Although he had arrived in South Africa on Monday evening, Xi skipped the business forum and no explanation was given, prompting a reaction from China watchers.

Bonnie Glaser, managing director of the Indo-Pacific Programme at the German Marshall Fund, wondered if his absence meant something was “amiss”.

“This should be ‘stop the presses’ news!” Jorge Guajardo, a former Mexican ambassador to China, said in response to Glaser’s post. “An unannounced absence, especially in a multilateral forum (which the PRC seldom misses), after all the ground work with India, is truly newsworthy. If true, something is certainly amiss.”

Earlier in the day, Xi met South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, and he was expected to attend an evening dinner organised by his host.

Brics is a group of leading emerging markets and developing countries that comprises Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa.

More than 30 other heads of state and leaders from global organisations, including UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, are attending the event.

It is the largest gathering of the Global South countries from Africa, the Caribbean and South America, as well as from the Middle East, West Asia, South Asia and Southeast Asia.

Tops on the summit agenda is the admission of new members into the bloc, which is seen as a way to moderate the West’s dominance in global geopolitics, as well as the use of national currencies for global trade to challenge the American dollar’s dominance in global trade.

Feeling dissatisfied with a world order that is dominated by the US and Western allies, 23 countries have applied to join the bloc, while many others are said to be considering joining, according to South African officials.

The countries believe Brics as a multilateral instrument will help counterbalance Western dominance on the international bodies such as the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.

In the speech, Xi said the collective rise of emerging markets and developing countries represented by Brics was “fundamentally changing the global landscape”.

He said whatever resistance there may be, Brics, as a positive and stable “force for good”, will continue to grow. He said China supported the expansion of Brics and looked forward to “a stronger Brics strategic partnership, expand the Brics-plus model and actively advance membership expansion … and help make international order more just and equitable”.

He said the gathering of Brics countries and more than 50 countries from Africa “is not an exercise of asking countries to take sides, and not an exercise to create bloc confrontation. Rather it’s an endeavour to expand the architecture of peace and development.”

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (left) shakes hands with China’s Minister of Commerce Wang Wentao at the Brics forum on Tuesday. At right is Dilma Rousseff, chair of the New Development Bank and former president of Brazil. Photo: AFP

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (left) shakes hands with China’s Minister of Commerce Wang Wentao at the Brics forum on Tuesday. At right is Dilma Rousseff, chair of the New Development Bank and former president of Brazil. Photo: AFP

Ramaphosa said there was a need for a fundamental reform of global financial institutions so they could be more agile and responsive to the challenges facing developing economies.

He said the New Development Bank, established by Brics countries in 2015, was leading the way. Since its formation it has demonstrated its ability to mobilise resources for infrastructure and sustainable development in emerging economies without conditions, he said.

Russia is represented by Foreign Affairs Minister Sergey Lavrov, with President Vladimir Putin taking part virtually. Putin is not attending in person because the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for him in March over war crimes in Ukraine.

Anil Sooklal, South Africa’s ambassador at large for Asia and a Brics sherpa, said the ministers were to meet on Tuesday to finalise their recommendations to the heads of state, who will make a final decision on the expansion of Brics.

Sooklal said that 23 countries had formally approached Brics to become full members.

During a foreign policy speech on Sunday, Ramaphosa indicated that South Africa supported the expansion. He said an expanded bloc would represent a diverse group of nations with different political systems that share a common desire to have a more balanced global order.

There has also been talk about having a unified or common currency for the Brics, or allowing member countries to trade in national currencies in order to cut the US dollar’s dominance in payments.

Additional reporting by Robert Delaney