Malaysia and Thailand Joining Affirms the Global South’s Strategy gnewsplus24

A vital region in the Global South—Southeast Asia—has long been missing from BRICS, a grouping whose acronym stands for founding members Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. As BRICS gelled and grew from its first summit in 2009, the region’s states watched from the sidelines. One of them—Indonesia—seriously considered joining last year at the Johannesburg summit, but ultimately chose to stay away.

A vital region in the Global South—Southeast Asia—has long been missing from BRICS, a grouping whose acronym stands for founding members Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. As BRICS gelled and grew from its first summit in 2009, the region’s states watched from the sidelines. One of them—Indonesia—seriously considered joining last year at the Johannesburg summit, but ultimately chose to stay away.

In 2023, BRICS decided to expand to 11 members. The inclusion of South Africa in 2010 had been the club’s only prior enlargement. By inviting Argentina, Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, UAE, and Saudi Arabia to join, the group folded in new geographies of north Africa and the Middle East. (Argentina later declined the invitation and Saudi Arabia has not yet decided.)

Now, Malaysia and Thailand have announced that they will apply for BRICS membership. There is a high likelihood their application will be accepted. The consequences of an expanding BRICS on great power competition are sometimes misunderstood in zero-sum terms. While signaling continued dissatisfaction with the U.S.-led global order, the expansion of BRICS to pragmatically-oriented Southeast Asia also means a dilution of Russian and Chinese influence in the club. It is a win for the logic of multi-alignment, rather than bloc-building.


Though often characterized as a club representing the Global South, BRICS is in fact a coalition of the “Global East” (Russia and China) and the Global South. These two components of BRICS come with their own distinct interests. Russia and China are by now clearly locked in a dangerous rivalry with the United States. Moscow and Beijing therefore see the club as a means to counter and diminish Western power.

On the other hand, Global South members of BRICS may be described as “non-Western,” but—except for Iran—are by no means adversaries of the United States. These states have crafted a coalition with the Global East for two primary reasons. The first is to plug the serious gaps and violations in the current U.S.-led global order, which disadvantage and constrain them in many ways. The ongoing horror of the Gaza war is the latest example of such violations.

The second reason is to proactively hedge in a world in which U.S. relative power is slowly eroding and the future of the global order is highly uncertain. Whereas the great powers practice, or aim for, hegemony, most of the Global South—and especially Southeast Asia—prioritizes “hedge-mony.”

In all this, and especially signaling their intention to join BRICS, Global South states such as Thailand and Malaysia are pursuing their own self-interest above all else. The Global South is highly diverse, and Southeast Asia itself is an example of this wide diversity. Thailand is a long-standing U.S. treaty ally while Malaysia is not. While both are founder-members of ASEAN, Southeast Asia’s regional organization, they are culturally and religiously distinct. Their strategic geographies also differ. Thailand is a continental state with no territorial disputes with China, while Malaysia is primarily maritime with conflicting claims with China and other Southeast Asian states in the South China Sea.

Yet Thailand and Malaysia framed their decision in similar ways. Malaysia’s foreign minister mentioned benefits to its interests and providing a platform for the country to voice its aspirations in international issues. The Thai foreign minister spoke of “a more active role in South-South cooperation,” and, crucially, the ability to “better protect its interests as a developing country.”

Neither Thailand nor Malaysia’s marriage with BRICS will be exclusive. Bangkok is formally a U.S. treaty ally but has skillfully triangulated between Washington and Beijing. China is by far its biggest partner on both trade and investment, but at the same time, its new prime minister is shifting his emphasis to ties with Washington. Thailand, like Indonesia, has begun the arduous process of joining the Western-dominated OECD. Bangkok has also diverged from its ASEAN partners in working closely with Moscow and New Delhi to try and find a solution to the Myanmar crisis on its doorstep. Domestic factors may partly explain Thailand’s BRICS decision, but its grand strategy is probably the bigger driver.

Muslim-majority Malaysia has always been sharply critical of U.S. policies on Palestine, and Israel’s war in Gaza has pushed it to take an even tougher stance. Notwithstanding their maritime dispute, Malaysia has also built a strong relationship with China—its BRICS announcement was made just before Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang’s visit. But Malaysia is also a major recipient of American trade and investment, an enthusiastic participant in America’s Indo-Pacific Economic Framework and, along with Thailand, is benefiting handsomely from U.S.-led “de-risking” of Chinese dominated supply chains.

There is much in BRICS for Southeast Asia to like—and vice versa. ASEAN is an excellent example of accommodating diversity by affirming sovereignty, which is a core BRICS principle. ASEAN also practices the idea of economic openness. It led the creation of the world’s biggest trade agreement, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. BRICS’ joint statements have emphasized ending the paralysis of the WTO and returning to the idea of more open trade.

On joining BRICS, Thailand and Malaysia will get better access to the BRICS development bank (New Development Bank) and the Contingent Reserve Arrangement, a mechanism to overcome financial crises. These are not so vital for Southeast Asia, which is a major destination for foreign investment and is already a part of a regional currency swap arrangement. However, Southeast Asia’s presence in BRICS strengthens the collective voice on reform of the international system, which Thailand and Malaysia also desire.

As tensions between great powers have heightened, secondary sanctions are increasingly the tool of choice in Washington’s strategy. With this trend, momentum has grown around global de-dollarization. It may be a long way off, but both Southeast Asia and BRICS have a common interest in moving this needle. Malaysia, for instance, has achieved close to 20 percent of its trade in non-dollar currencies.


Washington’s loss is unlikely to be China and Russia’s gain. China especially has major clout within BRICS due to its outsized economic heft. But as BRICS steadily expands to include more Global South states, its consensus-based decision-making approach will inevitably dilute Moscow and Beijing’s influence. The entry of a quintessentially pragmatic Southeast Asia can only strengthen this trend.

Southeast Asia’s norm of stricter sovereignty also occasionally works against America’s rivals. Most Southeast Asian states strongly disapproved of Russia’s violations of Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty. Like the rest of the Global South, almost none of them joined in sanctions against Moscow, and there was even sympathy for Russia among sections of their populations, but both Malaysia and Thailand voted with the United States on the crucial UN General Assembly vote of March 2, 2022 condemning the Russian invasion. Southeast Asia may be much less tough on Moscow than Washington would like, but neither is it showing signs of an explicit alignment with Russia.

Most fundamentally, most of the Global South, and especially Southeast Asia, is in no mood to give up its practice of “hedge-mony” despite increasing polarization between the great powers and intensifying pressures to take sides. Washington should worry about the serious lack of confidence this shows toward its leadership and American primacy. But if Moscow and Beijing think that the expanding BRICS will lead to realignments in the Global South in their favor, they should think again.

BRICS is coming of age, and this signifies the Global South’s increasing ability to insert and assert itself in conversations on the future of the global order. An expansion of BRICS to Southeast Asia will further strengthen impulses of reform and multi-alignment, rather than those of either radicalism or bloc-building. It holds the promise of helping counter the practices of the great powers, especially their logic of exclusion and alliance-building.


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