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The Global South in the Great Power Game and Global Governance


Ren Lin, a global governance scholar at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, suggests Washington is selectively engaging the Global South in ways designed to intensify contradictions and antagonisms between its membership. This strategy, Ren assesses, ultimately aims to isolate China and reduce the effectiveness of BRICS and other groups that threaten U.S. agenda-setting in global governance.

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The concept of the “Global South” has increasingly become a focus of international public attention in recent years. However, the international community has yet to reach a consensus on what the concept entails. Generally speaking, in international organizations, the term Global South tends to refer to developing countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, and there are both commonalities and differences with the concept of “countries of the South” by which countries have been designated in the post-World War II era. In terms of similarities, both emphasize that this group of countries has a similar geographic location, level of development, and historical experience, and both are used to describe developing countries located mainly in the southern hemisphere and the southern part of the northern hemisphere. From a historical perspective, these countries were colonized by developed countries, represented by the European countries, and this led to their poverty and weakness in modern times. In terms of differences, the term Global South adds the qualifier “global” to the term “countries of the South,” formally emphasizing the role of such countries in global affairs. More importantly, it gives the concept international political overtones. The international political overtones mentioned here are both neutral, initiated by developing countries in pursuit of fair and equitable treatment and rights, and non-neutral, initiated by established powers represented by the United States with the aim of increasing their control over the Global South and consolidating the hierarchical international order. The latter is the most important driving force behind the current trend of the “Global South,” as it implies a strong subjective intent on the part of the major Western developed countries, especially the United States.


The Global South is not a group of countries or international mechanism with clear membership, defined strategic objectives, or well-established institutions, but it has similar international political aspirations and is increasingly becoming a force to be reckoned with in global affairs. This is the main reason why the major developed countries, especially the United States, have begun to fear and emphasize the international political significance of this group of countries. It is evident that the Global South concept has gained popularity in the international arena for certain objective reasons, but the great power game is an important subjective reason hidden behind it. In recent years, the concept of the Global South has been given strategic overtones by some developed countries. They try to manipulate the Global South concept to break up the cohesion of the Global South, and to enhance their control by creating exclusivity within developing countries, as when the Munich Security Conference in 2023 set the theme of the first round of talks as “Recalibrating the Compass: North-South Cooperation.” European Council President Charles Michel, who was at the conference, even pledged the European Union’s support for the African Union’s accession to the Group of 20 (G20). The 2022 Group of Seven (G7) Summit invited developing countries such as India, South Africa, Indonesia, and Argentina. Then, the 2023 G7 Summit also invited developing countries such as Brazil, India, Indonesia, and Vietnam. Both G7 summits rolled out a number of policies to entice countries of the Global South.


The great power game and the Global South


Playing the Global South card and concocting a narrative with strong humanitarian overtones is an important part of the current international strategy of developed countries represented by the United States. After all, the countries of the Global South account for 70% of the world’s population, and the international community has already seen their collective influence in relevant international affairs. If they are not aligned with the United States and the West on major international political and economic issues, they can bring significant international influence and even constrain the realization of U.S and Western strategic intentions. This ultimately forces the United States and the West to attach great importance to them, and ultimately make the preposterous move of competing for the right to define the Global South. Looking at the behavior of the United States and the West, it can be roughly divided into the following types.


The first is increasing its political control over the countries of the Global South and demanding that the Global South be in step with it on major international affairs. As the countries of the Global South have begun to play an important role in international affairs as a unique political force, they have on many occasions demonstrated behavioral choices that are inconsistent with those of the hegemonic power, the United States. For example, after the outbreak of the Ukrainian crisis, at the special session on Ukraine convened by the UN, not only did some developed countries represented by the United States fail to obtain general support from Global South countries, some 52 developing countries expressly indicated that they did not support imposing sanctions on Russia, and in February 2023, of the more than 130 countries that announced they would not join in financial sanctions against Russia, most were developing countries. In response to the “silent majority” phenomenon, the United States and the West have begun launching one tactic after another to lure countries of the Global South. On August 5-6, 2023, the peace conference on Ukraine held in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, failed to invite Russia, a party involved in the issue, but in addition to the United States and Europe, the conference also invited a number of developing countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. The United States and the West hope to strengthen their political control over the Global South countries on the Ukrainian issue and to induce them to take the same position as them.


