The five-nation BRICS summit is focused on whether to expand the club and how to be a counterweight to Western powers, but the meeting opened in Johannesburg on Tuesday in the shadow of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, with President Vladimir V. Putin attempting to rally the members via video to Moscow’s side.
In a speech to fellow leaders of the Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa group, Mr. Putin blamed the West for Russia’s exit from an agreement on Ukrainian grain exports that had helped stabilize global food supplies and prices, a matter of serious concern to many developing countries, including those in the bloc.
But Mr. Putin, alone among the five heads of government, was not in South Africa, and delivered his recorded message over a giant video screen in the convention center because he is wanted for war crimes under an warrant issued by the International Criminal Court. South Africa, which is a party to the treaty that created the court and would have been obliged to arrest him if he had traveled there, had asked him to stay away.
The war, the prospect of a major BRICS expansion and heightened tensions between China and the United States have drawn unusual attention to the summit, held amid the gleaming glass towers of Johannesburg’s business district.
BRICS members have seen it as the kernel of a diplomatic and economic bloc to counterbalance Western-dominated alliances like the Group of 7. Dozens of other countries have applied for entry, and Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, Egypt and Argentina are among those considered to be at the top of the list.
BRICS created the New Development Bank, based in Shanghai, as an alternative to institutions like the World Bank to provide financing to developing countries, and it has discussed adopting a new currency to diminish the dollar’s role as a default in international trade.
But the nations in the group have very different interests, making common ground difficult to find. While Brazil, India and South Africa have been criticized in the West for not condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, all want to remain on good terms with the United States and Europe, as well as with China and Russia.
President Xi Jinping of China surprised onlookers by not appearing at the opening session, even after making a jovial appearance earlier in the day at an official state visit with the South African president, Cyril Ramaphosa.
China’s commerce minister, Wang Wentao, read Mr. Xi’s prepared speech in his stead, saying that BRICS “is not an exercise of taking sides, not of creating bloc confrontation.”
“Rather, it is an endeavor to expand the architecture of peace and development,” the speech said.
South African officials did not respond to requests to explain Mr. Xi’s absence at the larger meeting. The Chinese leader had spent the morning with Mr. Ramaphosa and cabinet ministers in Pretoria, South Africa’s diplomatic capital, and the two leaders signed a series of bilateral agreements.
Mr. Xi spoke of the “comradely” relationship between the two countries. China and the United States often accuse each other of bullying smaller countries to their own benefit, and Mr. Xi praised South Africa for forging ahead with an independent development plan, which, he said, “suits its national ambitions.”
Mr. Ramaphosa said they had discussed the war in Ukraine, and “we both agreed on the importance of dialogue and negotiation between the two sides.” Both countries are ostensibly neutral in the conflict, though China has given important backing to Russia, and both South Africa and China have offered themselves as peace intermediaries.
China, like Russia, has worked to cultivate ties to African nations and other countries outside the major U.S.- and Europe-dominated economic and security structures, including NATO, the Group of 7 and the European Union.
Mr. Xi wants to expand the BRICS group, but Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India is said to fear the addition of nations close to Beijing. India and China have border disputes that have resulted in bloodshed, and tend to eye each other as potential adversaries.
Mr. Modi was greeted on arrival in Johannesburg by a large billboard and a line of South Africans of Indian descent — business and cultural leaders carefully vetted by a local interest group.
“There is absolutely no doubt that in the coming years, India will become the growth engine of the world,” he told the summit.
President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of Brazil arrived in South Africa on Monday, his first stop on a trip that will also include visits to other African countries, Brazilian officials said. At the summit, he called for strengthening the New Development Bank, which is headed by his protégé, Dilma Rousseff, a former Brazilian president, who joined him onstage.
Africa, like Brazil, bears an unfair burden from climate change, Mr. Lula said, and they can work together to combat its effects, but not on terms dictated by major powers or existing international institutions.
“We cannot accept the greedy neocolonialism that imposes trade barriers and discriminatory measures under the guise of protecting the environment,” Mr. Lula said.
The Russian foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, attended in person, first shaking hands with a row of officials and then joining a group of traditional South African dancers. After a few unsure steps, he clapped along for a few beats before giving a thumbs up and walking away.
On a day focused on boosting trade between the members countries, a parade of business leaders took turns onstage to talk about how to turn this club of nations into a powerhouse economic bloc. Diplomats and business forums hosted events on the sidelines, hoping to make the most of the surprising global attention the summit has attracted.
For the smallest of the BRICS countries, South Africa, whose economic and political woes have created a despondent national atmosphere, politicians see pulling off an international event of this scale as a rare win.
Facing waning domestic popularity, Mr. Ramaphosa is casting himself as an international statesman and his country as the voice of Africa. He has invited more than 30 African heads of state to attend the summit, and some, like Egypt, are lobbying to join the club.
But briefly, at least, it was Mr. Putin and the war that took the spotlight.
With his invasion 18 months ago, Russia blockaded Ukrainian ports, and Ukraine’s grain exports plummeted, contributing to global shortages and soaring prices, a crisis that was particularly felt in parts of Africa.
But in July 2022, the United Nations brokered an agreement allowing ships carrying grain and other foodstuffs to travel safely to and from Ukraine. While the deal was in effect, the biggest buyer of the resulting Ukrainian food exports was China, according to U.N. reports.
Last month, Mr. Putin pulled out of the deal, saying that the provisions benefiting Russia had been ignored or were inadequate, and his forces began the systematic destruction of Ukrainian grain and port facilities. The resulting pressure on global markets has not been as great as it was last year, in part because of better harvests.
On Tuesday, Mr. Putin reiterated his claim that it was Western actions against Russia that caused shortages, and his offer to provide free food to poor countries.
“Our country has the capacity to replace Ukrainian grain both commercially and as free aid to needy countries, especially as our harvest is expected be perfect this year,” he said.
“Russia is being deliberately obstructed in the supply of grain and fertilizers aboard, and at the same time we are hypocritically blamed for the current crisis in the world market,” he added.
In fact, Russia’s food exports hit a record high in the year the deal was in effect.
Critics have accused Moscow of using hunger as both a weapon and a means to bankroll the war.
While not taking sides on the war, Mr. Ramaphosa called for resumption of the grain deal and for the return to Ukraine of children taken by Russia, one of the charges lodged against Mr. Putin by the international court.