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Can India challenge China for leadership of the 'Global South'?

With help from other developing nations, India persuaded the United States and Europe to soften a statement on the Russian invasion of Ukraine so the forum could focus on the concerns of poorer countries.
Last Updated : 14 September 2023, 02:20 IST

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For more than a decade, China has courted developing countries frustrated with the West. Beijing’s rise from poverty was a source of inspiration. And as it challenged the postwar order, especially with its global focus on development through trade, loans and infrastructure projects, it sent billions of much-needed dollars to poor nations.

But now, China is facing competition from another Asian giant in the contest to lead what has come to be called the “global south.” A newly confident India is presenting itself as a different kind of leader for developing countries — one that is big, important and better positioned than China in an increasingly polarized world to push the West to alter its ways.

Exhibit A: the unexpected consensus India managed at the Group of 20 summit in New Delhi over the weekend.

With help from other developing nations, India persuaded the United States and Europe to soften a statement on the Russian invasion of Ukraine so the forum could focus on the concerns of poorer countries, including global debt and climate financing. India also presided over the most tangible result so far of its intensifying campaign to champion the global south: the admission of the African Union to the G20, putting it on par with the European Union.

“There is a structural shift happening in the global order,” said Kishore Mahbubani, a former ambassador for Singapore and author of “Has China Won?” “The power of the West is declining, and the weight and power of the global south — the world outside the West — is increasing.”

Only one country can be a bridge between “the West and the rest,” Mahbubani added, “and that’s India.”

At a time when a new cold war of sorts between the United States and China seems to frame every global discussion, India’s pitch has clear appeal.

Neither the United States nor China is especially beloved among developing nations. The United States is criticized for focusing more on military might than economic assistance. The signature piece of China’s outreach — its Belt and Road infrastructure initiative — has fueled a backlash as Beijing has resisted renegotiating crushing debt that has left many countries facing the risk of default.

What a rising India under Prime Minister Narendra Modi is offering instead is less domineering and less tied to money or defense — effusively supportive rhetoric, an ear for shared grievances and a promise to diversify the institutions that shape global policy.

India still has a long way to go to be called a great power. Even by its own optimistic estimates, it will not become a developed nation for decades. Its diplomatic ranks remain smaller than those of nations a fraction of its size. And the current government’s Hindu nationalist agenda has contributed to an environment of persistent instability.

But with India’s economy growing rapidly and the West seeking allies to counter China, New Delhi finds itself in a consequential position. When China’s leader, Xi Jinping, decided to skip the G20 last week, some saw it as evidence that Beijing was no longer interested in shaping the global order so much as replacing it. With that, India had an opening.

At the summit, Modi embodied the role of bridge builder and friend. He held President Joe Biden’s hand as he welcomed him to the event. To make clear that India’s relations with the US are close and getting closer — a crucial condition for building the sway to help developing nations — Modi attended several meetings with Biden before the event and on its sidelines.

On the first day of the gathering, Modi announced the admission of the African Union with a bang of the gavel. He stood from his seat to give a long, strong hug to Azali Assoumani, the union’s chair and the president of Comoros.

These images of personal warmth offered a striking contrast with the usual distant stiffness of Xi. But New Delhi has been careful not to confront its powerful neighbor directly — Indian officials praised China’s support for the G20’s joint declaration.

Rather, India has focused on its own forms of influence. As its economy grows, it has expanded trade with Africa and Latin America and built on its connections, through a large, successful diaspora, to the Middle East and other regions.

What it lacks in resources it has tried to gain in goodwill by sharing what it has in times of need: from sending shipments of COVID-19 vaccines to offering to help other countries build national digital platforms to convening a wide range of voices as the president of the G20.

Early this year, India brought together the leaders of more than 100 developing and poorer nations for what it called the Voice of Global South Summit, a virtual event.

“Three-fourths of humanity lives in our countries. We should also have equivalent voice,” Modi told the leaders. “As the eight-decade-old model of global governance slowly changes, we should try to shape the emerging order.”

The gathering was billed as a brainstorming session. But there was a message for China, too — it was not invited, nor were other nations of the G20.

Beijing may not be especially concerned.

“China definitely regards India as a major rival, particularly in Asia due to New Delhi’s increasingly close ties with the US, but not in terms of global south leadership,” said Eric Olander, the editor of the website China Global South Project. “China is very confident that India can’t compete with Beijing in the key areas that matter most to developing countries, namely development finance, infrastructure and trade.”

That disparity was clear during the recent summit of the BRICS nations, which include Brazil, Russia and South Africa in addition to India and China. Even after Modi had spent a year promoting India as the voice of the global south, it was Xi who received the royal treatment.

In one video of a side meeting, the leaders, including Modi, all waited as Xi arrived to shake hands. They remained standing until after Xi had settled into a much larger seat than theirs — an entire sofa.

“Money talks,” said Ziyanda Stuurman, a senior analyst with the Eurasia Group’s Africa Team. “Whether it’s India or the US or Europe, if they are not able to match or be as serious as China with rolling out funding, China will still enjoy this place of leadership.”

Beijing does not intend to cede this position, and remains wary of New Delhi’s tilt toward the West as a means to contain China’s rise.

“The US-led Western countries want to use India to divide the global south and weaken China’s position among developing countries,” read a recent editorial in the Global Times, a mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party.

But after a year at the helm of the G20, India is relishing a moment of national momentum on the international stage while trying to maintain strong global south relations. Indian officials made clear that their success at the summit was shared with the other developing nations that rallied around India, especially Brazil, South Africa and Indonesia.

In a few months, Modi and his party face another election. On Sunday, after most world leaders had left, he strolled through the summit’s media center for a victory lap.

He did not take questions from the gaggle of reporters who were not allowed to leave the venue until he did. He simply smiled and waved for TV crews and for selfies with young cafeteria workers saying “Wow.”

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Published 14 September 2023, 02:20 IST

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