This year's summit of the BRICS nations — Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa — began Wednesday with an expression of concern about the trade war brewing between the United States and BRICS' wealthiest member, China.
BRICS admitted South Africa in 2010 as part of the bloc's aim of leveling the global playing field by representing non-traditional powers.
Leaders say that goal is now more important than ever, given the growth of protectionist trade policies and politics around the globe.
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa issued strong words of concern at the opening of the summit in Johannesburg on Wednesday.
"We are meeting here, ladies and gentlemen, at a time when the multilateral trading system is facing unprecedented challenges. We are concerned by the rise in unilateral measures that are incompatible with World Trade Organization rules and we are worried about the impact of these measures, especially as they impact developing countries and economies."
Ramaphosa said these developments "call for thorough discussion on the role of trade in growing and in promoting sustainable development, particularly inclusive growth."
To that end, he said, the bloc's development bank has, since its establishment in 2014, issued $5.1 billion in loans to foster development projects.
On the eve of the summit, Ramaphosa met with Chinese President Xi Jinping. China has been attempting to shore up its international relationships amid U.S. President Donald Trump's threat to impose tariffs on Chinese goods.
But as South African Trade and Industry Minister Rob Davies pointed out in a business-oriented pre-summit meeting, even within BRICS, trade is not balanced. South Africa is the newest and smallest member of BRICS, he said, but invests more than it gets back.
"If we look at the investment relationship, I think we can see that there has been less progress," he said. "The figure that we have recorded, nearly $18 billion US dollars — 17.8 billion — that was the inflow of BRICS investment into the South African economy between 2003 and 2017, but actually South Africa, between 2001 and 2016, invested $68 billion, a larger sum, in other BRICS countries."
With outside threats looming large, analyst Luanda Mpungose says things are changing. This year, she said, it's notable that BRICS has extended a hand beyond just South Africa.
"Something that's different about BRICS this year, specifically about South Africa as a host country, is that this initiative is not only about the BRICS member countries, the five countries," he sai. "But actually we've actually seen an outreach of neighborhood countries being invited. So this is taking along the Africa developmental agenda and bringing it Into the BRICS agenda, I mean countries like Rwanda,like Senegal, like Togo have been invited to come and attend."
The summit continues through Friday.