Five major emerging economies opened a summit Monday to map out their future course, with host Chinese President Xi Jinping calling on them to play a bigger role in world governance, reject protectionism and inject new energy into tackling the gap between the world's wealthy and developing nations.
"We need to make the international order more just and equitable," he told the leaders of Brazil, Russia, India and South Africa in his opening address. "Our ever closer ties with the rest of the world require that our five countries play a more active role in world governance. Without us, ... many challenges cannot be effectively resolved."
Xi said they should "speak with one voice" to jointly present their solutions to global problems and safeguard their common interests.
He also called on his BRICS partners, Brazilian President Michel Temer, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and South African President Jacob Zuma to oppose a growing tide of protectionism across the world. The leaders are holding their annual summit in the southeastern Chinese city of Xiamen through Tuesday.
BRICS was formed as an association of fast-growing large economies about a decade ago to advocate for better representation for developing countries and challenge the Western-dominated world order that has prevailed since the end of World War II. It soon achieved agreement to increase the share of voting rights for emerging markets in world financial bodies the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. It has also started operating its own development bank.
Xi wants BRICS to play a more important role in international affairs, even as some observers suggest its power is waning given rivalry between China and India and the economic woes of Brazil, Russia and South Africa.
"BRICS country cooperation is not a talking shop but a task force that gets things done," Xi said in a speech to BRICS business leaders Sunday. "Our goal is to build a big market of trade and investment, promote smooth flow of currency and finance, improve connectivity of infrastructure and build close bonds between the peoples."
The five nations all broadly support free trade and oppose protectionism, although China in particular has been accused of erecting barriers to foreign competition as its own companies buy up others overseas. But Xi has positioned himself as a champion of globalization at a time when his U.S. counterpart Donald Trump is renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement and pulled the U.S. out of a planned trade deal with Pacific nations.
Yet clear political and economic differences exist among the BRICS countries. They range from democratic to autocratic, with some maintaining heavy government control over the economy and civil society. And the economies of Brazil, Russia and South Africa are driven largely by raw material exports and have been hit by slumping commodity prices, while China and India are oriented more toward manufacturing and services.
Trade within BRICS is also heavily in favor of China, the world's second-largest economy and a key driver of sustained world economic growth.
Suggesting disagreements lie ahead in Xiamen, South African President Jacob Zuma said that despite a doubling of his nation's trade with BRICS countries from $15 billion in 2010 to $31.2 billion in 2016, it had been "inequitable."
"The character of trade has been highly inequitable," he said in remarks to the BRICS Business Council on Sunday. "Exports from South Africa have been driven particularly by raw materials. This dominance of raw material exports has adversely impacted South Africa."
He called on the other BRICS nations to invest in supply and development programs in Africa and skills development and technology transfer, and engage in projects "that would support inclusive development and equal partnerships."
He also called on the New Development Bank, which was created by BRICS in 2014 and started operating last year, to lend more to Africa.
Xi told the other leaders on Monday that they had "yet to fully tap the potential of BRICS cooperation."
Of the $197 billion outbound investment made by BRICS in 2016, only 5.7 percent was within the five countries, he said, calling for more cooperation in finance, connectivity, sustainable development, innovation and industrial cooperation.
A meeting between Xi and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is due to take place Tuesday. Last week, the two hurriedly concluded a 10-week border stand-off over disputed land in the Himalayas, which was their most serious confrontation in decades, to smooth the way for Modi's participation in the summit. The two greeted each other smiling and with a firm handshake at Monday's welcoming ceremony.
Some observers say admitting other countries to BRICS would answer some of its problems. While no formal progress is expected on that at this summit, China has invited the leaders of Egypt, Guinea, Mexico, Tajikistan and Thailand to attend a dialogue with the BRICS' presidents and prime ministers on Tuesday.
On Sunday, Xi met on the sidelines with Russian President Vladimir Putin and discussed North Korea's latest nuclear test — its sixth and most powerful yet, which has cast a shadow over the summit hosted by Pyongyang's only major ally, China. The official Xinhua News Agency said they agreed to "appropriately deal with" it, without elaborating.
Putin also spoke to Japanese leader Shinzo Abe by phone after arriving in Xiamen on Sunday, and urged restraint in responding to North Korea's claim to have set off a hydrogen bomb test, according to a Kremlin spokesman.
Xinhua also reported that Xi and Putin had agreed to enhance military cooperation between China and Russia.