China has been actively seeking the favour of developing countries who have grown disillusioned with the West for over a decade. The transformation of Beijing from poverty to prosperity served as a great source of inspiration for many of these countries. With its global focus on development through trade, loans, and infrastructure projects, the nation challenged the post-World War II world order. It provided billions of much-needed dollars to impoverished countries.
However, China is currently seeing competition from another prominent Asian nation in the race to lead the region commonly referred to as the Global South. Now brimming with confidence, India is emerging as a leader among developing nations.
It is asserting itself as a significant player, surpassing China's advantageous position to compel the Western world to reconsider its approach in an increasingly divided global landscape. Exhibit A: India achieved an unexpected consensus at the Group of 20 summit in New Delhi.
With assistance from other developing nations, India successfully convinced the US and Europe to revise a statement regarding the Russian invasion of Ukraine. This adjustment was made to shift the forum's attention towards addressing the issues poorer countries face, such as global debt and climate financing. India has achieved a significant milestone in its ongoing efforts to support the global south. It successfully ensured the African Union's inclusion in the G20, granting it equal status with the European Union.
"There is a structural shift happening in the global order. The power of the West is declining, and the weight and power of the Global South — the world outside the West — is increasing," a former ambassador for Singapore and author of 'Has China Won?' Kishore Mahbubani told the New York Times.
According to Mahbubani, India is the only country that can serve as a bridge between "the West and the rest."
India's proposal holds significant appeal in the current global landscape, where discussions often revolve around a new Cold War-like situation between the US and China.
Developing nations do not particularly hold a strong affection for either nation. The US has faced criticism for prioritising military strength over economic aid. China's flagship project, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), has sparked a backlash due to Beijing's refusal to renegotiate overwhelming debt. This situation has put many countries at risk of default.
India's offerings are less overbearing and not really tied to money or defence, at least not directly. Supportive rhetoric, a receptive ear for mutual grievances and a promise to open the doors of global policy shaping-organisations to more voices, is all India offers.
India has yet to make significant progress in becoming recognised as a great power. Even according to its own optimistic estimates, the country will take several decades to develop. The diplomatic ranks of this country are smaller compared to nations that are only a fraction of its size. The current government's Hindu nationalist agenda has played a role in creating a consistently unstable environment.
However, due to India's rapidly growing economy and the Western countries' desire to find allies to counter China, New Delhi is now in a significant and influential position. When China's leader, Xi Jinping, decided not to attend the G20 last week, some interpreted it as a sign that Beijing's focus had shifted from shaping the global order to potentially replacing it. With that, India found an opportunity.
During the summit, Modi portrayed himself as a bridge builder and a friend. During the inaugural day of the gathering, Modi made a significant announcement by officially admitting the African Union, symbolised by the sound of a gavel. He rose from his seat and embraced Azali Assoumani, the chairman of the union and the president of Comoros, in a long hug.
The images of personal warmth presented a noticeable contrast to the usual distance maintained by China's premier Xi. However, New Delhi has been cautious in avoiding confrontation with its influential neighbour. Indian officials have appreciated China's backing of the G20's joint declaration.
Instead, India has prioritised cultivating its own sources of influence. With the growth of its economy, this country has increased its trade with Africa and Latin America. Additionally, it has leveraged its strong connections to the Middle East and other regions through a thriving diaspora community.
Despite its limited resources, the country has tried to compensate by fostering goodwill. It has demonstrated this by sharing its available resources during times of crisis, such as sending shipments of Covid-19 vaccines. Additionally, the country has assisted other nations in constructing their own national digital platforms. Furthermore, the country has taken on the responsibility of presiding over the G20, effectively bringing together diverse perspectives and voices.
Earlier this year, India hosted the Voice of Global South Summit, a virtual event that brought together leaders from over 100 developing and poorer nations.
Three-fourths of the global population resides in our countries. "We should also ensure equal representation and voice," Modi expressed to the leaders. As the traditional global governance model undergoes gradual transformation, we must actively contribute to shaping the emerging order.
The meeting was dubbed a brainstorming session. But there was also a message for China: it was not invited, nor were the other G20 nations.
Beijing apparently is not that bothered.
"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," Eric Olander, the editor of the website China Global South Project, told The New York Times. According to him, China is highly confident that India cannot compete with Beijing in the crucial domains that hold the utmost significance for developing nations, specifically development finance, infrastructure, and trade.
The disparity was evident during the recent BRICS summit, bringing Brazil, Russia, South Africa, India, and China together. Despite Modi's year-long efforts to promote India as the representative of the global south, it was Xi who was given the royal treatment.
During a side meeting, the leaders, including Modi, patiently awaited Xi's arrival to exchange handshakes. They continued to stand until Xi had comfortably settled into a much more prominent seat than theirs, which happened to be an entire sofa.
Experts believe that money is what matters most. If countries like India, the US, or Europe cannot match China's level of seriousness and commitment in terms of funding, China will continue to maintain its leadership position.
Beijing has no intention of giving up its position and is cautious of New Delhi's inclination towards the West, which it sees as an attempt to limit China's growth.
A recent editorial in the Global Times, a mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party, stated that the Western countries led by the US aim to utilise India to divide the global south and undermine China's standing among developing nations.
However, as India completes a year leading the G20, the country is experiencing a sense of national momentum globally. At the same time, India is also focused on nurturing and strengthening its relationships with other countries in the global south.
Indian officials emphasised that their success at the summit was a collective achievement, which they attributed to the support and collaboration of other developing nations, notably Brazil, South Africa, and Indonesia.