How the West and Asian powers are vying for support from the global South

The Munich Security Conference underscored how the US, EU, China, India and Russia are competing to expand their area of influence among non-aligned nations

The EU's High Commissioner for Foreign Affairs speaking at the conference.
Andrea Rizzi

The world is making great strides towards a more multipolar and confrontational makeup. In this scenario, major players such as the United States, the European Union, China, Russia and India are in intense competition to reinforce their alliances with the large and heterogeneous group of countries dubbed the global south, or more generically, with the entire group of non-aligned states. The Munich Security Conference in Germany clearly evidenced this competition, which is taking place on multiple levels, from investment and trade to ideological narratives and identity issues.

The European Union’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Josep Borrell, underscored the matter in his speech at a forum that opened on Friday and was attended by about 40 heads of state and government as well as politicians and security experts from almost 100 countries. For the first time in two decades, Russian leaders were not invited.

“We cannot think about European security without looking at the global scene and engaging with other partners. I see how powerful the Russian narrative is, its accusations of double standards. We have to dismantle that narrative, cooperate with other countries, accept that the UN structure must be adapted,” said Borrell.

On the opening day of the conference, French President Emmanuel Macron declared himself “shocked by how much credibility we are losing in the global south.” He warned about the resentment that continues to exist towards Europe and the West in many countries, a feeling that has a lot to do with the anti-colonialist history in Africa and anti-imperialist history in Latin America. Each in their own way, Russia, China and India are playing with that historical perspective to strengthen their own positions.

While two major axes of tension are developing – between the US and China, and between the NATO bloc and Russia – the other countries of the world are refining their position, sometimes getting closer to one or another power. But many others have no intention of getting trapped in a logic of blocs, and are trying to make the most of the powers’ desire to broaden their list of partners and friends to count on.

Competition is fierce. The Russian invasion of Ukraine received a resounding condemnation in the UN General Assembly in March 2022 with 141 votes against, 35 abstentions and five in favor. And the G-20 approved conclusions last November that were quite unfavorable for the Kremlin. However, only about 40 countries are applying sanctions against Russia, and there are many that openly condemn the West for its role, either for past actions that spurred the conflict, or for considering that the West is fueling the war by supplying weapons, or that it has contributed to a global economic crisis by imposing harsh sanctions on Russia.

We expect Europe, the world, to take on the kind of climate justice that the energy transition implies
Francia Márquez, vice president of Colombia

China has for decades been cultivating ties through large investments that are not attached to any democratic demands. Russia maintains relations by providing security services or through ideological manipulation. Meanwhile, India is trying to establish itself as the great reference of that global south. In January, New Delhi hosted a virtual summit and invited 120 nations from the global south, although its major competitors were conspicuously absent from the guest list.

This effort by the great powers is projected throughout the planet, but it focuses with special intensity in key middle powers such as Brazil, the giant of Latin America; Indonesia, with its 280 million inhabitants and sustained economic growth; and Turkey, a key country in a turbulent region that also happens to be a member of NATO and has open communication channels with Russia.

In a conversation with this newspaper during the conference, Borrell elaborated further on the concepts he put forward in his public address. “It is clear that there is a group of countries that are non-aligned in the modern sense of the term,” he said. “Countries that, depending on the subject matter, might align with one or another ally. We Europeans have to better measure the impact of our policies on third countries; these policies may seem very good to us, very well-intentioned, we have to save the planet – but sometimes we do not sufficiently calibrate theit impact on third parties. Issues such as palm oil in Indonesia, the Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism [a tariff on carbon-intensive products], deforestation in Latin America or Southeast Asia. We have to do that, but we have to take these countries much more into account. Take much more into account their interests, points of view, concerns.”

The importance of the matter was underscored at the German conference, whose agenda gave a preferential spot to a panel on the global south whose speakers included the prime minister of Namibia, Saara Kuugongelwa-Amadhila, the vice president of Colombia, Francia Márquez, and the foreign ministers of Brazil and the Philippines, Mauro Luiz Iecker Vieira and Enrique Manalo. Various substantial issues emerged at this panel, including the strong expectation by countries in the South that the North, largely responsible for the emissions spurring climate change, will fully assume its responsibility, help the vulnerable deal with the consequences and share technological advances to help produce clean energy.

“What we hope for is global peace, total peace. And that also means social justice, closing gaps of inequality, iniquity,” said Márquez. “We expect Europe, the world, to take on the kind of climate justice that the energy transition implies. We need the world to take up the challenges of the environmental crisis. A new world order that puts life at the center.”

Lula: "Two do not fight if one does not want to"

Many of these countries disapprove of the war in Ukraine not only because of its consequences on Ukrainian citizens, but also because of its impact on global prices. Their leaders often take an impartial approach when it comes to sharing out the blame, as evidenced by some statements by the president of Brazil, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who condemned the Russian invasion but stressed that “two do not fight if one does not want to.” Lula is also on record has having said at other times that the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, was “just as responsible” as Russia’s Vladimir Putin for the conflict.

Many statements by Western leaders in Munich made a note of this attitude and called for a better effort to explain and persuade the rest of the world about the varying degrees of responsibility in this conflict. The Social Democrat Sanna Marin, Prime Minister of Finland, directly addressed Márquez’s pacifist positions, pointing out that while she also shares the rejection of war and the dream of a world without conflicts, the fact remains that in the world as in life there are aggressors, and that in the face of aggression, doing nothing or remaining impartial are both a form of complicity with the abuse.

Another major demand made by the global south and expressed by the Philippine minister Manalo is the reform of the United Nations and other international institutions to adapt them to the new geopolitical reality, which is very different from 1945, when the current global governance structure was defined.

In this regard, France’s Macron said that he wants to hold a conference in Paris in June to accelerate the reform of institutions like the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank, and to adapt the world order to make it more inclusive.

The race is on in multiple fields of competition to gain the support of a large number of countries that, while lacking a decisive economic or military weight of their own, have a growing presence on the global scene through their economic development and demographic growth.

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