Diversification and complexity as principles of internal organization are embedded in the behavioral program of any system, including society, politics and international relations. The historical process, in the form of a tendency towards polycentrism, realises and fulfils the natural craving of humanity for “unity in diversity”, as is commonly believed in Indian philosophical thought. It can also be said that the path to “diversity”, i.e. the polycentric structure of the ecumene, reflected in its own way the change of milestones in the historical development of mankind. “History has not ended but returned”. So, figuratively and succinctly, the Indian futurologist Parag Khanna defined the main line of the current world development [Khanna, 2019, p. 12]. India’s Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar assessed the state of the modern world no less expressively and concretely: “Europe has to grow out of the mindset that Europe’s problems are the world’s problems, but the world’s problems are not Europe’s problems” [How to survive a superpower split, 2023].
At one time, Fareed Rafiq Zakaria [Zakaria, 2008] unambiguously defined “tectonic shifts” in the world economy and politics, dividing the last five centuries of world history into three unequal stages:
- The ascent of the West, which began in the 15th century (directly related to the great geographical discoveries) and underwent a “dramatic” acceleration at the end of the 18th century, under the influence of the first industrial revolution, which predetermined the long-term economic and political domination of the nations of the “North Atlantic space” over the rest of the world.
- The self-assertion of the United States as the main world power (since the end of the 19th century), which acquired an uncontested character in two decades after the dismemberment of the USSR (Zakaria published his book in 2008).
- The “rise of the rest”, which inevitably gave impetus to a new regrouping of geopolitical forces in the international system and is taking place before our eyes, in “real time” mode.
However, the eminent author made a few mistakes in dating the last phenomenon: the current “tectonic shift” began two decades earlier, in the second half of the 1980s. This process involved countries in its whirlpool (then they were called “new influentials”), among which Brazil, Argentina, Venezuela, Egypt, Nigeria, South Africa, India, etc. clearly stood out. (It should be noted that China, which had just entered the path of accelerated economic growth, did not figure in the forecast scenarios of international political scientists at that time.) The main feature of this newly emerging community was their own, particular interests, which were different from the aspirations of the USSR and the United States and their respective allies. However, the dramatic events of the late 1980s and early 1990s “obscured” the objective trends and processes in the world system, and the formation of the grouping of new influential members of the world community is already taking place in a new context, against the background of the emergence of a polycentric or (in the terms used by Zakaria) “post–American world”
Initially, in the mid-2010s, the “post-American world” had already acquired some specific contours of “seven-centric” system, which then included the following countries and regions: Brazil, the United States, Western Europe, Russia, India, China and Japan. After the events of February 24, 2022, the “fallout” from this “cohort” of Western Europe and Japan was quite quickly revealed because they “reactively” migrated to the status of a economic and geopolitical “periphery” of the United States. It is easy to notice that even then, in addition to the recognized leaders of the world economy, relatively new forces were included in the “seven-centric” world, which even then were collectively referred to as BRIC.
Already in the mid-1950s, it was possible to distinguish the three peculiar “poles” of world development. The Non-Aligned Movement was added to the Soviet Union and the United States, led by the leaders of India, Egypt and Yugoslavia. In fact, the movement towards a polycentric form of the world space had actually begun. However, the progressive movement of the world historical process, enriched in the mid-1980s by the emergence of “new influentials”, was interrupted by the collapse of the Soviet Union in December 1991. Nevertheless, the backward ‘traction’ of global processes, manifested in the short-term reign of the “unipole” / Pax Americana, only delayed the “return of history”, i.e. the transformation of the main part of humanity into a genuine force and subject of world politics.
