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Foreign Policy

Can the Rising Global South Navigate the World of Great Power Rivalry?

Jun 07, 2024
  • Ananth Krishnan

    Director at The Hindu Group, and AsiaGlobal Fellow at University of Hong Kong

From Gaza to Ukraine, the Global South is speaking out, but divides threaten its emergence.


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Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva during a ministerial meeting at the Planalto Palace in Brasilia, Brazil, on May 13, 2024. (File photo: Evaristo Sa / AFP)

Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva’s recent decision to withdraw his ambassador from Israel over the war in Gaza was more than just a diplomatic spat between two nations. Lula, by taking a stand opposing Israel’s actions, was also underlining his growing status as a key voice of the “Global South.” 

A disparate grouping of developing nations, the Global South is increasingly making its voice heard in global politics on a range of issues, including Israel’s war on Gaza. Indeed, it was another prominent Global South nation, South Africa, that took the lead in bringing a case against Israel to the International Court of Justice, accusing it of committing genocide in Gaza. 

Big powers are listening. The Global South is no longer “a silent majority” in world affairs, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi said in March during the National People’s Congress (NPC) in Beijing. This diverse grouping, comprising emerging nations in Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Pacific Island Countries (PICs), is, as he described, a “key force for reforming the international order and a source of hope as the world undergoes profound changes unseen in a century.”  

Will 2024 indeed be remembered as “a year of harvest,” as Wang put it, for the Global South and “a new starting point for unity?” There certainly appears to be a growing sense of unity, at least when it comes to how the Global South is defining its shared challenges and concerns on issues ranging from Gaza and Ukraine to food security, climate change, debt relief and, more broadly, reforming the global institutions that shape the world order. 

However, it is less clear whether this broad grouping can translate shared concern into meaningful action. To do so, it will have to navigate differences from within as well as a world divided by great power rivalries – marked, especially, by worsening relations between the two biggest powers, China and the United States. This will be no easy task. 

Global South countries are today being pushed to make choices they would rather avoid. The current competition underway in the Pacific Island Countries (PICs) exemplifies this trend. As China’s economic and security ties with these nations deepen, the U.S., along with its allies and partners, is intensifying its efforts to counterbalance China's influence by renewing engagement and opening new embassies, including in the Solomon Islands and Tonga. Indeed, China-U.S. rivalry emerged as a major talking point during the recent elections in the Solomon Islands.

Both Beijing and Washington have grouses that appear to mirror the other’s. From China’s perspective, the U.S. is now looking to derail what Beijing sees as legitimate cooperation, whether in the Pacific or Africa or Latin America. "Pacific Island countries have a right to invite friendly cooperation with all development partners," Foreign Minister Wang said during his recent visit to Papua New Guinea, where both sides signed a range of agreements, from the export of cocoa and coffee to working more closely on information and communication technology – agreements scrutinized by the West. "Pacific Island countries are the home of the people in this region,” he said. “They are not the backyard of any major country.”

The U.S. has its concerns too. From America’s point of view, China is using its broadening economic cooperation with the developing world to actively undermine American influence. China’s push to increase multipolarity in world affairs – a push backed by much of the Global South – is seen in Washington as a thinly-veiled attempt to dilute U.S. influence. This deepening distrust between China and the U.S. is now affecting their relationships with many third countries, now put in the uncomfortable position of having to make choices they didn’t sign up for. 

To be sure, there are also differences from within. Consider two of the Global South’s arguably most prominent members, China and India, currently navigating the worst downturn in bilateral relations since they normalized their relations four decades ago. While China and India do remain engaged in multilateral fora such as BRICS, their current state of bilateral relations is certainly not conducive to deepening engagement on multilateral issues where they share undeniable common interests. But when ties at the bilateral level are frosty, it is difficult to talk about multilateral cooperation, even if the space for it is certainly evident. 

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The G77 plus China, which is holding its third summit in Kampala, is a coalition of developing countries designed to promote its member states’ economic interests and create negotiating capacity in the United Nations. (Photo: AFP)

Both China and India have taken steps aimed at bringing Global South countries together. China, in the coming year, will host two key Global South summits – the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) as well as the China-Latin American and Caribbean Forum (China-CELAC). Both countries have played a role in the expansion of BRICS, bringing on board Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran and the United Arab Emirates, with the newly expanded BRICS set for a key summit this year in Russia. 

The feeling among Global South countries is that they are currently facing a wave of “multiple crises,” as a statement declared following the “Voice of the Global South Summit” hosted by India in November 2023 in New Delhi. The declaration that followed the summit did not get much attention in the West, but it merits close reading. It highlights the key priorities for southern hemisphere nations, reading almost as a charter listing the issues that matter to them. 

One key concern flagged at the summit was the impact on food and energy security from geopolitical conflicts, with the widespread impression that the Global North is more concerned about getting the Global South to take a stand on political conflicts – in alignment, of course, with Western positions – while not addressing how those conflicts were impacting the economies, livelihoods and security of the developing world. 

The evolving debate surrounding food and energy security impacts from the war in Ukraine is a case in point, reflecting somewhat contrasting perspectives of the crisis from the North and the South. Likewise, the ongoing conflict in Gaza has become emblematic of Western hypocrisy for many in the Global South, with countries that were quick to denounce developing countries’ shortcomings now turning a blind eye to one of their close allies. 

Similarly, on climate change, Global South countries reiterated in the November summit, that “no country should have to choose between fighting poverty and fighting for our planet” – a choice that many nations believe is being foisted on them. They see the West as not living up to its financial commitments, but at the same time demanding action and all-too-ready to apportion blame for inaction. The future of climate action, in the South’s view, should be guided by the principles of equity, climate justice and “Common but Differentiated Responsibilities.” 

In light of “increasing debt vulnerabilities faced by countries of the Global South,” they are also pushing the need for flexible debt restructuring frameworks. The G7, which once dominated the world economy, now accounts for 30% of it – the same as the BRICS nations. The Global South view is that this economic rebalancing hasn’t been matched by political rebalancing, starting at the UN. 

Finding a common position on political rebalancing promises to present an even more complex challenge, considering that one prominent Global South member and supporter – China – is among the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, along with the U.S., resisting and delaying UNSC reforms, which countries, including Brazil, India and many in Africa, are demanding, to make the world’s most important security institutions more representative and fairer. That prospect, of course, still appears remote. 

If the future of the Global South – and how far its constituents can go in their search for unity – still remains far from certain, what is clear is that its emergence reflects the continuing churn in the global order. For the rest of the world, it also presents a new – and valuable – perspective on the global issues that matter. Some have suggested that with the emergence of the Global South, “the central divide in the international sphere” will be between “the dominant North and the aggrieved South,” rather than that between “democracies and autocracies.” The Global South finding its voice does not necessarily imply a widening of the undeniable divides that exist between the North and the South – so long as the voice is heard. 

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