The Global South and the need for economic growth

Heads of state and senior diplomats of ASEAN countries and Japan pose for a family photo in Jakarta on Sept. 6, 2023, during the start of the ASEAN-Japan Summit as part of the 43rd ASEAN Summit. (AFP/Willy Kurniawan/Pool)

THE term “Global South” is difficult to define, as it encompasses a diverse range of countries, each with its own unique foreign-policy objectives as well as domestic and external challenges.

One common feature across Global South nations is, however, the presence of economic disparities and under-development, which have had a profound influence on such states’ foreign policy decision-making processes.

Therefore, I would argue, that “development” has been, and must be understood as, the main foreign policy objective across the Global South.

One persistent objective in the foreign policies of the Global South is that these nations seek to secure their rights for development.

This is evidenced by the increasing emphasis on South-South cooperation and the formation of regional blocs and organisations aimed at promoting collective development interests and amplifying the voices of the Global South in global decision-making processes that particularly relate to development issues.

The foreign relations and domestic economic development of the Global South are often affected by its regional environment. Many nations in the Global South have historically formed regional organisations to address common challenges and advance mutual interests.

Asean is a prime example. Born out of regional conflicts, Asean has thus far been able to create a region that is politically stable, maintains relative strategic autonomy from external powers and has allowed member states to grow economically.

The South-East Asian region has been an example of a region with consistent robust economic growth over the past three decades or so.

Half the world’s trade

According to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, the share of global trade among developing countries in the Global South has steadily increased. In 2020, it was estimated that around 55% of the total trade of the Global South was conducted within the region, highlighting the growing significance of South-South cooperation in international trade.

In navigating the new world order, the Global South naturally brings a unique perspective that prioritises inclusive development, shared prosperity and multilateral cooperation (Jordaan, 2001).

Through their leadership roles and active participation in international forums, countries like Indonesia, Brazil, South Africa and Turkiye have consistently pushed for inclusive development and shared prosperity.

The Global South’s economic growth has created new opportunities for cooperation and development. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) said that from 1999 to 2019, the Global South’s gross domestic product grew by about 4.8% a year. This is faster than in many developed countries. This growth has been driven by trade, investments in infrastructure and technology.

Demographic trends in the Global South have also been transformative, with a growing population and a growing middle class. According to the Brookings Institution (Kharas, 2010), by 2030, more than 80% of the world’s middle class will live in Asia and Africa. This will change how the world consumes and influences the economy.

As economic growth, demographic trends and an expanding middle class continue to shape the Global South, its influence in international affairs may also be strengthened, to pave the way for a more diversified, inclusive and dynamic multi-polar world order with economic development at the centre of the collective interest.

As the Global South’s economy continues to expand, its partnerships with emerging powers (mostly of the Global South as well) have become increasingly crucial.

One of the key examples of the partnership is so-called South-South cooperation and development assistance. Countries in the Global South have increasingly engaged in collaborative efforts with emerging powers within their own region, such as China, India, Brazil, Indonesia and South Africa.

One of the key examples of the partnership is so-called South-South cooperation and development assistance. Countries in the Global South have increasingly engaged in collaborative efforts with emerging powers within their own region, such as China, India, Brazil, Indonesia and South Africa.

Partnerships between the Global South and its emerging powers have also manifested in the form of infrastructure and investment projects. Emerging powers have been actively involved in funding and supporting infrastructure development initiatives in the Global South, including the construction of transportation networks, energy facilities and telecommunications systems that enable them to spur growth.

Lastly, it has to be noted that countries in the Global South have shown resilience in times of crisis, indicating the increasing strength and capacity of their institutions.

According to the IMF’s forecast, as the world gradually emerges from the disruptions caused by the pandemic, several regions within the Global South, particularly the Middle East and Central Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America, are about to experience robust economic growth between 2023 and 2028. South-East Asia has also experienced consistently robust economic growth even during the years of the pandemic.

Many countries in the Middle East and Central Asia are accelerating their economic diversification away from oil dependency.

Nations like the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia have invested heavily in technology and tourism, enhancing their non-oil economic sectors. Digital transformation initiatives across the region, including significant investments in smart-city projects and digital services, are expected to spur economic growth further.

Maintaining autonomy

But big problems remain. The Global South must deal with the effects of the pandemic, such as supply chain disruptions, new pandemics, climate change and economic and strategic uncertainty due to geopolitical and economic tension.

Indonesia and some emerging powers in the Global South are in a very unique position to navigate such strategic uncertainty. They, first and foremost, should provide a narrative that emphasises the importance of maintaining strategic autonomy against major powers, either from the North or South.

Such a narrative needs to consistently highlight that the main strategic interest of the Global South, economic development and the right to development, should not be defined by great-power politics, including the rivalry between the United States and China.

The great powers should treat the Global South nations according to their own (economic) rights, not because of the former’s need to balance, or exclude, their strategic opponents. For Indonesia, there is a practical platform that can be used.

The year 2025 marks the 70th anniversary of the Asia-Africa Conference. The commemoration next year, rather than just a ceremonial extravaganza with the usual spectacular show for the public, can be transformed into a strategic meeting of leaders of Asian and African countries to discuss in particular their economic development and cooperation. The sense of solidarity and the fact that the Global South has one shared goal for economic prosperity shall be recalled.

It may sound a bit cliche, but such solidarity was actually on display during the pandemic, when many countries in the Global South worked hard to ensure that their populations had access to vaccines. Second, the Global South certainly cannot escape from the US-China geopolitical and geo-economic rivalries.

One way to navigate the rivalry is by strengthening the regional organisations.

Asean has been showing a remarkable ability, with Indonesia being the largest nation in it, in fending off the consequences of great-power competition, in which the competitors often tried to use the region as their proxy theater.

That was the success story of Asean from the 1970s to 1990s, during the US-Soviet Union Cold War. What is needed by Asean to maintain the region’s strategic autonomy is once again leadership with a clear longer-term economic and development vision for the region.

Asean experience

The experience of Asean in creatively engaging the major powers from outside the of region might be shared with other regional organisations in the Global South.

We are living in an era with great strategic uncertainties. The United States remains a dominant power militarily and is still the superpower, but it seems to have forgotten how to act like one, given its domestic political problems. China is poised to be the next superpower.

However, a superpower is measured by its ability to provide solutions to international crises, and we have yet to see how China could provide one in the many crises facing the world today.

Both the United States and China at times become part of international problems rather than solutions, as in the cases of Ukraine, Gaza and the South China Sea.

So, it is fair to say that we in the Global South are on our own. The narrative for the Global South’s shared vision for our own economic needs and strong regional organisations in the Global South must be consistently advocated. — The Jakarta Post/ANN

Philips Vermonte is a senior fellow at the Jakarta-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies and the dean of the School of Social Sciences at Indonesia International Islamic University in Depok, West Java. The views expressed here are the writer’s own.

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