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Group of emerging countries begins a closely watched summit


What's known as the BRICS group of emerging economies - Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa - kicks off its annual summit today in Johannesburg.


It's a bloc of nations that is sometimes dismissed for a lot of talk with little substance. But this year, the U.S. and Europe are watching closely because of how polarizing Russia's invasion of Ukraine has been. China's President Xi Jinping will attend in person. Russian President Vladimir Putin will not, but will join virtually to avoid putting South Africa in the awkward position of having to arrest him for war crimes under an International Criminal Court warrant.

MARTIN: We're going to hear more about this from Kate Bartlett in Johannesburg. So why don't you just start us off with the headlines? What are the key issues these leaders will take up?

KATE BARTLETT, BYLINE: Well, two main things on the agenda this year - namely the possible expansion of the bloc to include more countries. Already collectively, BRICS accounts for 25% of global GDP and 40% of the world's population. Now, some 40 more countries have expressed interest in joining the bloc. And like the current grouping, they include a politically diverse group with democracies like Argentina and autocracies like Iran. But not all the BRICS members are as keen on expansion as others. Russia is spearheading the push for expansion as, because of the war in Ukraine, Russia is increasingly isolated. Another main issue on the agenda will be the bloc's desire to move away from U.S. dollar dominance and to promote more use of its own currencies.

MARTIN: Kate, would you say more about whether the group is becoming more relevant?

BARTLETT: I think so. The sheer number wanting to join shows many Global South countries buy what BRICS is selling, an alternative to what they see as a U.S.-dominated, unequal global order, something the summit host and South Africa's president, Cyril Ramaphosa, referred to in an eve-of-summit address to the nation. Let's hear what he had to say.


PRESIDENT CYRIL RAMAPHOSA: An expanded BRICS will represent a diverse group of nations with different political systems that share a common desire to have a more balanced global order. Our world has become increasingly complex and fractured as it is increasingly polarized and competing with each other.

BARTLETT: And the Ukraine war will likely be the elephant in the room, with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov filling in for Putin. Both China and South Africa have officially remained neutral on the war but have each proposed peace plans. But host country South Africa has received a lot of flak for not criticizing the Russian invasion and its perceived bias towards Moscow. But Ramaphosa says it doesn't serve African nations to be drawn into a kind of new Cold War.

MARTIN: And before we let you go, I take it that China's President Xi is not just there for the summit, is he?

BARTLETT: That's right. Possibly most significantly, Chinese President Xi Jinping is also paying an official state visit to South Africa today. It's only his second international trip this year after visiting Russia. China is South Africa's biggest trade partner by far and a significant presence in Africa. But South African officials have stressed there is a trade imbalance that needs addressing. There have also been concerns about how China's own economic downturn might affect trade.

MARTIN: That's reporter Kate Bartlett in Johannesburg. Kate, thank you so much.

BARTLETT: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.
Kate Bartlett
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