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The Global South Is an Important Driving Force in the Evolution of the International Order


Niu Haibin, a foreign policy scholar at the Shanghai Institutes for International Studies, explains the rising international influence of the Global South and assesses implications for China. Niu recommends Beijing amp up efforts to frame itself as a member of the Global South and publicly push for expansion of BRICS and other initiatives, which can enhance China’s ties with individual members of the Global South and build perceptions of China as a leader of among them.

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The global character of the international order since 2000 has become increasingly clear. It is typified by the more proactive participation of the Global South in global affairs, which has formed a strong constraint on hegemony, Cold War thinking, and bloc politics. The countries of the Global South seek a more just, rational, equitable, and representative international order so as to achieve an external environment that is more peaceful and stable, and more conducive to their own sustainable development. To this end, the countries of the Global South are gradually coalescing into a united international political and economic force that is actively engaged in global governance to build an equitable, prosperous, and sustainable world.


An emerging force in global politics


The emergence of the Global South comes as the world enters an era of global politics. “Criticism is an important feature and pillar of global studies, and opposing ‘Western-centrism’ and questioning ethnocentrism are also the basic consensus of global studies research at home and abroad.” Unlike in the traditional East-West, North-South perspective of political economy, today’s Global South is more like the construction of a new transnational identity and world view, pursuing the logic of global thinking and global action, and emphasizing that challenges can only be solved through efforts on a global scale. The rise of the Global South has enhanced the global, pluralistic, and egalitarian nature of the international order’s transformation.


From an international political economy perspective, as the successor to the Non-Aligned Movement and the “Third World,” the Global South has continued the tradition of anti-colonial, anti-imperialist, and anti-hegemonic movements, and has gradually evolved into an international force to be reckoned with in today’s global politics. In The Challenge to the South: Report of the South Commission, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1991 in a landmark event, the South Commission emphasized the need for the countries of the South to work together at the global level. The term Global South has thus gradually replaced the more hierarchical “Third World” designation in international relations. On one hand, the rise of the Global South concept is a testament to the growing recognition that the distribution of developing and emerging market countries is global in nature, and that their development agendas are an important part of today’s global politics. On the other hand, it also shows that the countries of the South are forming into an emerging global force that is no longer limited to finding solutions to development problems at the national and regional levels, but is more inclined to express its concerns and take action at the global level.


The influence of the Global South as an emerging force in global politics has been growing rapidly in recent years due to both internal factors such as its own strength and political awakening, and external factors such as the new round of globalization and the continuing evolution of international competition.


From an internal perspective, emerging economies and developing countries have gradually become an important engine of international economic growth and important participants, and even leaders, in global governance. Emerging global economic governance mechanisms such as the Group of Twenty (G20), the BRICS, and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization have attracted many members of the Global South. The admission of the African Union to the G20 in 2023, the agreement at the BRICS summit in South Africa to invite six countries to join the mechanism, the unprecedented African peace mission to promote a peaceful solution to the crisis in Ukraine, and the widespread calls from Global South countries for attention to be paid to the humanitarian crisis in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are all reflections of the Global South’s increased international influence. Emerging multilateral development finance institutions such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the New Development Bank have given the development requirements of Global South countries greater priority, demonstrating that the Global South has more endogenous drive and resources than in the past for participating in global affairs and achieving its own development. The collective rise of emerging economies represented by the BRICS countries has changed the backward appearance of the Global South, and the modernization process of the vast and populous Global South, with the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development as its main component, is profoundly shaping the future of human civilization.


From an external perspective, amid the great change of growing diversification in the international pattern of power, the United States and the West, in order to maintain their hegemonic position, have tried to draw in the countries of the Global South to support their dominant or superior position in the international order. The United States and the West have begun to deconstruct neoliberal globalization and adjust the mode of globalization. Their basic logic is to lock China and other emerging market countries and developing countries at the low end of global production and value chains through the tribalization of globalization, while they themselves remain at the top. The United States and the West have been strengthening their influence in the Global South by building ideological ties, promoting the “nearshoring” and “friend-shoring” of supply chains, and launching global infrastructure initiatives, thus creating a situation in which international forces compete for the Global South. However, while the Global South welcomes the increased resources allocated by the United States and the West to international development, it does not subscribe to their accompanying logic of economic protectionism and pan-securitization. It continues to support the openness of the world economic system and the preservation of the international order and multilateral cooperation represented by the United Nations.


The Global South’s view of the international order


The Global South has the economic attribute of pursuing sustainable development, but it also has the political attribute of pushing the evolution of the international order in a more just and rational direction, so it is a political concept that is highly relevant to the evolution of the international order. These dual attributes enable the Global South to give full play to unique strengths and roles to play in resolving international conflicts, promoting international development, addressing climate change, and advancing the dialogue of civilizations, thus becoming a constructive force in the evolution of the international order.