Today, in retrospect, we have the right to believe that such a development of the international system was a kind of historical accident. In our opinion various circumstances support such an interpretation of world development. Firstly, the collapse of the bipolar world was not dictated by the logic of historical development. A significant (and perhaps decisive) role in the collapse of the USSR was played by a subjective factor, i.e. the desire of the late Soviet ethnocratic elites to divide politically and economically the space of the largest country in the world. It is clear that an external factor, the actions of the “collective West”, also played a certain role in the development of destructive processes in the USSR. Secondly, the United States a priori could not exercise “global governance” through mechanisms of political and economic control abroad, since after the collapse of the USSR, the United States accounted for only 25% of world GDP (the maximum value of American GDP was in 1944 when it reached about 35% of the world’s aggregate). Thus, a kind of duality of world politics arose: the United States, which did not have the necessary political and economic resources for “global governance”, tried to implement the idea of Pax Americana, while the rest of the world was not psychologically prepared for a new, multipolar world order. Thirdly, this contradiction continued to grow and was first felt around 2005 after the failure of the expeditionary mission to Iraq. Obviously, since then, the need for a new, more just international order has been clearly felt as an existential necessity, primarily in the “Global Orient and the Global South”. This necessity has given impetus to new, non-West-centric institutional forms of international communication.
Even then, at the beginning of this century, the question was often asked: how viable is the ‘platform’ formed by Brazil, Russia, India and China (and soon the Republic of South Africa) as a geo-economic and – in the foreseeable future – a geopolitical union? In other words, will the new platform, using the academic style of the late Samir Amin, be able to become a new “world project”? These were not idle questions, and it was almost impossible to answer them in monosyllables. On the one hand, the systemic global crisis of 2007-2009, according to authoritative Western and Japanese experts, has far from exhausted its “destructive” potential for the world economy. Thus, speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos in January 2009, Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao sharply criticized the United States and other Western countries. He blamed “inappropriate macroeconomic policies of some economies and their unsustainable models of development characterized by low savings and high consumption” and “an excessive expansion of financial instruments in blind pursuit of profit, lack of self-discipline among financial institutions and rating agencies”. Wen added that the direct impact of the crisis on China was “limited because of our banking system”. This time it was China that warned Western leaders, not the other way around [Hiro, 2010, p. 183]. Therefore, in the current situation, as a result of a comprehensive financial and economic crisis, which Western institutions were powerless to manage, it seemed natural for super-large nations to coordinate their actions in order – keeping in mind the tentative integration of their economies and markets – to avoid the consequences of severe geo-economic shocks, and, prospectively, to turn the BRICS into a space relatively autonomous from the “triad of globalization” (USA – Western Europe – Japan) and capable of ‘adapting’ to the coming “shocks”. Naturally, the mutual geographical remoteness and the specificity of the national interests of each of the countries ultimately adjusted the pace and trajectory of integration processes.
On the other hand, there were (and they have not disappeared to this day) factors of non-economic origin (the historical memory of peoples; prejudices, sometimes consciously cultivated by elites in their narrow-group interests; the invisible presence of the factor of “third” countries in bilateral relations, etc.), hindering the seemingly natural processes of economic cooperation and integration.
In our opinion, if it is possible to single out the ‘leaders’ of cooperation and integration in the BRICS at the first stage of development of this association, then they were certainly China and Brazil. And there were good economic and political reasons for that. Firstly, both giants are quite deeply involved in the global economy and therefore tried to diversify their foreign economic relations in every possible way, to avoid unilateral dependence on the markets of industrialised countries and their changing circumstances (highlighted by the global financial and economic crisis of 2007-2009). Secondly, Brazil (approximately since 2003) and China (since the XVII Congress of the CPC, October 2007) began to pursue an active socio-economic policy, which, as the Russian sinologist A.I. Salitsky did, could be defined as a movement from reform to development [Salitskii, 2018]. The essence of this policy is to vigorously stimulate domestic demand, to consistently equalise the levels of economic development of various regions of the country, to progressively reduce social and property disparities in society, etc. The goals of such a policy are clear and transparent. They include an increase in the standard of living of the masses and – on this basis – the expansion of support in society for the economic and political system. Identical goals make the development strategies of both countries clear to each other, increase their interest in joint ventures, including cross-investments. China has acted very vigorously in this direction [Hiro, 2010, p. 182-184]. The new international role of the “rising economic powers” – Brazil, Russia, India and China – prompted the then Managing Director of the IMF, D. Strauss-Kahn (2007-2011) to call for the organisation to redistribute votes in the Fund in favor of these states.
