Why are Southeast Asian countries looking to join BRICS?

BRICS is attracting Southeast Asian countries, with Thailand and Malaysia being the latest to express their interest in joining the bloc.

Last month, Thailand submitted a membership request, while Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim said in an interview with Chinese news portal Guancha that his country would soon begin formal procedures.

“Being a member of BRICS would open up trade and investment opportunities, so the question is ‘why not?’” Piti Srisangam, the executive director of the ASEAN Foundation, told DW.

“The bloc has members from all over the world, but none from Southeast Asia yet,” he added.

According to James Chin, a professor of Asian Studies at the University of Tasmania, “both Thailand and Malaysia are seen as middle powers.”

“It’s better for them to join groups like BRICS so that they will have a larger voice in the international arena. But the major benefit will be trade,” he added.

Greater economic opportunities

Last year, BRICS — an acronym that was originally used to refer to Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa — decided to expand its membership, inviting Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to join the bloc.

The name for the expanded group has not yet been officially announced, but it could be called “BRICS+.”

Combined, its members account for about 45% of the world’s population — around 3.5 billion people.

Their economies are worth around $30 trillion (€28 trillion) — about 28% of the global economy, according to World Bank data.

The bloc “can help Malaysia’s digital economy grow faster by allowing it to integrate with countries that have strong digital markets and also take advantage of best practices from other members,” Rahul Mishra, associate professor at the Center for Indo-Pacific Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, told DW.

“Thailand would also be able to draw investments in important industries including services, manufacturing, and agriculture,” he added.

Experts believe joining BRICS would help Malaysia’s transforming economy grow fasterImage: AP


Chin believes the trade ties that Malaysia and Thailand already have with China have influenced their decisions to join BRICS.

China has been Malaysia’s largest trading partner for the past 15 years and Thailand’s biggest for 11 years, according to official data.

Both these Southeast Asian nations becoming BRICS members “will enhance their relationship with China,” Chin told DW.

Not taking sides

Last month, Thai Foreign Minister Maris Sangiampongsa insisted that Bangkok did not view joining BRICS as an act of “choosing sides,” or as a way to counterbalance any other bloc.

“Thailand is unique in that we are friends with every country and enemies to none. We can act as a bridge between developing countries and BRICS members,” Maris said.

Apart from BRICS, Thailand has also applied to join the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), which has 38 mostly Western members.

“Small and middle powers do not have many options,” Piti said. “What Thailand is doing is a balancing act — one foot with the Western liberal democracy and the other foot with the emerging economies.”

In Malaysia, public sentiment is currently more in favor of China, the world’s second-largest economy after the United States, according to a recent survey by the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, a Singaporean think tank.

Nearly three-quarters of the survey’s respondents said ASEAN should favor China over the US if the bloc were forced to align with one of the two rival superpowers.

In June, during the three-day visit of Chinese Premier Li Qiang to Malaysia, Anwar criticized “the incessant propaganda that we should cast aspersions and fear the dominance of China economically, militarily, technologically.”

“We do not. We in Malaysia, having a neutral stance, have the resolve to work with all countries and with China,” he added.

Will other ASEAN nations follow?

Malaysia and Thailand are not the only countries in Southeast Asia interested in joining BRICS.

In May, Pham Thu Hang, Vietnam’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson, told a press briefing in Hanoi that “like many countries around the world, we are closely monitoring the process of BRICS membership expansion.”

Mishra believes Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia “could be the potential applicants” as they already have good ties with China, India, and Russia — all key players in BRICS.

A journalist walks past a placard of Nelson Mandela during the BRICS Summit in Johannesburg, South Africa
In 2023, South Africa hosted the annual BRICS summit in JohannesburgImage: Themba Hadebe/AP/picture alliance

“For Vietnam, which has been registering significant investments, it would be a good opportunity to further boost its trade beyond their traditional markets into the Middle East, Latin America, and Africa,” he added.

Ahead of the BRICS summit in South Africa last year, there had been speculation that Indonesia — the only G20 country in Southeast Asia that hopes to complete the accession process with the OECD within three years — could become a BRICS member.

But ultimately, Indonesian President Joko Widodo told the public that his government had decided not to submit a letter of interest. Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi said at a press conference in January that Jakarta was still weighing the pros and cons of the BRICS membership.

source : DW 

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