  1. Pursuing peaceful transformation


The most important function of the international order is to provide countries a system of rules for peaceful coexistence and the ability to resolve conflicts peacefully. The end of the Cold War did not bring lasting peace to the world. Neo-interventionism and NATO’s eastward expansion have exacerbated tensions and turmoil in the global geopolitical situation. Among major powers, political mutual trust and willingness to cooperate on security have declined sharply. In a context in which the threat of terrorism has not completely receded, in order to maintain U.S. hegemony, the U.S. security strategy has, for the first time in the post-Cold War era, listed major power rivalry as the greatest threat facing the United States. On a global scale, it seeks to maintain a long-term competitive advantage over China and contain Russia. These adjustments in U.S. national security strategy have worsened the external strategic environment for the Global South, and some Global South countries face pressure from the United States to choose sides.


Unlike concepts such as “democratic peace theory,” hegemonic stability theory, and absolute security advocated by the United States and the West, countries of the Global South emphasize the maintenance of international security based on the UN Charter, highlighting the importance of settling international disputes peacefully. Multilateral mechanisms dedicated to global and regional security governance, such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and the BRICS cooperation mechanism, are making helpful efforts. The SCO focuses on resolving regional security threats. At the same time, it includes as members countries with territorial disputes, such as India and Pakistan, thus demonstrating strong inclusiveness and cooperation ability. Shortly after the rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran, both countries were invited to become new members of the BRICS cooperation mechanism. The actual practice of the SCO and the BRICS cooperation mechanism shows that the countries of the Global South are increasingly united on the basis of their common Global South identity and common aspirations for shaping a new international order. To a certain extent, they have transcended the constraints of national differences and localized conflicts.


Confronted with the new round of international security crises represented by the Ukrainian crisis and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, most Global South countries have not followed the United States and the West’s dance, but rather have determined their own positions on the basis of their perceptions of the rights and wrongs of the crises, their humanitarian concerns, and their own national interests, and they have actively played a mediating role in promoting peace and negotiations. The vast majority of Global South countries reject the provision of military assistance or the imposition of unilateral sanctions on belligerent nations, and do not subscribe to pan-securitization practices that unjustifiably define specific countries or enterprises as security threats. This new position on international security affairs has been summed up as “active non-alignment.” “Active non-alignment” here refers to a foreign policy approach in which the vast majority of Global South countries rationally focus on their own interests and refuse to take sides in conflicts between major powers. Some of the more economically powerful countries of the Global South are more willing to demonstrate international influence in the international security field, and manage their relations with the countries concerned independently and autonomously according to their own interests. The emergence of active non-alignment reflects the general disillusionment of the Global South with the so-called “liberal international order,” and calls for preserving the “rules-based order” seem only to serve the interests of major powers and not the global public interest. As the humanitarian crisis in Gaza worsened, Bolivia severed ties with Israel, Colombia and Chile recalled their ambassadors to Israel, and Time magazine wrote an article bemoaning the fact that the United States was violating the “rules-based international order” in Gaza and thereby losing the Global South. Under these security circumstances, the countries of the Global South have called for reforming the institutional arrangements of the post-war international security order, and in particular for the UN Security Council to be more representative and for limits to be placed on the powers of the permanent members.


  1. Pursuing development rights


Many countries of the Global South have long been constrained by their own resources and development capacity, and in international development cooperation they have long been subject to the financing conditions of donor countries and international organizations such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank. This has made it difficult for them to independently and autonomously formulate more rational development policies in line with their own national conditions. They urgently need more equal, autonomous, and win-win opportunities for international development cooperation. Cuba, Venezuela, Iran, and other countries of the Global South have long been subjected to financial and trade sanctions by the United States and other Western countries, and have almost lost the external conditions for obtaining development resources through the global financial and trade system. The “decoupling and chain-breaking” and “small yard, and high fence” strategies pushed by the United States in the field of science and technology have also seriously interfered with and restricted Global South countries’ access to and use of emerging S&T. At a time when the United States and the West increasingly view economic globalization in a negative light, the countries of the Global South continue to be a force that actively supports economic globalization.


