As Russian President Vladimir Putin, and Chinese Premier, Li Qiang, wrapped up separate meetings in Southeast Asia, this week, the two partners in the BRICS economic bloc, encountered a region, keen to join a group seen as a hedge, against Western-led institutions.

During an interview with Chinese media, ahead of Li’s visit to Malaysia, Prime Minister, Anwar Ibrahim, declared his intention to apply to the bloc, after it doubled in size this year, by luring Global South nations, partly by offering access to financing, but, also by providing a political venue, independent of Washington’s influence. 

Thailand, a US treaty ally, last month, announced its own bid to join BRICS, named after members Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa. The bloc “represents, a south-south cooperative framework, which Thailand, has long desired to be a part of,” Foreign Minister Maris Sangiampongsa, told reporters last week.

For countries seeking to mitigate the economic risks of intensifying US-China competition, joining BRICS, is an attempt to straddle some of those tensions. In Southeast Asia, many nations, depend economically on trade with China, while also simultaneously, welcoming the security presence, and investment Washington provides.

However, the BRICS membership, is also a way of signalling increasing frustration, with the US-led international order, and key institutions, that remain firmly in the control of Western powers, like the World Bank, and International Monetary Fund

“Some of us, including people like myself, think, that we need to find solutions, to the unfair international financial, and economic architecture,” former Malaysian Foreign Minister, Saifuddin Abdullah, said in an interview. “So BRICS would probably be one of the ways, to balance some things.”

Ukraine summit

For Putin, and Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, the interest in BRICS, also shows their success at pushing back at attempts by the US, and its allies, to isolate them, more broadly over the war in Ukraine, and military threats to Taiwan, the Philippines, South Korea, and Japan. 

Ukraine leader, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, struggled to convince Asian nations, to back his peace summit in Switzerland earlier this month, and Putin this week, signed a defence pact with North Korea, while warning he had the right to arm US adversaries, around the world.

A club, that for years consisted of just five members, expanded with the inclusion of Iran, the United Arab Emirates, Ethiopia, and Egypt this January. That was a push largely driven by China, as it tries to increase its clout, on the global stage.

Another Southeast Asian nation, Indonesia, was considered an early favourite to join last year, before President Joko Widodo, indicated he would not be rushed into the decision.

Longtime US foes

Still, the momentum to add new members, has continued. Despite US, and European efforts, to prevent countries from dealing with Moscow, representatives from 12 non-member nations, appeared at a BRICS Dialogue in Russia, this month. They included longtime US foes, like Cuba, and Venezuela, but, also nations such as Turkey, Laos, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Kazakhstan.

Also present, was Vietnam, which last year upgraded ties with Washington, in a move seen as pushback, on Beijing’s rising influence in the region. Hanoi has been following the grouping’s progress, with “keen interest,” as state broadcaster, Voice of Vietnam, put it last month. 

“Vietnam is always ready to participate in, and contribute actively to global, and regional multilateral mechanisms,” Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Pham Thu Hang, said at the time.

Vietnam, welcomed Russia’s leader this week, despite strong objections from the US, on the grounds that “no country should give Putin a platform to promote his war of aggression” in Ukraine. Vietnam, and Russia have ties going back to the Cold War, and Soviet era. 

In their joint statement, issued at the conclusion of their talks, Russia, welcomed Vietnam’s participation in the dialogue earlier this month, and said, they would “continue to strengthen ties between the BRICS countries, and developing countries, including Vietnam.”

It wasn’t clear how much BRICS was part of Putin’s closed-door talks in Vietnam, though the two nations, pledged to boost defence, and energy cooperation. China’s Li, used his trip to Malaysia, to deepen trade, economic ties, and advance construction, of major projects. 

Unwieldy group

After this year’s expansion, BRICS plans to invite non-member countries, to take part in its next summit, in the Russian city of Kazan, in October. Just hosting the event, gives Moscow a chance to showcase to the world, that it isn’t totally isolated by Western opposition to the war in Ukraine. 

“It’s no secret that Washington doesn’t love the BRICS, particularly with Iran, and Russia’s membership,” said Scot Marciel, a former US ambassador to Indonesia, Myanmar, and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. 

At the same time, the larger the bloc grows, the less likely, it is to find consensus on key issues, he said. “My sense is, Washington is probably not applauding the move by Thailand, and Malaysia to join it, but, I don’t think it’s going to cause massive heartburn.”

A State Department official said, the US is aware of the interest in BRICS by Malaysia, Thailand, and Vietnam, adding that multilateral blocs, should further United Nations Charter principles, such as respect for sovereignty, and territorial integrity. 

The potential benefits for joining BRICS go beyond geopolitics. 

$33 Billion

The bloc’s members, have agreed to pool $100 billion, of foreign-currency reserves, which, they can lend to each other during emergencies. The group also founded the New Development Bank, a World Bank-modelled institution, that has approved almost $33 billion of loans mainly for water, transport, and other infrastructure projects, since it began operations in 2015.

That investment pool, would be useful in Southeast Asia, where official development finance, dwindled to a low of $26 billion in 2022, according to a report this month, by the Sydney-based Lowy Institute.

Another draw to membership, Malaysia’s Saifuddin said, is the residual negative sentiment, toward institutions like the IMF, which pushed austerity measures, sometimes blamed in the region, for worsening the economic hardship, caused by the Asian financial crisis, in the late 1990s.

Washington isn’t sitting still. It has deepened security links in the region, on matters like counter-terrorism, and with countries like Vietnam, and the Philippines, who are increasingly worried about their disputes with Beijing, in the South China Sea. But, as the great power competition intensifies across the board, there is also a recognition the region needs to hedge its bets.

“There is increasingly less space, for smaller countries to manoeuver,” Ong Keng Yong, the former secretary general of Asean, said in an interview. “By joining organisations like BRICS, countries are signalling, that they want to be friendly to all sides, not just to the US, and its allies.”

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