The ‘Global South’: China-led new world order or vacant slogan?
Trade is shifting to south-south, but that does not necessarily bring cultural solidarity or liberation
US president Joe Biden, Indian premier Narendra Modi and World Bank president Ajay Banga have all recently referenced it. China is particularly keen on the idea. As a concept, it has been floating around since the 1960s.
But what exactly is the ‘Global South’? As supply chains shift, is it the future of trade, linking commodity, energy and human resource-rich emerging nations such as China, Brazil and Nigeria. Is it a bulwark against or a potential substitute for the US-led world order.
Might it be an all-purpose remedy for “historical injustices”, as China suggested in September. Could it force intergovernmental organisations and multilaterals to accept real change: more seats for African states on the United Nations Security Council, say, or greater sharing of voting rights in the halls of the International Monetary Fund.
Can it make lives better for billions of people in the 130-odd countries that comprise the amorphous bloc? In short, is the ‘Global South’ real ― or just public relations fluff concocted by China’s policymakers for the purpose of burnishing Beijing’s image in the emerging world?
Experts are conflicted. “It’s somewhere in between,” says Taimur Baig, chief economist at Singapore’s DBS Bank. “You can’t possibly lump all these countries into one bubble. But there is room within it for countries to come together and discuss new ideas and opportunities.”
Others see a very real shifting of power and alignments. “It’s real, it’s happening, and it’s supported by trade flow data and investment data,” says Shuang Ding, chief economist for Greater China and North Asia at Standard Chartered.
“China’s share of trade with advanced economies is declining and its share of trade with the Global South… is rising. The point is to lift all boats. It reflects current geopolitical tensions and shifting supply chain changes. We are seeing a continuing increase in south-south trade and a decline in north-south and north-north trade.”
If some see a long term power shift from north to south, others see a push by China to redraw the world in its own image ― as it tried and mostly failed to do with the now largely forgotten Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) ― and to become a leader to low and middle income states weary of a US-led hegemony.
Richard Gowan, a UN director at the International Crisis Group in New York, has said this kind of new world order would comprise a new “coalition of states”, only this time led by China.
To others, until the ‘Global South’ takes a real shape and form, this is all just a tale full of sound and fury, signifying nothing ― or very little.
For Anne Stevenson-Yang, research director at New York-based J Capital Research, which studies Mainland-listed companies, China cares little about genuine reform. “Their leaders basically just want to do three things: grab energy and capital resources and be left alone.
“This is China saying: ‘Let’s shout ‘Global South’ a lot and hope Russia, Iran and Argentina listen. But is there any point to it? Not really. It isn’t even fluff as there isn’t any image being presented.”