.
“Otherwise, if after other units or other countries have reported it, everyone will wonder why (we) did not report it. The defense ministry requires all our subordinate units to have a grasp of the enemy situation,” he added.
China’s defense ministry did not respond to a request for comment.
The potential for China to use of balloons for spying became a global issue in February when the United States shot down what it said was a Chinese surveillance balloon but which China said was a civilian craft that accidentally drifted astray.
Taiwan is on high alert for Chinese activities, both military and political, ahead of its election, especially what Taipei views as Beijing’s efforts to interfere in the ballot to get electors to vote for candidates China may prefer.
Vice President Lai Ching-te and running mate Hsiao Bi-khim from the ruling Democratic Progressive Party are leading in the polls. China views then as separatists and has rebuffed Lai’s offers of talks.
Taiwan Foreign Minister Joseph Wu said on Friday that China’s Taiwan Affairs Office was being “blatant” in its interference. It has called Lai and Hsiao an “independence double act.”
“They are commenting in very negative language about Vice President Lai or the vice presidential candidate Bi-khim Hsiao. Those kinds of statements have already told the Taiwanese people that they want to interfere in Taiwan’s election and they want to shape the results of the election,” Wu said.
“They are doing all sorts of things to interfere in our election and we can expect more leading up to our polling date.
China’s Taiwan Affairs Office did not respond to a request for comment on Friday about Taiwan’s interference accusations. Previously it has said only that it respects Taiwan’s “social systems.”
It has, however, framed the election as a vote between war and peace, and urged Taiwan’s people to carefully consider their choices.

Ukraine says Kharkiv hit by several Russian missiles

Ukraine says Kharkiv hit by several Russian missiles
Updated 23 min 2 sec ago

Ukraine says Kharkiv hit by several Russian missiles

Ukraine says Kharkiv hit by several Russian missiles
  • Districts of Kholodnohirskyi and Shevchenkivskyi were hit and residential buildings in the area were damaged

KYIV: Several Russian missiles hit the city of Kharkiv in eastern Ukraine, wounding one person and damaging residential buildings, Ukrainian authorities said Thursday night.
“The occupiers hit Kharkiv six times,” the head of the regional military administration, Oleg Synegubov, wrote on Telegram, adding that one person had received medical treatment on the spot.
The districts of Kholodnohirskyi and Shevchenkivskyi were hit and residential buildings in the area were damaged, he said.
Initial information suggested the projectiles were S-300 missiles, he added.
The mayor of Kharkiv, Igor Terekhov, counted “at least five strikes” and one person wounded.
A coal mine in the eastern town of Toretsk was also hit on Thursday afternoon in a separate attack, according to the Ukraine’s energy ministry.
One person working on the site was injured and taken to a hospital, according to the ministry, which reported “significant damage.”

Hunter Biden hit with federal charges for evading tax

Hunter Biden hit with federal charges for evading tax
Updated 36 min 56 sec ago

Hunter Biden hit with federal charges for evading tax

Hunter Biden hit with federal charges for evading tax
  • Presidential son faces up to 17 years in prison if convicted
  • US justice department says its investigation into Biden is ongoing

LOS ANGELES: The Department of Justice on Thursday filed new criminal charges against US President Joe Biden’s son, Hunter, accusing him of failing to pay $1.4 million in taxes while spending millions of dollars on a lavish lifestyle.
Hunter Biden, 53, was hit with three felony and six misdemeanor tax offenses, according to an indictment filed in US District Court, Central District of California.
He faces up to 17 years in prison if convicted. The Justice Department said its investigation into Biden is ongoing.
“The Defendant engaged in a four-year scheme to not pay at least $1.4 million in self-assessed federal taxes he owed for tax years 2016 through 2019,” the indictment read.
It added that he had instead spent huge sums “on drugs, escorts and girlfriends, luxury hotels and rental properties, exotic cars, clothing, and other items of a personal nature” including over $70,000 on drug rehabilitation.
A lawyer for Hunter Biden did not immediately reply to a request for comment. The White House declined to comment.
It was not clear when Hunter Biden would appear in court.
The indictment says Hunter Biden “earned handsomely” while serving on the boards of Burisma, a Ukrainian industrial conglomerate, and a Chinese private equity fund.
Prosecutors said that between 2016 and October 2020, he received more than $7 million in total gross income.
That included nearly $2.3 million from his position on the board of directors of Burisma between 2016 and 2019, the filing says.
Hunter Biden’s affiliation with Burisma has been the focus of years of attacks from Republican lawmakers who have accused him of leveraging his family name to make money overseas.
“The Defendant had a legal obligation to pay taxes on all his income, including income earned in Ukraine from his service on Burisma’s Board, fees generated by deal-making with the Chinese private equity fund, as well as income derived from his work as a lawyer and other sources,” the indictment said.
Adding to Hunter Biden’s income was work for CEFC China Energy Co. Ltd, a Chinese energy conglomerate.
As Hunter Biden’s income increased, so did his spending, according to the filing.
In 2018 alone, the indictment read, Hunter Biden “spent more than $1.8 million, including approximately $772,000 in cash withdrawals, approximately $383,000 in payments to women, approximately $151,000 in clothing and accessories.”
The indictment added: “The Defendant did not use any of these funds to pay his taxes in 2018.”
Hunter Biden in October pleaded not guilty to charges in Delaware that he lied about his drug use while buying a handgun, in the first criminal prosecution of a sitting US president’s child.
US Special Counsel David Weiss, who is leading the probe into Hunter Biden, was appointed Delaware US attorney by former President Donald Trump. He was made special counsel by Attorney General Merrick Garland in August.
He brought charges in Delaware against Hunter Biden after the unraveling of an earlier proposed plea deal that had called for him to plead guilty to two misdemeanor tax charges for failing to pay taxes in 2017 and 2018, an agreement which likely would have allowed him to avoid prison.
US District Judge Maryellen Noreika rejected the proposed plea deal in July, raising concerns over its legality and the scope of immunity it offered.
Trump, the leading contender to be the Republican Party’s nominee in next year’s presidential election, said the plea deal amounted to favorable treatment for the president’s son.

