Confrontation hangs in the air at BRICS summit after addresses by Putin, Xi

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Johannesburg: President Xi Jinping failed to attend a meeting in South Africa where he was expected to deliver a speech defending China’s economy and its support for emerging markets, as fears mount that the Asian nation’s struggles could cause global turbulence.

According to a public schedule, the Chinese leader was set to address a BRICS business forum on Tuesday as part of the three-day summit between Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. Instead, delegates were greeted on stage by Commerce Minister Wang Wentao, who read the speech without giving an explanation for his leader’s absence.

Brazil’s President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, China’s President Xi Jinping, South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov pose during BRICS summit in Johannesburg, on August 22.Credit: Russian Foreign Ministry/Reuters

“The Chinese economy has strong resilience, tremendous potential and great vitality. The fundamentals sustaining China’s long-term growth will remain unchanged,” according to the remarks read by Wang. “The giant ship of the Chinese economy will continue to cleave waves and sail ahead.”

The speech also brought an air of confrontation to the Johannesburg summit that “some country, obsessed with maintaining its hegemony, has gone out of its way to cripple the emerging markets and developing countries”.

“Whoever is developing fast becomes its target of containment. Whoever is catching up, becomes its target of obstructions,” Wang while delivering Xi’s speech.

It was a clear reference to the US and the growing economic friction between the two powers.

Russian President Vladimir Putin addresses leaders from the BRICS group of emerging economies at the start of a three-day summit in Johannesburg, South Africa.Credit: AP

Xi is in South Africa for the summit and met with South African President Cyril Ramaphosa earlier on Tuesday. He didn’t attend the opening-day forum where the other BRICS leaders gave their addresses in person. No reason was given for the Chinese leader’s absence. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei is representing President Vladimir Putin whose International Criminal Court arrest warrant prevented him from attending in person.

Xi’s decision to skip delivering a bullish economic message in person comes as his nation face intense global scrutiny over its struggles with falling prices, a faltering property market and soaring local government debt.

As China confronts those concerns, the South Africa summit will bring Xi into the orbit of leaders he hasn’t seen in months, including a bilateral meeting with India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi that is expected to take place on the sidelines of the summit.

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa delivers his opening remarks at the BRICS Summit in Johannesburg. Some 20 nations are said to be interested in joining the group.Credit: Reuters

Xi’s speech would have been his first public remarks delivered abroad this year. Prior to South Africa, the Chinese leader had spent just two days overseas in 2023, when he visited Russia.

Putin too took multiple shots at the West, using a 17-minute prerecorded speech that was aired on giant screens to rail at what he called “illegitimate sanctions” on his country and threatening to cut off Ukraine’s grain exports permanently.

His speech centred on the war in Ukraine and Russia’s relationship with the West even though South African officials had said East-West frictions and geopolitical tensions should not dominate the first in-person summit since before COVID-19.

The West’s attempts to punish and isolate Russia financially for sending troops into Ukraine were an “illegitimate sanctions practice and illegal freezing of assets of sovereign states, which essentially amounts to them trampling upon all the basic norms and rules of free trade,” the Russian leader asserted.

Moscow pulled out of the Black Sea Grain Initiative which allowed for Ukraine grain to pass through the waters last month and stepped up drone and missile attacks on the city of Odesa in southern Ukraine, home to one of the ports the controlled the passage agreement covered.

The US and other Western nations have not directly targeted Russian agricultural exports, but moves to restrict Russia’s access to international financial payment systems under some sanctions have made it difficult for the country export food, fertiliser and other products.

“With these facts in mind, since July 18 we have refused to extend the so-called deal,” Putin said. “We will be ready to get back to it, but only if all the obligations to the Russian side are truly fulfilled.”

Xi, Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Ramaphosa were all expected to meet over dinner at a luxury estate in suburban Johannesburg. Putin also planned to take part virtually, officials said.

The leaders were expected to discuss the top agenda point for the three-day summit, a possible expansion of BRICS. They were scheduled to reconvene for the main day of talks on Wednesday.

The five BRICS countries are already home to 40 per cent of the world’s population and responsible for more than 30 per cent of global economic output, and more than 20 nations have applied to join, according to South African officials, including Saudi Arabia, Iran and the United Arab Emirates.

Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan and Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi planned to attend.

Bloomberg, AP

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