The second is safeguarding their own non-neutral interests and reducing the impact of the Global South on the established system of governance that favors themselves. The countries of the Global South are seeking to democratize and reform the system of global governance through internal dialogue and cooperation. Some developed countries, represented by the United States, have been forced to take a fresh look at this group of countries in the hopes of co-opting and controlling them, and thereby mitigating the impact of reforms on their own interests. The countries of the Global South have demanded that the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank correct the biases and injustices in the established international financial architecture, and have called for effective reforms of the global financial governance system. Among other things, they have proposed increasing developing country representation as a proportion of executive boards, quota reform, and tilting the use of funds in favor of developing countries. At present, resistance to these reforms is considerable. As UN Secretary-General António Guterres has said “During the pandemic control period, the G7, which is seen as representing developed countries, received a total of U.S.$280 billion from the IMF, whereas Least Developed Countries received a total of only about U.S.$8 billion. The total population of the G7 is about 770 million, while the combined population of the aforementioned Least Developed Countries is about 1.1 billion.”

第二,维护自身非中性的利益,减少“全球南方”对既成的于己有利的治理体系形成冲击。“全球南方”国家通过内部对话与合作,寻求对全球治理体系进行民主化改革。以美国为代表的部分发达国家不得不重新审视这一国家群体,欲通过拉拢和控制它们,进而达到缓解改革对自身利益带来的冲击。“全球南方”国家要求国际货币基金组织和世界银行纠正既成国际金融架构中的偏见和不公,呼吁对全球金融治理体系进行有效改革,如提出增加发展中国家在执董会的代表比重、进行份额改革、向发展中国家倾斜资金用途等内容。当下,这些改革的阻力相当大。正如联合国秘书长古特雷斯所言:“疫情防控期间,被视为发达国家代表的七国集团从国际货币基金组织获得总计相当于2 800亿美元的资金,而一些最不发达国家获得的资助总计只有约80亿美元。七国集团总人口约7.7亿,而上述最不发达国家人口合计约11亿。”

The third is disintegrating the solidarity and cooperation of Global South countries through categorization, cooptation, and pressure. The developed countries, represented by the United States, have deliberately created an exclusive categorization of countries within the Global South in an attempt to exclude China. In addition, they have attempted to polarize the Global South, and by fashioning contradictions, to achieve the goal of making them constrain each other. The most prominent example is the United States’ bilateral pressure aimed at polarizing the BRICS countries. The BRICS cooperation mechanism is an important platform for the Global South to participate in global governance, and it has made important contributions to the democratization and reform of the global governance system. The United States is trying to undermine the internal cohesion of the BRICS countries and polarize the BRICS cooperation mechanism by drawing in or exerting pressure on the so-called “swing countries” singled out by the United States—Brazil, India, and South Africa. In short, if the Global South lacks a unified position on global governance-related agendas such as trade governance and development governance, it will be more difficult for it to form a united front in international negotiations with developed countries and jointly respond to their non-neutral setting of agendas and governance rules. Only by actively shaping and maintaining its own global governance platform will the Global South be able to unite the group’s countries into one force, speak with one voice, and fight for greater rights.


The fourth is manufacturing the so-called “theory of China’s responsibility for the debt crisis” to create divisions in China’s relationships with other developing countries. It is worth noting that some developed countries, represented by the United States, actively advocate and manipulate the Global South concept on one hand, while intentionally excluding China from the Global South on the other, in a vain attempt to sever China’s natural ties with many of the developing countries and weaken China’s influence among developing countries as a group. In order to achieve that goal, some developed countries, represented by the United States, have spared no effort to manufacture the so-called “debt trap” narrative. In debt governance issues, they only emphasize bilateral debt, making no mention of the highly relevant debt held by multilateral financial institutions and Western commercial creditors, and they have deliberately fabricated the so-called “theory of China’s responsibility for the debt crisis.” In fact, however, this is a case of the robbers shouting “Stop thief.” According to World Bank data, the total debt of 49 African countries amounts to $696 billion, of which nearly three quarters is debt held by multilateral financial institutions and Western commercial creditors. Due to the manipulation of certain developed countries, however, these categories of debt vanish from discussions of debt governance in the arena of international public opinion. The objective data above show that the “theory of China’s responsibility for the debt crisis” concocted by certain developed countries is groundless and absurd.

第四,制造所谓的“债务危机中国责任论”,分化中国与其他广大发展中国家的关系。值得注意的是,以美国为代表的部分发达国家一边积极热捧与操控“全球南方”概念,一边有意将中国排除在“全球南方”之外,妄想分化中国与广大发展中国家的天然联系,削弱中国在发展中国家群体中的影响力。为达到上述目标,以美国为代表的部分发达国家不遗余力地制造出所谓的“债务陷阱”叙事,在债务治理议题中只强调双边债务,绝口不提与之高度相关的多边金融机构和西方商业债权人所持债务,刻意捏造所谓的“债务危机中国责任论”,而事实却是一场“贼喊捉贼”的文字游戏。世界银行的数据显示,49个非洲国家负债总额合计6 960亿美元,而其中有近3/4的债务来自多边金融机构与西方商业债权人所持债务。然而,这些债务类别却由于某些发达国家的操控凭空消失在讨论债务治理的国际舆论场。以上客观数据显示,某些发达国家炮制的“债务危机中国责任论”是毫无依据且荒谬的。