Even at the initial stage of the platform’s existence, it was erroneous to call Russia and India “outsiders” to economic integration within the BRICS (then in the BRIC format), but the official line from Moscow and New Delhi, despite their active participation in quadrilateral meetings at the official level, raised some questions for China and Brazil. First, what was the relationship between geopolitics (support for the idea of BRIC at the highest state level) and economics (stimulating integration processes in a multilateral format) in the foreign policy strategy of India and Russia? Second, what economic and political forces in the two countries were ready to actually participate in the formation cooperative ties within the framework of the then BRIC format? Third, did Russia and India have a long-term strategy for BRIC consolidation?
At that time, it was difficult to get an exhaustive answer to these questions. Now, after almost 15 years, we can try to explain the reasons for the “lag” of Russia and India in the struggle for the BRIC in the following way. In India, the elites found themselves in a kind of conceptual vacuum after the collapse of the USSR and the “departure from the East” of the so-called “new” Russia. Indeed, their hopes for a long-term “America-Centric” world in which India would have an important (but an essentially auxiliary) role to contain China in the Asia-Pacific region turned out to be a geopolitical illusion. In addition, the elites and the people of India had difficulty overcoming the “complex of historical memory” in relation to China, stemming both from memories of the border conflict of 1962 and from the fear of the accelerated economic growth in China, which could turn into geopolitical expansion, holding the prospect of “encirclement” of India in South Asia. The warnings of the Indian military at that time that China could allegedly launch a preemptive nuclear strike on India in 2017 did not look accidental at all. However, history itself turned out to be the best healer of peculiar “historical diseases”: after February 24, 2022 India felt like a real-world power “without exceptions.” This process has gained a positive inertia of irreversible forward motion.
For Russia, in our opinion, the BRIC/BRICS “project” was initially primarily an intellectual problem that needed to be solved methodologically and integrated into our country’s foreign policy strategy as a “building material”. At the beginning of this century, a rather strange and contradictory picture was emerging. After all, back in the second half of the 1990s, a general idea was put forward about Russia’s independence in the world space. However, as historical practice shows, an idea is transformed into a concept and into principles of activity only when it is filled up with the necessary “details”. In short, post-Soviet Russia, which initially made a
“Western choice”, had to comprehend not only the limited benefits of a unilateral orientation towards Western Europe, North America and Japan, but also to realise and feel the ongoing “change of milestones” in world politics, hence moving its axis towards the “East and the Global South” and finding a practical algorithm for embedding Russia in the era of “the return of history.”
At the beginning of this century, irreversible changes commenced to materialise in the system of international relations. After the quickly revealed fiasco of the American-British “expedition” to Iraq, the course of world history underwent a significant acceleration. Intellectuals in the West openly talked about the “end of the Empire” and the decline of Pax Americana. The inability of the “collective West” to cope with the financial and economic crisis of 2007-2009, which acquired an all-encompassing and global character, seems to have undermined the psychological foundations of Western dominance over the rest of the world. By itself, a simple question arose: what will happen after the “end of the Empire”? In 2010, the authoritative international expert and analyst Dilip Hiro noted that the New International Order after Empire did not revolve around the United States: “Nor is it dialectical – the United States versus China, the West against Asia, or democracies versus autocracies.” The developments described by him have cumulatively led to “an international order with multiple poles, cooperating and competing with one another, with no single pole being allowed to act as the hegemonic power. Quite simply, the age-old balance of power is back at work” [Hiro, 2010, p. 5-6]. The events and processes of the early 2000s gave rise to crisis phenomena in the activities of international institutions (UN, IMF, etc.) and faced the world with the need to create new transcontinental formats and platforms capable of adequately responding to the irreversibly increasing economic and political diversity of humanity.
Thus, the initially amorphous BRIC/BRICS platform began to acquire the qualities of an international organisation potentially capable of consolidating that part of the world that was outside the “golden billion” and no longer objectively fitted into the “global liberal order” headed by the United States of America. A material basis for the development of BRICS and similar organisations was provided by several phenomena, mainly:
- the natural exhaustion of the US ability to exercise “global governance”, individually or jointly with ‘allies’;
- the long and vigorous economic growth of China;
- the self-assertion of India as a “civilisation state”;
- Russia liberating itself from the psychological crisis / historical “fatigue” after the collapse of the USSR;
- the emergence of a whole group of states – unequivocal opponents of the “world liberal order” (Iran, Venezuela, North Korea, etc.);
- the civilisational and political consolidation in the Arab world;
- the desire of Latin American nations to speak to the world freely, “in their own voice”;
- the “awakening” of the oppressed Africa.
