Sanjaya Baru | The Big Powers and the Global South in 2023
If 2022 was all about Big Power conflict, 2023 should be used to turn global attention to issues that concern developing countries.
The year that is now coming to an end will long be remembered for the war in Ukraine, just as 2009 is remembered for the trans-Atlantic financial crisis and 2020 for the Covid-19 pandemic. There is a thread that runs through these three landmark years. They mark milestones in the shifting balance of power between the West and the East. If the 20th century witnessed the phenomenon of the ascendance of the United States, Pax Americana, it also witnessed decolonisation and what has been termed as the Rise of the Rest.
The most successful economies among the “Rest” were located in the East.
Thus, if 20th century geopolitics contributed to the dominance of the West, the geo-economics of the second half of that century ensured the rise of the East, first led by Japan and then by China. The United States and Europe reacted sharply to Japan’s post-war rise by imposing all manner of trade restrictions in the 1980s and ensuring that the voice of the “Japan That Can Say No”, as Shintaro Ishihara and Akio Morita wrote, remained subdued. But then, China filled that void and emerged as the dominant power of the East.
If the East-West conflict has defined much of the geopolitics and the geo-economics of the past century, the gradual rise of what have been called the “emerging markets” has added a new dimension to the shifting global balance of power. Two decades ago, the biggest democracies of Asia, Latin America and Africa came together to former the triumvirate called IBSA -- India, Brazil, South Africa. Add Indonesia, Southeast Asia’s and the Islamic world’s largest democracy to this group and the potential “IBISA” countries have the opportunity to successively lead the Group of Twenty between 2022 and 2025, offering the Global South an opportunity to voice their interests in this era of Big Power contestation.
The question for 2023 then is whether this IBISA -- at present comprising of governments headed by Narendra Modi, Lula da Silva, Joko Widodo and Cyril Ramaphosa -- can speak with one voice to advance the interests of the Global South.
India has already let it be known that it remains committed to its traditional role as a “Voice of the Global South”. The Narendra Modi government will have to spell out what it means when it makes this claim today. What are the issues that it would want India to focus on, as this year’s chair of G-20, to be able to claim that it speaks for the Global South?
Three issues immediately spring to one’s mind that should in fact offer a basis for an IBISA platform. First and foremost, climate change and the manner in which the developing economies of the Global South wish to see this challenge addressed.
Second, international trade and the threat posed by the growing protectionism within the developed industrial economies, especially the United States. Third, international migration and the challenge posed to it both by demographic shifts and climate change. There would other issues too.
In each of these areas some gains have been made but more needs to be done. Developed country funding commitment for climate finance will have to be enhanced and a more ambitious timetable drawn up. Global standards for protection of the rights of migrants -- both refugees and workers -- require much greater national commitment. The Global Compact for Migration is not legally binding on national governments. While considerations relating to national security and sovereignty remain important, these cannot be used to deny human rights, access to gainful employment and, above all, voice to such migrant populations. The Global South must demand that migration be recognised as a “natural phenomenon”, which is what it was through all time and till the 19th century.
Finally, international trade remains an area of concern with the reversal of globalisation and the proliferation of regional and plurilateral trade arrangements. This is a difficult terrain for countries of the Global South given their internal differences.
However, a coming together of IBISA demanding revival of multi-lateralism in trade would add weight to attempts to revive the World Trade Organisation.
These are all serious development challenges facing the developing world and India must secure global attention for them as the G-20 chair. This requires a meeting of minds within IBISA. Perhaps India can consider hosting an informal meeting of the four countries in order to arrive at some shared thinking. The Western media and think tanks, and their spokespersons in India, will immediately dub this as some sort of “trade unionism” of the developing countries.
This would be a ridiculous charge. If the developed industrial economies can persist with their G-7 group, a gathering of the world’s rich, why cannot the Global South create its own platform for voicing shared views on development-related issues?
Moreover, such an initiative would counter-balance the Big Powers and enable the South to shape the global agenda as well. Why should the developing world accept as fait accompli the power paradigm of Big Powers that remains trapped in the history of empires and imperialism?
Thus far, the Indian government has made a spectacle of the New Delhi G-20 summit by turning it into a tourism festival, with mid-level government functionaries from G-20 countries being garlanded, made to wear turbans and watch dancers welcome them to the dull and drab routine preparatory meetings held in fancy locations. The Narendra Modi government must take the opportunity provided by the G-20 summit more seriously and impart gravitas to the event by raising serious issues of concern for developing countries.
By forming IBISA, the four consecutive chairs of G-20 can shape global discourse both on geo-economic and geopolitical trends at a time when Big Power rivalry is creating hurdles to economic growth and development and hurting the interests of the world’s poor. If 2022 was all about Big Power conflict, 2023 should be used to turn global attention to issues that concern developing countries. India has an excellent opportunity to take the lead and define such an agenda for the year of its chairmanship of G-20.