Tang Bei: The Term “Global South” can Only be Defined by the Developing Countries Themselves

  • Tang Bei: Associate professor of International Relations and Director of the Center for Global Governance Studies at the School of International Relations and Public Affairs at Shanghai International Studies University, China Forum expert.

    Global South is a new "buzzword" in international political discourse, referring to developing countries that play an important role in today's world politics. The West has "rediscovered" the developing countries in the face of the Russia-Ukraine conflict and its geopolitical competition with China, trying to co-opt these countries to increase its own leverage. However, contrary to expectations, many of the developing countries have embraced a policy of "strategically not taking a stance" when dealing with Russia. They also have expanded relations with China based on their own assessment of what is at stake. It can be argued that the Global South has emerged as a distinct power in the global arena.

    On September 2nd , I took part in a panel discussion at the Global Townhall conference hosted by FPCI, Foreign Policy Community of Indonesia. It has focused on the role of the global South in the 21st century world order. A set of challenging questions have guided the discussion. The global South, for example, is dismayed by the current world order, but what kind of new world order would it build? What are the consequences of the recent enlargement of BRICS? And is the leading western countries’ courtship of the Global South yet too little too late?

    The discussion contends that various interpretations of "Global South" lead to various conclusions regarding the questions raised above. Nevertheless, all participants have touched upon one or more of the following interpretations.

    The first interpretation places the Global South within the framework of geopolitical competition and assesses its impact in light of certain country’s foreign policy views. A speaker from Ukraine, for example, considered the response to the war a test for the relevance of the Global South. He also tried to invoke a pro-Ukrainian stance by recalling the South's historical fight against colonialism. An Indian speaker, on the other hand, situated the Global South between the West and the so-called East world represented by China, believing that the rise of the Global South indicates a more assertive Indian development model and foreign policy. In addition, viewing from this perspective, many have noted the diversity within the Global South and argued that there was uncertainty in how the power configuration would involve in world politics.

    A second interpretation regarded the rise of the Global South as a wake-up call for the West. One speaker pointed out that, while the war in Ukraine was a major threat to regional security, Western diplomats needed to recognize that the Global South - or the developing world - had in fact tolerated a long period of insecurity, underdevelopment, and injustice. The faults of the existing global governance structure have become increasingly apparent in tackling global challenges such as climate change and pandemics. The current global financial architecture, in particular, is shortsighted and crisis-prone. The West must restructure the global system so that developing countries can have a share of voice. The increasing grievance is actually an opportunity for the West to engage in an open discussion with the South.

    The third understanding is similar to the second, but with a different emphasis on the emerging economies’ agency to shape the global landscape. The enlargement of BRICS is regarded as a watershed moment in the Global South's development, geo-politically as well as geo-economically. Argentina, Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Ethiopia will join the BRICS, and a new category of "partnership countries" will be added. The simultaneous inclusion of Saudi Arabia and Iran, in particular, indicates a solid common ground among developing countries on many issues. The Global South welcome the reality that a multi-polar world is taking shape, and they expect proactive reform attempts would bring the global multilateral system in line with the new patterns of power distribution.

    The fourth understanding tries to shift away from the state-centered discourse and bring the people, the global community, as well as sustainable development back to the center.  Governments compete for power but people all have wanted the same thing. Some speakers emphasized that the Global Townhall was a civil society gathering, and words like "power" and "multi-polar" were not about the people. Leaders should come together to address challenges to their safety and everyday livelihoods. The United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development includes 17 goals and 169 targets, but pandemics, war in Ukraine, inflation, debt, and the climate crisis are all impeding their achievement.

    In short, different people from different countries vary in their interpretations of “Global South” and sometimes debates turn out to be quite heated. This is not surprising given that people's perceptions are always tied to their own history, reality and specific life experiences. Indeed, disagreements highlight the relevance of the term in understanding today’s world politics as all sides can somehow find their grounds in it.

    Instead of searching for a unified understanding, it is more important to realize that, the meaning of Global South is not given but being shaped by the current practice of international relations. And, compared with before, developing countries are now in a better position to determine for themselves what the term really means.

    Mr. Wang Yi, China's Foreign Minister, delivered a video message at the meeting, clearly conveying China's views on the future global order and the Global South’s role in it. What China desires is a world of shared security, prosperity, and win-win collaboration. His four-point initiative - adhering to true multilateralism, building open regionalism, promoting good neighborhood policies, and pursuing a common, comprehensive, cooperative, and sustainable concept of security - has always been the appropriate way of handling international relations as China sees it. China, regarding the global South as a constructive force in the creation of such a new order, identifies itself as a member of the Global South and is prepared to take the lead in putting these principles into practice. When all is said and done, the definition of "Global South" can only be determined by the decisions made by the developing nations themselves.

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