It is Time for the Global South

Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India welcoming African Union as a G20 member. Credit: Ken Kobayashi.


The Global South, an international relations concept that appeared for the first time around the 1960s, replaced the Cold War framework that dichotomized the world into the first, second and third worlds.

However, the Global South is not fully comprehended as a geographical construct but a concept that combines geography, geopolitics, shared history (former colonies) and economic state (developing countries).

While “Indo-Pacific” continues to reign supreme as the primary discourse of international architecture in this part of the world, the Global South has been gaining traction and momentum lately. Why is that?

First of all, this article does not argue that the Indo-Pacific concept is losing its relevance, but that prominent countries in the region such as Indonesia, India, China and Japan are increasingly more interested in the concept of the Global South. China, in particular, sees the Indo-Pacific concept as a Western concept that contradicts its own views of the world.

The discourse on Global South has been gaining momentum since last year and seemingly will continue to do so for the next two years at least. This all started when Indonesia and Japan became the chairs of the G20 and G7 respectively, whereby both voiced out agendas relating to the Global South, such as debt issues and financing for infrastructure projects.

India amplified this momentum when it became the G20 chair this year and pushed for the inclusion of the African Union as a permanent member, which is seen as a manifestation of India’s advocacy for the Global South.

This momentum will continue on for the next two years as both South Africa and Brazil will succeed as future chairs of the G20 consecutively. They are expected to place the agenda of the global south at the forefront.

Furthermore, South Africa, as the chair of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa (BRICS) grouping, also brought the Global South agenda to the summit. The expansion of the group – that now includes such countries as Argentina, Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates – has also accorded the Global South “image” to the grouping.

The Global South is an old concept but still relevant and effective in mobilizing sympathy and solidarity. The US-China tension, like it or not, conjures the image of a Cold War between two superpowers. Though totally different and incomparable, the consequences of the power politics between the United States and China still reverberate around the globe, including in the Global South.

Hence, when a Global South country stands up and takes a different approach from the paradigm of the bipolar system, others would sympathize as well and follow suit. Indonesia demonstrated this when it invited Rwanda, Fiji, Senegal and Suriname to the G20 summit last year (their first ever participation), seeming as an act to strengthen the solidarity of the Global South. India echoed this when it took the initiative to convene the Voice of the Global South Summit, in which many countries participated.

Competition for the Global South Leadership

There seems to be competition between India and China for the leadership of the Global South. Both Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Xi Jinping have claimed that they represent the voice of the Global South on many international occasions, such as the Voice of the Global South Summit for Modi and the Belt and Road Forum for Xi.

Despite this, perhaps it is better to leave the Global South without a definitive leader. The Global South is unlike a regional grouping with a dominant player, such as Southeast Asia with Indonesia or Sub-Saharan Africa with Kenya.

Furthermore, the different levels of economic development among Global South countries means they have different interest that cannot be streamlined. Therefore, it is only natural that no one country is more dominant over the rest in the Global South. Collective leadership, equality and co-existence should therefore be the characteristics of the Global South.

Even if such is the case, what can bind these countries together?

The Bandung Spirit, which constitutes the Ten Bandung Principles (Dasasila Bandung) of peaceful co-existence, is still relevant and was unanimously adopted by all developing countries, even China and India. During his tour to several African countries and attendance at the recent BRICS summit, President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo highlighted the Bandung Spirit as the founding principle of Global South cooperation.

The Absence of an Effective Framework

The Global South is lacking an effective institution or framework that can promote its agenda of South-South cooperation. The existing mechanism that has this function is the G77, yet this is not effective enough pushing the Global South agenda at the global stage.

India has made its own attempt with the virtual Global South Summit, but the impact is yet to be seen. BRICS+ is seen as a geopolitical rebalancing to the G7 rather than a global south institution.

The Indo-Pacific, in comparison, requires ASEAN to be in the driver seat as this regional grouping has the buy-in from all powers, big and small, who have a stake in the Indo-Pacific region. Hence, ASEAN can exercise its strategic autonomy to promote the Indo-Pacific agenda through its own mechanisms and fora.

So, what is the most feasible solution? Strengthening coordination between existing regional groups in the Global South – such as ASEAN, African Union, the Pacific Forum and Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) would be the most feasible approach. Furthermore, it is necessary for major economies that have chaired international fora such as Indonesia, China, India, Japan, South Africa and Brazil to coordinate the agenda in their respective forum to ensure the continuity and consistency of Global South aspirations.

The Indo-Pacific Must be Driven by the Global South Agenda

Most Indo-Pacific countries classify as Global South countries as well simply by looking at their level of economic development. Thus, the Indo-Pacific agenda must serve the interest of developing countries. The agendas at the recent G20 Bali Summit, the G20 New Delhi Summit, ASEAN Jakarta Summit, Voice of the Global South Summit and the Belt and Road Forum focused on developments, financing, green economy, energy transition, blue economy, connectivity, infrastructure and technology, without any mentioning about military cooperation. Both India and China aspire to champion and emerge as the leader of Global South. Therefore, both should ensure that the benefits yielded from regional-level cooperation – be it at the ASEAN, Indo-Pacific or Asia-Pacific levels – can also be felt by the rest of the Global South. Jokowi emphasized this at the recent Belt and Road Forum, where he stressed that the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) must be a just and inclusive project for all.   

All in all, the momentum of the Global South must not be missed and should be utilized to foster a South-South cooperation. Countries thus should turn towards their fellow Global South members as potential partners for development instead of solely relying on developed, often Western countries.

The views expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of STRAT.O.SPHERE CONSULTING PTE LTD.

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  • Calvin Khoe is Director of Research and Analysis, FPCI, Foreign Policy Community of Indonesia (FPCI). FPCI is an independent international relations organization and a think tank based in Jakarta. Calvin focuses on Indonesian Foreign policy, ASEAN, ASEAN-China, and Geopolitics of Indo-Pacific. He has also been the program coordinator and analyst of ASEAN-China Survey since 2020.