In our opinion, the growing instability of the international financial system, governed exclusively by the United States and other countries of the “collective West”, also played a significant role in accelerating the development of the BRICS project. The political and economic causes of the chronic instability of world finance were described by the prominent Indian economist Amiya Kumar Bagchi: “The U.S. neoconservatives … have announced that the United States should enforce its will on the rest of the world and international laws are there only for other states. This doctrine is a sign of U.S. weakness in the economic field: the United States can no longer pay for the energy resources it needs for the kind of military-centered, environmentally destructive path of profit accumulation it is pursuing, and hence militarism has become a means of grabbing resources without paying a proper price, increasing the profits of crony companies and generating employment in defense industries” [Bagchi, 2005, p. 335].
The BRICS figure itself is implicitly present in the relations of the two most populated countries of the world – India and China. Thus, the noted Indian historian of international relations Z. Daulet Singh maintains that the resolution of the conflict in Doklam in the summer of 2017 occurred under the influence of three circumstances of purely “non-military” origin. Firstly, “invisible” mechanisms of conflict resolution were involved in such formats as BRICS and SCO, which some Indian “analysts” are nevertheless instantly demeaning. Secondly, the joint interest of India and China in a solidary dialogue with the West on the reform of international financial institutions has affected their behaviour. Thirdly, bilateral trade and investment are beginning to play an increasingly important role in the Elephant-Dragon relationship [Daulet Singh, 2020, p. 103].
So, the values defended by India, Russia, China, Brazil, the Republic of South Africa and other countries are about arriving at an equal international dialogue as well as about the rejection of the idea of “supercivilisation”, allegedly endowed with the right to impose its behavioral models on other “civilisational states”. The “civilisational states” seek to legitimise the polycentric forms of national political organisations, the indivisibility and “inclusiveness” of the world security architecture, as well as the universal value of sovereignty. In the political and economic sense, the BRICS activities are focused on the search for a common ideological platform for the international financial institutions that promote the goals and interests of the countries of the “Global Orient and Global South”. In the view of the BRICS countries, the world of the future is a space of equal interaction between “civilisational states”. The formula for such interaction should be the principle of “unity in diversity”, well known to Indian philosophical thought. We can say that the BRICS objectively brings a new “Axial Age” (in the sense given by K. Jaspers), developing theoretical and practical foundations for inter-civilisational dialogue and interaction in a rapidly changing world.
Considering BRICS as a viable alternative to the “rules-based order”, many states of the “Global Orient and Global South” express a desire to join this association. Currently, according to Russian press reports, the list of potential BRICS members includes the following countries: Algeria, Argentina, Afghanistan, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Belarus, Egypt, Indonesia, Iran, Kazakhstan, Mexico, Nicaragua, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Senegal, Sudan, Syria, Thailand, Tunisia, Turkiye, the United Arab Emirates, Uruguay, Venezuela, Zimbabwe, etc. [Dimkin, 2023]. More recently, Bolivia, Cuba and Morocco have been cited as potential BRICS members. Thus, the possible number of future BRICS member countries (1) inevitably puts on the agenda the elaboration of criteria for joining the BRICS as a separate problem.
Under these circumstances, it will inevitably have to take into account the experience (sometimes negative) of other economic associations. Thus, the rapid expansion of the European Union to countries at a lower level of socio-economic maturity than the “pioneers” of integration constantly raises the problems of disparity and development imbalances in the EU. On the contrary, the experience of ASEAN ‘platform’, based on the principles of gradualism and consensus, deserves serious study and critical application. Another problem (to a certain extent arising from the first one) is the active use of national currencies in mutual settlements of the BRICS countries. National currencies, as we know, are stimulators of exports, production and one of the driving forces of economic growth, which is so necessary for the BRICS countries. Of particular importance is the problem of cross-investment in the BRICS countries. The discussion on the creation of a single BRICS currency can and should continue. Nevertheless, the introduction of a single currency seems to be a matter for the more or less distant future though the BRICS resolution of 2023 commits the member-states to studying the possibilities for alternative payment mechanisms and submit a report on this in time for the 2024 summit. President Putin was particularly insistent on this aspect of BRICS development and offered the use of existing Russian mechanisms applied within the Eurasian Union though he stopped short of suggesting a common monetary unit, calling instead for the growing utilisation of national currencies.
