Listening to the concerns of the Global South and crafting policies to respond to them is in Australia’s strategic interest, writes John McCarthy.
The so-called Global South does not feature much in Australian discourse. It should. It will impact on us.
The group has origins in the Non-Aligned Movement of the Cold War and in the Group of 77, a coalition of developing nations in the United Nations whose objective is to remedy global imbalances in wealth.
The Group is amorphous. Some members of the Global South – China and India for a start – are at loggerheads. Strategic affiliations vary. Some countries, such as Turkey or the Philippines, are allies of the United States. Iran is also a member. Some, like Saudi Arabia, are rich. Others, say Ethiopia, are poor.
Most members have in common a low level of economic development relative to the industrialised world. Depending partly on context, the latter is called the North or the West.
To its irritation, some refer to the Global South as the “Third World” or “the Rest”.
Its heterogeneity often precludes it from adopting uniform policies. However, its broad perspectives – both on what it wants and what is does not want – are clear enough.
It does not accept what it sees as the West’s view that its problems are the world’s problems, but the Global South’s problems are its own.
It wants to have a greater say in global affairs. It will not be taken for granted.
Three major global issues come to mind.
First, Ukraine. The Global South opposes Russian aggression and wants a ceasefire. It largely backed UN resolutions castigating the invasion. But some of its number, such as Vietnam and India, were not prepared to jeopardise links with Russia. Only a handful joined in sanctions against Russia.
Many believe that they are being asked to make economic sacrifices to protect western interests and that the war is about those interests as much as about the fate of Ukraine.
As suggested by the Australian Russia scholar, Dr Bobo Lo, in an essay last month, there is also a view in the Global South that the West is hypocritical in describing Russia’s invasion as a threat to the international order when Western interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan were portrayed as safeguarding that order.
In a recent speech, Dr Fiona Hill, a former Director for Europe and Russia in the American National Security Council, accurately described resistance within the Global South to western appeals for solidarity on Ukraine as “mutiny against what they see as the collective West dominating the international discourse and foisting its problems on everyone else, while brushing aside their priorities on climate change compensation, economic development and debt relief”.
Second is United States-China competition. Most major Australian foreign policy calculations in the last decade have derived from a perceived Chinese threat and the need for machinery – in which the American role is central – to meet that perceived threat. And not on much else.
Japan and India are also concerned about that perceived threat. However, most countries in the Global South – whether in our region, Latin America, or Africa – do not see China in the same way. Many dislike aspects of Chinese behaviour. However, these aspects are outweighed by the economic benefits of partnership.
China is the biggest trading partner with Africa, South America and most of ASEAN.
A recent Lowy Institute survey found that in terms of overall diplomatic, economic, defence and cultural influence in Southeast Asia, the balance favoured China over the United States by 54-46.
None of the Global South wishes to be caught in a struggle between the United States and China.
Third, Global South attitudes to the West hardened with the onset of COVID-19 both because of the impact of the disease on its people and its economic costs. COVID had a disproportionately heavy impact on poorer countries.
Most developing countries saw the disputes between Trump’s America and China and the frailty of Western vaccine distribution as central failures in the international response to the pandemic.
Indeed, an open letter this March, signed inter alia by former UN secretary general Ban-Ki Moon and former OECD chief Angel Gurria, claimed that unequal access to COVID-19 vaccines cost about 1.3 million lives over 2021 – one every 28 seconds.
North-South tensions are reportedly apparent in negotiations in the World Health Organisation on an accord on how to respond to future pandemics.
Accepting that China is in a category of its own, many in the West have become more conscious of Global South concerns.
They recognise that major Global South countries have developed strong international clout.
According to the World Bank, India, Brazil, Mexico and Indonesia are now in the top 15 economies in nominal terms and will shortly rank higher.
It is no accident that in his ground-breaking speech on 27 April, United States National Security Adviser, Jake Sullivan, emphasised that United States’ policies would take cognisance of the developmental concerns of the Global South.
As chair of the G7 summit in Hiroshima in May, Japanese Prime Kishida invited leaders from Indonesia, India, Brazil, Vietnam and Comoros (as African Union chair) and took up matters of concern to the Global South.
If Australia accepts that the Global South will become more powerful and that it will increasingly seek to shape a world order to match its interests, we must lift our game.
To illustrate, Australia’s official development assistance in 2021-22 was 0.20 percent of Gross National Income – well below the OECD average of 0.32 percent. Our diplomatic footprints in Africa and Latin America – pitifully small – have hardly changed in 50 years.
We boast of our global agency. But most of the region – and beyond – would see the central tenets of Australian foreign policy as the American alliance and constraining China. None would point to our regional relationships or our initiatives as a global actor.
Most of our neighbours are part of the Global South. An appreciation of – and policy response to – Global South concerns would redound to our strategic interest.
With the rise of the Global South, there also are global forces at work – beyond the West’s contest with China and Russia – which will increasingly shape our environment.
If we fail to understand these things and act accordingly, we will diminish our international authority and our interests will suffer.
John McCarthy AO is Senior Adviser at Asialink and former Australian Ambassador to the US and several Asian countries.