The fifth is portraying India as the leader of the Global South in order to exclude and counterbalance China. Some developed countries, represented by the United States, not only continue to exploit the differences between China and India on geopolitical issues to create division between the two countries, but have also recently created the narrative of the so-called “leader of the global South” to do so. In one sense, the portrayal of India as the leader of the Global South is a supporting measure for the United States to launch its “Indo-Pacific strategy” to contain China. Its main aims are to divide the political and economic positions of China and India, control the situation in the region, and control developing countries. India has long desired to elevate itself from a regional power to a world power, and striving to become the leader of the Global South seems to provide it with an argument for enhancing its international influence. Early this year, India hosted an online summit of “Voices of the Global South,” declaring that the era of the Global South was dawning and that India should “strive for a common future” on behalf of the countries of the global South. It is evident that the United States and the West have taken advantage of India’s ambition to become a world power in order to shape the “leader of the Global South” narrative, which helps them use India as a fulcrum for expanding their influence in the region among developing countries.


China’s response from the global governance perspective


The rise of the Global South concept has strong great power game overtones, and to a certain extent the concept has been manipulated by Western developed countries, which may divide the developing country camp and bring about certain contradictions and antagonisms. Nevertheless, it also provides an opportunity for deepening cooperation in global development governance, and China’s role in this is indispensable.


First, there is an urgent need to set the record straight within the countries of the Global South, so that they fully recognize the strategic intention of some developed countries to sever China’s natural ties with the Global South. China is an important component of the Global South, as well as an indispensable contributor to its growing international influence. For example, according to World Bank data, China’s average contribution to global economic growth was 38.6 percent between 2013 and 2021, exceeding the G7’s 25.7 percent. As China has continued to grow in overall strength and actively participate in international affairs, the overall power of the Global South has risen, and its influence in international affairs has been greatly enhanced. China has been highly consistent with other Global South countries in demanding a more just and rational world order, and it has always supported the reasonable demands and basic interests of developing countries. In other words, if the close relationship between the two was ever severed, the influence of the countries of the South in international affairs would be bound to decline. Therefore, as Wang Yi, director of the Foreign Affairs Office of the CCP Central Committee, has said, “The countries of the Global South need to be united and work together.” In this regard, at the closing ceremony of the BRICS Business Forum in Johannesburg on August 22, 2023, President Xi Jinping profoundly pointed out that, as a developing country and a member of the Global South, China has always shared a common fate with other developing countries, firmly safeguarded the common interests of developing countries, and pushed for increasing the representation and voice of emerging market countries and developing countries in global affairs.


Second, the depoliticization of the Global South concept should be promoted, emphasizing that the joint pursuit of development should be the core agenda of the Global South’s participation in global governance. We must insist on placing development at the center of the international agenda, as only then can we avoid the concept of the Global South being politicized and instrumentalized by some developed countries in ways that detract from the original intent of the community of developing countries. Placing development at the center of the international agenda will also help press developed countries to fulfill their aid commitments, rather than simply hype the concept in order to evade their international responsibilities. Returning to development issues of concern to developing countries will also help build international consensus among developing countries, effectively safeguard and enhance their international voice, and mobilize sufficient public goods for global development. As an important representative of the Global South, China has always insisted on safeguarding the legitimate development rights of developing countries. On one hand, within the framework of global development initiatives, China has provided a large number of public goods for global development governance; on the other hand, China has accumulated a great deal of successful experience in domestic development governance, and is willing to share its experience in governance with other developing countries.


Third, we should downplay the issue of leadership and advocate that major countries establish the correct concept of “stakeholders in global development governance.” Firstly, we should objectively analyze the willingness and ability of major countries to participate in global development governance and even serve as leaders of the Global South. Leadership is based on the provision of global public goods, and India and the United States and the West behind it do not have the ability or willingness to provide the Global South sufficient public goods. For example, the G7 has made commitments to provide appropriate public goods, including aid funds and relief funds, to support the development of Global South countries and to cope with climate change. Up to now, not only have they failed to make good on their commitments, but they have also repeatedly pressured developing countries to repay their existing debts. Secondly, the “leader of the global South” narrative should be replaced with the concept of “stakeholders in global development governance,” emphasizing the responsibilities of major countries in matters of global development governance. As major countries in the developing world, China and India are both important stakeholders in global development governance, and both sides should abandon external interference and wedge-driving. They should promote useful dialogue and cooperation on development governance issues of common concern to the Global South, and work effectively for the benefit of the developing country community.


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任琳 (Ren Lin). "The Global South in the Great Power Game and Global Governance [大国博弈与全球治理中的“全球南方”]". CSIS Interpret: China, original work published in West Asia and Africa [西亚非洲], November 22, 2023

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