In our opinion, the preservation of the viability of the BRICS format, – and all five current participants are interested in this now – allowed for only three realistic scenarios. The first scenario presupposed the actio of the BRICS in different configurations and in diverse modulations, without formally expanding the format, i.e. using the formula “BRICS+.” Even more than a half of the world’s states may take part in some discussions, including some countries traditionally referred to as the “collective West” (for example, Hungary or South Korea). In fact, we can see a new format in terms of content, but partly inheriting the principles of the Non-Aligned Movement.
The second scenario (that was rejected) implied the preservation of the BRICS five as the core of interaction between different regions of the world. However, only Russia and Brazil have obvious integration projects along the borders (the EAEU and Mercosur, respectively) with a potential expansion of their areas (in the first case through the addition of Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, possibly Mongolia and Iran and in the second case – across Latin America and the Caribbean). It is doubtful that China or India will be able to adequately represent the ASEAN countries or Pakistan, (though India has formed BIMSTEC to better integrate its neighbours into a regional association and is making progress in connecting the Indian Ocean Region Association (IORA). South Africa would have to take on the impossible task of representing the entire African continent. It would have been unclear in this case how to interact with such an important region as the Arab world.
The third scenario that was chosen at Johannesburg implies a very cautious increase in the composition of the BRICS by adding a few countries in the initial stage. It also implies changing the acronym for the Grouping to reflect the changed composition, The selection of countries had to be based both on the political preferences of the current participants and on objective quantitative indicators. The resulting “top-7” or “top-10” countries of the Global South do not necessarily have to become an alternative to Western-centric institutions trying to implement global governance, but it will definitely consolidate by its very existence the transition of the world order towards polycentrism. The most “adjustable” countries seemed to be Indonesia, which would anchor BRICS in the ASEAN mega-region, and Nigeria, representing Tropical Africa. However, both were kept out for now. Indonesia is more or less comparable to Russia and Brazil in terms of population and GDP, while Nigeria is not just competing with South Africa for the right to represent Africa, but steadily turns quantitative growth into qualitative changes (for example, local oligarchs have been able to form national TNCs, second only to South African ones on the continent). Nevertheless, in ASEAN, under the leadership of Indonesia, Thailand, which applied to the BRICS too, is quite comparable with South Africa.
On the eve of the BRICS 2023 summit Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Argentina seemed to be the three most likely nations to join, and they made the cut, along with the United Arab Emirates, Ethiopia and Iran, surely as the result of a compromise between the five current members.
Of course, all speculative calculations about the economic, political or cultural-ideological weight of countries are usually broken by the facts of the real course of history. Nevertheless, it is useful to provide some factual and statistical data for 2022 (see the table).
Some leading countries outside the “collective West” (2022)
|Country||Population, million persons||GNI by PPP, USD billion||Merchandise exports, USD billion||Outward FDI stock, USD billion||Military expenditures, USD billion|
|UAE||9.4||824.2||598.5||239.9||n.a. (more than 20)|
|Venezuela||28.3||n.a.||5.1||25.5||Less than 0.1|
Data from the World Bank (https://data.worldbank.org/indicator) with some figures for Russia by Rosstat (https://rosstat.gov.ru/), while FDI statistics put from [UNCTAD, 2023, p. 200-203] and military expenditures estimates put from SIPRI (https://milex.sipri.org/sipri).
