BRICS leaders meet in South Africa on Tuesday as the loose association of major emerging economies seeks to assert its voice as a counterweight to Western dominance in global affairs.
The so-called BRICS nations – Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa – represent a quarter of the global economy, and interest in joining the club has surged ahead of its three-day summit in Johannesburg.
Security has been bolstered across the city where South African President Cyril Ramaphosa will host China's President Xi Jinping, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Brazil's President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and some 50 other leaders.
Russian President Vladimir Putin is the target of an international arrest warrant over alleged war crimes in Ukraine and will not attend in person, with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov sent on his behalf.
Xi, whose country is the most powerful BRICS member, met with Ramaphosa ahead of the summit on just his second international trip of the year.
"Now as friends and BRICS partners, we stand together in our shared objective and quest for a better and more egalitarian world that frees the potential of all the people in the world," said Ramaphosa in Pretoria at the opening of Xi's state visit.
"Today, standing at a new historical starting point, inheriting friendship, deepening cooperation, and strengthening coordination are the common aspirations of the two countries, and are also the important tasks entrusted to us by the times," said Xi.
Ukraine looms large
Representing 40 percent of the world's population, but whose economies have different levels of growth, the BRICS share a common desire for a global order they see as better reflecting their interests and rising clout.
The theme of its 15th summit is "BRICS and Africa" and comes as the continent emerges as a renewed diplomatic battleground with the United States, Russia and China jostling for influence.
The summit has underscored divisions over the war in Ukraine and the support Russia enjoys from its other BRICS partners at a time of global isolation.
South Africa, China and India have not condemned Russia's invasion while Brazil has refused to join Western nations in sending arms to Ukraine or imposing sanctions on Moscow.
Ahead of the summit, Ramaphosa said his country would "not be drawn into a contest between global powers" and had resisted pressure to align with any influential blocs of nations.
In a park near the summit venue, two dozen protesters held up blue and yellow Ukrainian flags and placards reading "Go home Lavrov."
"We are here to deliver a message to all BRICS countries and guests currently at the summit to demand Russia to withdraw military forces from Ukraine," said Lesya Karpenko, 41, representative of the Ukrainian Association of South Africa.
Division and demand
There is growing interest in the bloc, which began as four nations in 2009 but expanded the following year with the addition of South Africa.
Ahead of this summit, at least 40 countries have expressed interest in joining including Iran, Saudi Arabia, Bangladesh and Argentina, officials say.
South Africa will present BRICS leaders with a proposal to expand its membership and a decision on the matter is expected at the summit's close.
But analysts are more cautious. The issue of BRICS expansion is divisive, particularly among its two most powerful members, China and India.
China is keen to rapidly increase the bloc's rollcall to boost clout but observers say India, its regional rival, is wary.
The BRICS operate on consensus and the "China-India rivalry is probably the major challenge that BRICS will eventually be confronted with" said Jakkie Cilliers, founder of the Pretoria-based Institute for Security Studies (ISS) think tank.
by Nick Perry & Zama Luthuli, AFP