Ma Zhaoxu, deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of China, Mauro Viera, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Brazil, Naledi Pandor, South African Minister of International Relations and Cooperation, Sergei Lavrov, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Russia, and Subrahmanyam Jaishanker, Minister of Foreign Affairs of India, hold the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) Foreign Ministers Meeting on June 01, 2023, in Cape Town. Handout / RUSSIAN FOREIGN MINISTRY / AFP
CAPE TOWN, South Africa -- Top diplomats from BRICS countries said the group was open to welcome new members, during talks in South Africa on Thursday, as the bloc seeks a larger voice in the international arena.
Foreign ministers from the five-nation grouping of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa called for a "rebalancing" of the global order, as they met in Cape Town for a two-day conference overshadowed by the fallout from the war in Ukraine.
"Our gathering must send out a strong message that the world is multipolar, that it is rebalancing and that old ways cannot address new situations," India's Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar said during opening remarks.
"We are a symbol of change and must act accordingly."
Russia's invasion of Ukraine has largely isolated Moscow on the international stage, pushing it to seek closer ties with China and others.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said "more than a dozen" countries, reportedly including Saudi Arabia, have expressed interest in joining BRICS and the group was currently shaping its approach.
The issue was discussed with Saudi Arabia's top diplomat, Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud, who was in Cape Town, Lavrov said.
China's Vice Foreign Minister Ma Zhaoxu sounded a more conciliatory note saying Beijing welcomed prospective applicants.
"We expect more countries to join our big family," Ma told a press conference.
The talks came ahead of a heads of state summit in August, which is proving problematic for host South Africa, due to the possible attendance of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Putin is the target of an International Criminal Court (ICC) arrest warrant over accusations that Russia unlawfully deported Ukrainian children.
A member of the ICC, Pretoria, which has close diplomatic ties with Moscow, would be expected to arrest Putin if he sets foot in the country.
On Thursday, South African Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor reiterated that Putin, like all other leaders, has been invited, adding the government was looking at its "legal options".
Pandor stressed the summit would be held in Johannesburg, after media reports suggested the government was considering moving it elsewhere to get around the issue.
As questions about Putin's potential visit kept coming, Pandor quipped with her Brazilian counterpart Mauro Vieira, asking "Do you spend sleepless nights thinking about it?".
Meanwhile, outside the hotel where the meeting was held, about a dozen protesters with Ukrainian flags and traditional clothes chanted "Stop Putin! Stop the war!"
Some held signs depicting Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, with the words "child murderer" in blood-red letters.
"It is difficult to see that South Africa, which has such a strong stand on children's rights, is shaking the hand of a person who is part of these systemic war crimes against Ukrainian children," Dzvinka Kachur, 41, a member of the Ukrainian association of South Africa, told AFP.
Yet, Pandor said Putin was not discussed by the foreign ministers, with talks instead focusing on the potential use of alternative currencies to the US dollar for international trade and on strengthening the New Development Bank, also known as the BRICS bank.
Ways to "ensure that we do not become victim to sanctions that have secondary effects on countries that have no involvement in issues that have led to those unilateral sanctions," were also talked about, she said in an apparent reference to western measures against Russia.
Pretoria, which says it wants to stay neutral over the Ukraine war but is accused by critics of tilting towards the Kremlin, has long advocated for BRICS to act as a counterbalance to a western dominated international order.
Fifteen foreign ministries from Africa and the global south have been invited for the second day of talks on Friday.