The Russian and Chinese foreign ministers are expected to meet with their counterparts from the BRICS economic bloc in Cape Town on Thursday, a precursor to a larger summit of developing nations' leaders in South Africa in August that Russian President Vladimir Putin may attend while under indictment by the International Criminal Court.
South Africa has suggested without saying explicitly that it won't arrest Putin, if he decides to travel for the main BRICS summit in Johannesburg, despite being obliged to do so as a signatory to the ICC's Rome treaty.
BRICS is a bloc of emerging economies made up of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, and their leaders, including China's Xi Jinping, have been invited to the Aug. 22-24 summit.
Any Putin trip — and the Kremlin hasn't said if he will attend — would focus more attention on South Africa's relationship with Moscow. There are clear concerns in the West that Africa's most developed economy is aligning with Russia and pulling other developing countries along with it at a time of heightened global tensions.
Those concerns burst into the open earlier this month when the U.S. ambassador to South Africa called a news conference in Pretoria and accused the country of supplying weapons to Russia for its war in Ukraine. The South African government has denied the allegation, but the visit of a Russian cargo ship to South Africa's top naval base near Cape Town in December is under investigation.
While South Africa hasn't yet stated its official position with regard to the arrest warrant for Putin, its foreign ministry said Tuesday that those traveling for Thursday's meeting of BRICS foreign ministers and the leaders who attend the main summit in three months' time would be afforded standard diplomatic immunity.
But the privileges “do not override any warrant that may have been issued by any international tribunal against any attendee of the conference,” foreign ministry spokesman Clayson Monyela said, an indirect reference to Putin.
It means the ICC arrest warrant would still be applicable if Putin visits in August, even if it is highly unlikely that South Africa would arrest him.
The Russian president hasn't traveled to any country that is part of the international court treaty since he was indicted in March for war crimes relating to the abduction of children from Ukraine.
Away from Putin, the main summit of BRICS leaders could be one of the most important in the bloc's short history, analysts say. There could be movement on two critical issues: BRICS could be expanded to admit new members like Saudi Arabia, Iran and United Arab Emirates. The bloc might also adopt a resolution on creating a BRICS currency.
Those moves within a group containing Russia and China might be seen as "a direct economic challenge to the U.S.,” said William Gumede, an associate professor at the School of Governance at Johannesburg's University of the Witwatersrand and a BRICS analyst.
"BRICS could look very different ... and (it) would just change the dynamics of world power,” Gumede said.
BRICS officials said in April that at least 19 countries — including major oil producers Saudi Arabia, Iran and the United Arab Emirates — have applied to become members. South Africa Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor has also confirmed that a BRICS currency will be discussed.
The discussions might start this week when Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang meet with Pandor and other counterparts from Brazil and India.
Although there are complications with introducing a common currency in countries with vastly different economic setups, Gumede said a formal decision to pursue it could still be seen as a major “political statement” and an attempt to start the “de-dollarization” of parts of the world.
The U.S. “would have to respond, one way or another,” Gumede said.
The BRICS gatherings follow a summit of the Group of Seven leaders in Japan that was dominated by the U.S. and the world's other advanced economies extending sanctions against Russia as punishment for its full-scale invasion of Ukraine and finding ways to counter the economic policies of China.
While accusing South Africa of giving arms to Russia and going against its stated neutrality in the war in Ukraine, U.S. Ambassador Reuben Brigety also referred to the country's hosting of the upcoming BRICS meetings and how they had been framed by some within the bloc as the “counterpoint” to the G-7, the meeting of the other side.
Brigety gave notice that the U.S. was watching.
“Our officials expressed quite serious concern of the explicit articulation of the BRICS configuration as a, quote, counterpoint to the G-7,” Brigety said. “Of course, South Africa is free to choose its diplomatic and economic partners however it chooses and so is the United States of America."
“This is not a matter of bullying as I often hear in this context. It’s not a matter of threatening. This is how any relationship works.”
Gerald Imray reported from Cape Town.
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