ASEAN strongly condemns Sunday’s ‘heinous terrorist attack’ in Philippines

ASEAN strongly condemns Sunday’s ‘heinous terrorist attack’ in Philippines
Updated 53 min 30 sec ago

ASEAN strongly condemns Sunday’s ‘heinous terrorist attack’ in Philippines

ASEAN strongly condemns Sunday’s ‘heinous terrorist attack’ in Philippines
  • A bomb went off on Sunday during a service at a university gymnasium in Marawi
  • City was left in ruins in 2017 by a five-month military campaign to end an occupation by Daesh loyalists

MANILA: The Southeast Asian bloc ASEAN on Friday strongly condemned what it called a “heinous terrorist attack” in the southern Philippines at the weekend in which four people were killed in a bombing at a Catholic Mass.
The bomb went off on Sunday during a service at a university gymnasium in Marawi, a city left in ruins in 2017 by a five-month military campaign to end an occupation by Daesh loyalists that triggered alarm in Asia about the group’s influence.
“We extend our deepest condolences to the bereaved families,” the Association of Southeast Asian Nations said in a statement.
Daesh militants claimed responsibility for Sunday’s attack. President Ferdinand Marcos Jr said “foreign terrorists” were behind it and police said they were investigating the incident and validating the claim by the Daesh group.
Police had identified as suspects two members of Daulah-Islamiyah Maute, a local group involved in the 2017 seizure of Marawi alongside fighters from Indonesia, Malaysia and beyond.
The Philippine military on Friday announced the Dec. 6 arrest in Marawi of a man suspected of placing the bomb in the gymnasium having been being identified by witnesses.

WHO says more contaminated medicinal syrups found in new regions

WHO says more contaminated medicinal syrups found in new regions
Updated 08 December 2023

WHO says more contaminated medicinal syrups found in new regions

WHO says more contaminated medicinal syrups found in new regions
  • The affected products were manufactured by Pharmix Laboratories in Pakistan
  • The medicines, liquids containing active ingredients to treat various conditions, contained unacceptable levels of contaminant ethylene glycol

The World Health Organization on Thursday said several contaminated syrups and suspension medicines had been identified in countries in the WHO regions of the Americas, the Eastern Mediterranean, South-East Asia and the Western Pacific.
The affected products were manufactured by Pharmix Laboratories in Pakistan, the WHO said, and were first identified in the Maldives and Pakistan. Some of the tainted products have also been found in Belize, Fiji and Laos. Pharmix was not immediately available for comment.
The medicines, liquids containing active ingredients to treat various conditions, contained unacceptable levels of the contaminant ethylene glycol, WHO said.
The alert is the latest in a line of warnings from WHO about similarly contaminated medicines made in India and Indonesia, which were linked to the deaths of around 300 children worldwide last year.
No adverse events have been reported to the WHO regarding the Pakistan-made syrups, the agency’s statement said, but it urged countries to step up vigilance and test products made by the company between December 2021 and December 2022.
The contamination was found in Alergo syrup in a routine examination by the Maldives Food and Drug Authority in November, and confirmed by the Australian regulator.
A follow-up inspection at Pharmix manufacturing facilities, conducted by the Drug Regulatory Authority of Pakistan, found that a number of other products were also contaminated. It has ordered the company to stop making all oral liquid medicines and issued a recall alert in November.
A total of 23 batches of Alergo syrup, Emidone suspension, Mucorid syrup, Ulcofin suspension and Zincell syrup are affected, the WHO said. Only Alergo so far has been found outside Pakistan.
The contamination levels ranged from 0.62 percent to 0.82 percent, compared to the accepted level of not more than 0.10 percent, according to the alert. The products are variously designed to treat allergies, coughs and other health issues.
“The substandard products referenced in this alert are unsafe and their use, especially in children, may result in serious injury or death,” the WHO warned.