Japan, and the World, Cannot Ignore the 2 Giants of the ‘Global South’

Reuters file photo
India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi speaks with the media in New Delhi on Jan. 31.

A year has passed since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. As divisions involving the United States, Europe and Russia have deepened, the Asian nations of India and Indonesia are rapidly increasing their presence in the world.

The keyword that brings these two countries into focus is “Global South.” There is no clear definition, but it has been used frequently by government officials and the media in recent times. The term refers to emerging and developing countries located primarily in or near the southern hemisphere, such as those of Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Latin America. Importantly, the Global South maintains a neutral position, not taking the side of the United States and European nations in their support of Ukraine or opposition to Russia.

In January, India organized an international online conference called “Voice of the Global South Summit,” inviting more than 120 countries that are considered part of the Global South. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who is concerned about the many developing countries that have been hard hit by soaring food and energy prices, asserted, “Most of the global challenges have not been created by the Global South.” This was an indication of the Global South’s dissatisfaction with the impact on the global economy of Western nations’ sanctions against Russia.

India is chairing a summit of the Group of 20 major economies this year. At the G20 finance ministers and central bank governors meeting last month, India brought up the growing debt problems in Global South countries and emphasized its leading position within the group.

As the chair nation of last year’s G20 summit, Indonesia was in a difficult position due to the situation in Ukraine and the escalating conflict between the United States and China. However, it was able to put together a summit declaration in a form that was agreed upon by the participating countries, including Russia. It was impressive to see President Joko Widodo’s efforts at balancing diplomacy, including his contacts with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and Russian President Vladimir Putin. A diplomat from a Southeast Asian country praised the meeting, saying that Indonesia could represent the Global South and played an important role in trying to ease tensions among the United States, Europe, Russia and China.

India and Indonesia have historical similarities. Both experienced colonialism and gained their independence after World War II. In the Cold War that followed, neither joined the camp of the United States or the Soviet Union, instead maintaining a policy of non-alignment as members of the Third World. Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, advocated the Non-Aligned Movement. Indonesia and other nations in the Asian and African regions initiated the first Afro-Asian Conference in Bandung, Indonesia.

Is the current behavior of India and Indonesia a replay of the Third World during the Cold War? The answer is yes and no.

It seems certain that maintaining neutrality is an extension of the Non-Aligned Movement. However, India and Indonesia back then were far behind the two major powers, the United States and the Soviet Union. But now, India ranks fifth in the world in terms of gross domestic product, while Indonesia ranks 17th. India is expected to overtake China as the world’s most populous country by the end of this year, according to U.N. estimates. Indonesia also boasts the world’s largest Muslim population. With high expectations for economic growth, a huge market and an abundant working population, their influence on the world cannot be overestimated.

The United States and Europe, which want to deepen their ties with the Global South, will not be able to ignore the presence of these two countries. What is of concern is their relationship with Russia. India is expanding imports of crude oil from Russia, and Indonesia has not taken a clear stance to exclude Russia completely. Russia is becoming increasingly isolated in the world and must also view cooperation with the Global South as essential. The tug-of-war between democratic nations such as the United States and authoritarian countries such as Russia will continue, and there seems to be no prospect of being able to improve the situation in Ukraine.

How should Japan approach the Global South, including India and Indonesia? In his policy speech in January, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida emphasized, “In order for the entire international community to cooperate in tackling the various challenges facing us, the G7 will be united and get more involved with the Global South.” While it is important for Japan to align with the United States and Europe, it must also as an Asian country build close relations with the Global South, based on a different perspective from that of the United States and Europe. For example, Japan has some of the most extensive experience in the world with disasters and its response to the earthquake in Turkey, which caused widespread damage, should provide an opportunity for Japan to earn the trust of the Global South. A unique Japanese approach is vital.

Political Pulse appears every Saturday.

Norimasa Tahara

Tahara is the editor of the Sports Department of The Yomiuri Shimbun Osaka. He previously served as chief of the General Bureau of Asia.