CAPE TOWN, South Africa — Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov met Thursday with China's deputy foreign minister and other top diplomats from the BRICS bloc of developing economies for discussions that included the group's possible expansion to include the major oil-producing nations of Saudi Arabia, Iran and the United Arab Emirates.
Ahead of the talks at a luxury oceanside hotel in South Africa, Lavrov cast BRICS — an acronym for current members Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa — as central to the establishment of a "more just" world order.
The Russian minister also took swipes at the West for its sanctions and other forms of what Lavrov alleged was "financial blackmail” against Moscow, according to a translation of his comments.
South African Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor, who hosted the talks, confirmed that an invitation had been extended to Russian President Vladimir Putin to attend a larger BRICS summit scheduled for August despite Putin being the subject of an International Criminal Court arrest warrant.
Thursday's meeting in Cape Town of the foreign ministers of Russia, Brazil, India and South Africa, and Chinese Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Ma Zhaoxu, was a precursor to that main BRICS summit in Johannesburg and comes less than two weeks after the world's most advanced economies held their own summit in Japan.
Extending sanctions against Russia as punishment for its invasion of Ukraine and finding ways to deal with China's global economic influence dominated the Group of Seven gathering in Hiroshima.
“Against the backdrop of the West's actions, our countries ... should actively seek universal joint answers to the challenges of our time,” Lavrov said.
Scrutiny of the West amid the war in Ukraine also came from other quarters, with South Africa's ambassador to BRICS, Anil Sooklal, referring to the West's military aid to Ukraine as a factor that “fuels the conflict."
“Any endeavor that fuels the conflict does not solve the problem,” Sooklal said when asked for his reaction to Western “attempts” to transfer weapons to Ukraine.
With Russia and China’s participation, BRICS is increasingly viewed as an emerging counterpoint to the G-7 and the West, and an expansion of the bloc could strengthen Russian and Chinese political and economic influence. A bloc containing China, Russia and three of the largest oil-producing nations in the world could be seen as a direct challenge to the U.S. and the West, some analysts have said.
More than 20 countries have “formally or informally” requested to join the BRICS bloc, according to Sooklal. Saudi Arabia, Iran and the United Arab Emirates each made official requests, he said.
Although no decisions were made Thursday, there was a consensus to present a formal document on admitting new members when the leaders of the BRICS countries meet in Johannesburg this summer.
“We are happy to see that more and more countries expressed their willingness to join us in the BRICS family,” China’s Ma said through a translator. “China will welcome the invitation of those countries to join BRICS and we expect more countries to join our big family.”
Lavrov held bilateral talks with Saudi Arabia Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud on the sidelines of the Cape Town meeting talks Thursday. Foreign ministers from at least 15 countries, some of them those applying to be new members, have been invited to a second set of talks on Friday.
As Lavrov attended the meeting, a small group of protesters holding Ukrainian flags and chanting “Stop the war” stood down the road from the hotel.
Amid the statements by Lavrov and others of an unfair world order dominated by the West to the detriment of developing countries, South Africa's Pandor said the current makeup of the United Nations Security Council was one of the key problems because of its lack of permanent African representation.
“Today, we can see it is failing,” she said. “So, (it's) absolutely imperative that the U.N. SC is reformed.”
Pandor, was also peppered by questions from reporters on the possibility of an August visit by Putin, whom the International Criminal Court has indicted for war crimes in connection with the alleged abduction of children from Ukraine.
South Africa is a signatory to the treaty of the ICC and is obliged to arrest Putin if he visits. It hasn't stated whether it will.
Rather, the South African government has said that it is taking legal advice on its options, a move seen by critics as an attempt to find a way out of its obligation. Pandor was asked if South Africa was “fudging” its position when it had a clear obligation to detain Putin and hand him over to the international court.
“The obligations are clear but the answer is not fudged,” Pandor said. “The answer is that the (South African) president will indicate what the final position of South Africa is.”
Pando declined to comment on any behind-the-scenes talks between South Africa and Russia to strike some kind of agreement over a Putin visit for the Johannesburg summit.
“Diplomacy does not take place in front of cameras and microphones so I'm not going to reveal what deliberations we're having,” she said.
Allowing Putin to travel freely for the summit would likely further strain South Africa's relationship with the West following U.S. allegations that South Africa has provided Russia with weapons for its war in Ukraine. South Africa has denied the allegation.