In view of the above circumstances, the Havana Declaration adopted at the G77+China summit in September 2023 voiced serious concerns, noting that the major challenges posed to developing countries by the current inequitable international economic order have reached their highest level. It called for a comprehensive reform of the international financial architecture, adoption of a more inclusive and coordinated approach to global financial governance, and for placing greater emphasis on cooperation among countries, as well as enhancing the representation of developing countries in global decision-making. It also rejected the imposition of laws and regulations with extraterritorial impact and all other forms of coercive economic measures, including unilateral sanctions against developing countries, and reiterated the urgent need to eliminate such measures immediately. The Global South’s call for reform of the international financial architecture was also echoed by UN Secretary-General António Guterres, who called on the IMF and World Bank to carry out thorough reforms, including increasing the representation of developing countries on the executive boards of both institutions, advancing quota reform, and improving the use of funds.


Affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, the volatile international economic and security situation, and their own lack of S&T and innovation capacity, the countries of the Global South are lagging badly behind in their progress towards achieving sustainable development goals. They urgently need an international order that will enable developing countries to participate in creating the development opportunities brought about by the Fourth Industrial Revolution, and to make full use of them. A common aspiration of the Global South has been to achieve the development and modernization of their countries through new-type industrialization. The countries of the global South are no longer content to serve as suppliers of raw materials and markets for merchandise sales in the fourth industrial revolution, but wish to participate deeply in it through the use of science, technology, and innovation. The Havana Declaration recommends creating institutions that will help strengthen the ability of developing countries to acquire and develop science, technology, and innovation, opposes unfair practices such as technological monopolies that impede the technological development of developing countries, and calls on the international community to create an open, equitable, inclusive, and non-discriminatory environment for S&T development. It recognizes that the transfer of technology to developing countries is essential for scaling up and accelerating implementation of the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, and jointly commits to win-win cooperation for global development and S&T development. In addition, the Global South is highly concerned about the rapid expansion of artificial intelligence (AI) and its governance norms. It hopes to improve its own AI technology and AI application level and participate in the formulation of relevant global governance norms.


  1. Pursuing environmental justice


The Global South countries are emerging in an era that embraces climate and environmental justice. This makes it difficult for them to simply repeat the earlier modernization paths of developed capitalist countries. Guided by the constraints of the “dual carbon” [carbon peaking and carbon neutrality] goals and the value of pursuing green development, the countries of the Global South, which lack financial resources and technology, are calling for a transformation of the international order to meet the requirements of developing countries with regard to climate change issues. Despite the international community’s consensus on the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities, developed countries have failed to finally fulfill their commitment to provide U.S.$100 billion per year in climate financing to developing countries, to develop a clear and credible road map for doubling climate adaptation funds, and to change the business models of multilateral development banks and international financial institutions. In 2022, against the backdrop of extreme climate disasters in several countries of the Global South, the 27th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP27) reached a groundbreaking agreement to launch a “loss and damage” fund to assist less developed countries suffering from climate impacts.


The Global South’s new generation of politicians have generally taken green development as their governing philosophy, signaling that the countries of the Global South are becoming increasingly important stakeholders in global climate politics. For example, President William Ruto of Kenya, President Gustavo Petro of Colombia, and President Lula da Silva of Brazil all place special emphasis on supporting global green development cooperation, and the Global South is providing global leadership on climate issues. Given the critical role of S&T in helping developing countries address climate change, the Global South has called for international cooperation to break down the technical barriers to developing countries in addressing the challenges of climate change, emphasizing the roles of S&T and innovation. The Global South is also gradually enhancing its own capacity building and S&T support to address climate change through South-South cooperation. The China-Brazil Joint Laboratory for Space Weather, for example, is dedicated to researching scientific issues of the near-Earth environment of the two countries and developing early warning weather models.


  1. Pursuing openness and inclusiveness


The Global South is an informal term for a group of countries, and a high degree of tolerance for differences is a characteristic feature. In contrast to the populist political currents of the West in recent years, with their exclusivity and superiority, the Global South includes a large number of countries with different ideologies, social systems, religions, and customs, as well as different levels of economic development, and its view of the international order also shows respect and support for the world’s diversity. To a large extent, this respect for the world’s diversity stems from the confidence of the Global South countries in their own development achievements. The political awakening of the Global South is also reflected in its confidence and self-awareness regarding its own development models. Having witnessed the subprime mortgage crisis in the United States in 2008 and the riot at the U.S. Capitol in 2021, the countries of the Global South have strengthened their political consciousness when it comes to seeking development paths that are aligned with their own national conditions. They have also gained a deeper understanding of the diversity of the international order, in which the diversification of development models is a core feature.


