The Global South is beginning to flex its political muscles … but who will lead?
One of the defining features of the 2023 UN Climate Change Conference, COP28, which concludes in Dubai in another two days, has been the fast-growing influence of the so-called Global South. This is reflected in the issues being discussed and the deals being made, including a landmark “loss and damage” agreement on the opening day of the summit.
While the concept of a Global South dates back to the 1960s, usage of the term has significantly increased in recent years, including after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and now during the conflict in Gaza between Israel and Hamas.
There has been much discussion about the perception within many nations in the Global South of a double standard in the West’s moral clamor in protest against the actions of Moscow, while declaring strong support for Israel’s military offensive following the Hamas terrorist attacks in October, despite the thousands of casualties among innocent Palestinians.
The salience of the Global South identity, which some have compared to the rise of the Non-Aligned Movement during the Cold War, has grown while, in comparison, other more economically-defined terms to describe this bloc of nations, such as “emerging markets,” appear to have declined in usage.
The concept of the Global South is a more politically loaded term, often defined by the perceived unfair nature of the existing global order and the continued preponderance of the West or Global North.
Outside of international climate summits, in recent times the growing power of the Global South has also manifested itself in much wider global debates. These include the issue of the war in Ukraine, where much of the Global South does not perceive the conflict in the same stark moral terms as the West, and therefore remains unaligned with either side in public.
Such nonalignment holds significant appeal for many countries in Africa, Asia, the Middle East and Latin America, not least because a large number depend heavily on trade, aid, investment and/or weapon supplies both from Western powers and from China, if not also Russia.
Another dynamic that highlights the politically charged nature of the Global South is the growing rivalry for leadership of the bloc. This includes moves by China, India (the current chair of the G20) and Brazil (the recent chair of Mercosur, or the Southern Common Market, a four-member Latin American bloc that also includes Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay).
It is in this hugely dynamic context that moves are afoot to bring a greater organizational identity to the Global South. Certainly, there are existing long-established forums such as the G77, which was founded during the 1964 UN Conference on Trade to promote a more equitable world order in the face of the massive economic inequalities that continue to cause increased global concern.
However, it is widely considered that the G77 has been surpassed by BRICS as the premier forum for the Global South. The growing prestige of the BRICS alliance — which currently comprises Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa — was evident during its most recent annual summit, in August, when it revealed that it had received more than 20 formal requests from other Global South nations to join the group, and more than 20 informal ones.
Brazil will take over the chair of the G20 from India in January, and Lula wants to project his nation’s return to the international stage.
This led the five-nation bloc to immediately invite six countries, carefully chosen geographically and politically, to join: Saudi Arabia, Argentina, Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran and the UAE. These six nations will significantly increase the bloc’s clout, collectively, accounting for about 30 percent of the global gross domestic product plus more than 40 percent of global oil production.
Despite this economic strength, BRICS nations have tried to emphasize in recent years their political cooperation, leading some in the West to worry about the group becoming an anti-Western club, not least because China and Russia (and soon Iran) are among the members.
In fact, there are significant tensions within the group. Take India and China, which have longstanding disagreements over border issues, for example. India is also a member of the Quad group of powers, along with the US, Japan and Australia, which is viewed as being anti-China. More recently, New Delhi and Beijing disagreed about the conflict in Gaza, with the former adopting a much more pro-Israel view than the latter.
Given its huge economy, China under President Xi Jinping sees itself as the natural leader of the Global South in general, and BRICS in particular. Unsurprisingly, it therefore favors a rapid expansion of the bloc in an attempt to create a Beijing-friendly club. However, India and Brazil also have burgeoning leadership credentials in the South, despite their more cautious approach to BRICS expansion compared with China.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi — whose Bharatiya Janata Party, polls suggest, is expected to win a third term of office at the Indian general election next year — has leveraged his position as current chair of the G20 to showcase India’s global leadership. Part of the reason why New Delhi believes it has such a strong claim to leadership of the Global South is that many demographers believe the country might now have the world’s largest population, having surpassed China this year.
Modi said during the 2023 G20 summit that his country is “becoming the voice of the Global South.” In January, he even hosted a virtual “Voice of the Global South Summit” that included 125 countries — but not regional rivals China and Pakistan.
Brazil’s aspirations for leadership of the Global South have come during Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva’s second term as president. His country will take over the chair of the G20 from India in January, and Lula wants to use this powerful platform to further project his nation’s return to the international stage after years of self-inflicted international isolation.
All of this together highlights the many ways in which politics is at the fore of the increased use of the Global South label. As the tectonic plates of international relations shift further, in an increasingly multipolar competitive landscape, this trend might well continue apace in the second half of the 2020s.
- Andrew Hammond is an associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics.