The BRICS summit opened in South Africa on Tuesday as the loosely-defined club of large emerging economies seeks to assert its voice as a counterweight to the Western-led international order.
The BRICS nations of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa represent a quarter of the global economy, and interest in joining the group surged ahead of its three-day summit in Johannesburg.
Security has been bolstered across the city where South African President Cyril Ramaphosa is hosting China's President Xi Jinping, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Brazil's President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and some 50 other leaders.
The so-called BRICS nations -- Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa -- represent a quarter of the global economy. By GIANLUIGI GUERCIA (AFP)
Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is the target of an international arrest warrant over alleged war crimes in Ukraine, did not attend in person and addressed the summit via pre-recorded video.
Russia will be represented in Johannesburg by Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov,
China is the BRICS most powerful economy and Xi's state visit to South Africa, just his second international trip this year, comes as Beijing pushes to rapidly expand the group's membership.
"Now as friends and BRICS partners, we stand together in our shared objective and quest for a better and more egalitarian world," said Ramaphosa in Pretoria at the opening of Xi's visit.
Spotlight on Ukraine
Representing 40 percent of the world's population, and democratic and authoritarian states at varying levels of economic growth, the BRICS nations share a common desire for a global order they see as better reflecting their interests and rising clout.
BRICS is also championing its own development bank as an alternative to the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, and proposals to reduce the use of the US dollar in global trade.
Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov attending the BRICS meeting in Johannesburg on Tuesday. By Handout (RUSSIAN FOREIGN MINISTRY/AFP)
"We are only saying that we exist, we are organising ourselves, and we want to sit at the negotiating table on an equal footing with the European Union, the United States or any other country," Lula said in a social media post on Tuesday.
The theme of its 15th summit is "BRICS and Africa" and comes as the continent emerges as a renewed diplomatic battleground with the United States, Russia and China jostling for influence.
The summit has underscored divisions over the war in Ukraine and the support Russia enjoys from its other BRICS partners at a time of global isolation.
South Africa, China and India have not condemned Russia's invasion while Brazil has refused to join Western nations in sending arms to Ukraine or imposing sanctions on Moscow.
Protestors gathered to demonstrate against Russia's invasion of Ukraine. By Luca Sola (AFP)
Ahead of the summit, Ramaphosa said his country would "not be drawn into a contest between global powers".
In a park near the summit venue, two dozen protesters held up blue and yellow Ukrainian flags and placards reading "Go home Lavrov".
'Importance, stature, influence'
The bloc began as four nations in 2009 but expanded the following year with the addition of South Africa.
Officials say more than 40 countries have shown interest in joining from across the 'Global South', a broad term referring to nations outside the West.
Like the BRICS themselves, these countries run the gamut and include traditionally non-aligned nations like Indonesia and others that are openly hostile to the United States and its allies, like Iran.
"It goes to show that the BRICS family is growing in its importance, in its stature and also in its influence in the world," said Ramaphosa.
South Africa will present BRICS leaders with a proposal to expand its membership.
BRICS and G7 compared. By John SAEKI (AFP)
But the issue divides China and its regional rival India, which is wary of Beijing shaping the forum to suit its own geopolitical agenda as it competes for global influence against the United States.
Russia and South Africa back expansion while Brazil's Lula said on Tuesday he supported the entry of "several countries" including Argentina.
Analysts say when considering new members, South Africa, India and Brazil must balance a desire for warm ties with China and Russia against the risk of estranging a major trading partner in the United States.