The countries of the Global South have gradually broken away from the neoliberal development model based on the Washington Consensus and have become more aware of the need to learn from each other’s development experience and knowledge in the course of their international exchanges. For example, on the eve of her visit to China, Honduran President Xiomara Castro said that the reconstruction of Honduras needs new political, scientific, technological, commercial, and cultural perspectives, revealing her political will to obtain new ideas for development from China. Uruguay, Brazil, and China have gained international reputations for their respective renewable energy generation and inclusive social development programs, boosting the Global South’s international voice in the field of sustainable development. Unlike developed countries, which cling to a superior and closed mindset, countries of the Global South often view the development models and achievements of others with a mindset of learning and borrowing. Although the Global South group of countries is extremely diverse in terms of levels of development, political systems, cultures, and religions, it has three common attributes—the pursuit of political independence and autonomy, the pursuit of economic development and revitalization, and the pursuit of moral fairness and justice—and it places special emphasis on a sense of unity and self-strengthening.


The Global South is a global identity that is constantly under construction and evolving. Despite distinctive development paths, such as the Non-Aligned Movement, import substitution strategies, and neoliberal reforms, the countries of the global South have always attached importance to thinking about their development strategies at the level of the international order and global systems. Although the Global South’s exploration has a certain degree of criticality, it has always emphasized the importance of the two paths of South-South cooperation and North-South dialogue, reflecting its identification with and pursuit of the international order’s potential for openness and inclusiveness. For the vast number of countries of the Global South, the main flaw in today’s international order is that the concerns of developing countries have not received sufficient attention. The Global South’s identity construction is not for the purpose of “anti-Westernism.” Rather, it seeks a better coexistence with the West on the basis of safeguarding its own legitimate rights and interests.


Prospects for China’s relationship with the Global South


In the face of recent U.S.-Western speculation about the concept of the Global South and attempts to exclude China from it, China has made it clear to the international community that it is a natural member of the Global South. In his speech at the closing ceremony of the BRICS Business Forum 2023, President Xi Jinping noted 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. This has not only defined China’s identity as a country of the Global South, but has also shown China’s expectations for its role in the Global South.


China has done its utmost to work with other countries of the Global South to promote a more just and rational international order. In the 1950s, China supported the Spirit of Bandung, which became the basis for South-South cooperation and pioneered a new type of international relations. In 1991, at the preparatory meeting for the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, China and the Group of 77 for the first time jointly issued a position paper using the “G77+China” formulation, which has become an important mechanism for Global South activities. The SCO, the BRICS cooperation mechanism, and the “Belt and Road” initiative, all of which were launched with China’s participation, have further enriched the institutional channels through which the Global South participates in shaping the international order. It is precisely with China’s strong advocacy and support that the BRICS Cooperation Mechanism, after having admitted South Africa in 2011, has begun the process of expanding its membership again, and that the African Union has been able to join the G20. These developments not only reflect the consensus of the Global South on adhering to multilateralism and pushing for the reform and improvement of the global governance system, but also show the leading role China plays in the relevant processes.


In July 2023, China put forward a four-point proposal on strengthening cooperation among the countries of the Global South, that is, they should work together on eliminating conflict and building peace, restoring vitality and promoting development, being open and inclusive and seeking common progress, and achieving unity and cooperation. It also emphasized that China is willing to work with the numerous emerging market countries and developing countries to promote implementation of the Global Development Initiative, the Global Security Initiative, and the Global Civilization Initiative, and jointly build a community of common destiny for mankind. This proposal by China is highly compatible with the Global South’s view of the international order, and demonstrates the bright prospects for China to work hand in hand with the Global South. In order to better promote cooperation and development among the Global South countries, efforts are still needed in three areas. The first is continuously raising awareness of the importance of the Global South. The Global South is a constructive force that amid great changes supports economic globalization, maintains international peace, and implements the sustainable development agenda. Despite its underdevelopment, the Global South’s development achievements and potential are also very evident, and it has an important role to play in promoting the building of a community of common destiny for mankind. The second is strengthening the unity of the global South. In response to deliberate attempts by some countries and forces to divide and polarize the Global South, China should further unite developing countries, promote the continuous improvement and implementation of such mechanisms as the BRICS cooperation mechanism and “G77+China,” and enhance the solidarity of the Global South. The third is strengthening people’s emotional identification with the Global South. Through the practice of joint “Belt and Road” construction and the extension of regional and country-specific research results, people’s awareness of the Global South will gradually increase, making them fully realize that the rise of the Global South is conducive to promoting the development of the international order in a more just and rational direction. This will then consolidate the public opinion foundation for building a new type of international relations and South-South cooperation.


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牛海彬 (Niu Haibin). "The Global South Is an Important Driving Force in the Evolution of the International Order [“全球南方”是国际秩序演变的重要推动力量]". CSIS Interpret: China, original work published in Contemporary World [当代世界], November 26, 2023

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