If we take the population (and here the “demographic dividend” is hidden), gross national income when calculated by purchasing power parities (i.e., the scale of national economies), exports of goods (in fact, the competitiveness of the country’s production), the outward foreign direct investment stocks (the power of national business and ability of companies to internationalise their activities), and military spending (that is, the ability to protect their achievements from the encroachments of other powers), then South Africa is an unambiguous outsider among the BRICS. Nevertheless, there is not a single country among the applicants for joining the BRICS that would overtake South Africa in all respects (we have listed 15 countries in the table, since other applicants – for example, Bahrain, Zimbabwe and Nicaragua, are not significant countries economically).
It was not so clear how the Middle East and North African region (WANA) was to be dealt with. For example, Iran is undoubtedly a “civilisational state”, whilst Turkiye claims the same role, by pursuing a very active foreign policy and, due to its ‘westward’ orientation, has achieved more impressive economic dynamics. There is no recognised single leader in the Arab world – Saudi Arabia is the historical center of Islam and an important regional player, but it is obvious that neither Egypt, nor Algeria or the UAE will accept the Saudi Kingdom to represent their region in any important international format, such as the “enlarged BRICS”. The situation with Latin America is not yet free from difficulties, since it is nearly impossible to decide which country can more adequately represent the Spanish-speaking countries of the region – Argentina, Mexico or even Venezuela? We should not also forget about the applications of countries as demographically large in population as Bangladesh. In the event, the nations that were not invited in Johannesburg were promised the opportunity to become dialogue partners in the coming months or years and some may eventually acquire membership.
As the dynamics of the development of the Russian Federation over the past 30 years show, the economic weight, military-political ambitions and even the wealth of ideological concepts for “export” can change very much under the influence of internal short-term fluctuations in the economic and political conjuncture. It is also reasonable to recall the figures of a century ago, which show that the simplest traditional geopolitical categories should not be discounted. For example, the five largest states in 1922, both in terms of population and area, were (alphabetically) the British Empire, China, the French Empire, Soviet Russia (then the USSR) and the United States of America. It was these five who, two decades later, became the victorious powers in World War II, received exclusive permanent seats of the UN Security Council with veto rights, and within half a century it was again the United States, the USSR, the United Kingdom, France and China that became the owners of nuclear weapons (without granting such a status to India). We ought to emphasise that Germany and Japan, despite their ambitions during the 1930s, which led to the global catastrophe of World War II, were not among the five largest states.
Any ambitious power can live with a variety of statistical indicators without experiencing discomfort from it. Now some well-known Western politicians love to demean Russia, the largest country in the world by area, by pointing out its comparatively modest demographic and economic weight. But some Russians are still alive who, as students, learned that the USSR, despite its then struggling economy and low living standards won World War II, successfully launched the first artifical satellite and the first manned space flights, led the global movement against colonialism and, in principle, became one of the superpowers. We believe that it is appropriate to quote the luminary of national economic geography, Professor N.N. Baranskiy, in the first chapter of his textbook “Physical Geography of the USSR”, which was mandatory for all Soviet schoolchildren since 1935. He wrote: “Only the British Empire is larger than the USSR in area, i.e. England …, but the possessions of England are scattered in all parts of the world, divided by oceans and are politically weakly connected; our Union is one continuous territory and … is politically so tightly soldered as no other state in the world” [Baranksiy, 1935, p. 3].
Summing up, it can be noted that the activation of the BRICS format is caused by long-term trends in global development, but specific configurations will depend on the political decisions of countries and their leaders. Russia currently feels like a power capable of transforming the current world order, that is clearly unfair to the majority of humanity. Moreover, it is the Russian Federation that will assume the BRICS chairmanship in 2024. Nevertheless, this does not mean that other BRICS participants should neglect this format. On the contrary, South Africa, Brazil and India are actually the most interested in it, since outside of this format their leverage in international relations would decrease. In addition, in our opinion, institutional reforms of the world order not involving the military-power component are possible only through the strengthening of the BRICS and the expansion of its activity.
Author Brief Bio: Andrey VOLODIN and Alexey Kuznetsov are working with Institute of Scientific Information for Social Sciences of the Russian Academy of Sciences (INION), Russia.
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Note 1: (some sources alluded to 50 states, but shortly before the 2023 BRICS summit, the President of South Africa, as its host, announced a little more than 20 official applications)