India's Global South Diplomacy and Japan

Toru Ito

The "Global South" Discourse in India

"Our G20 priorities will be shaped in consultation with not just our G20 partners, but also our fellow-travellers in the Global South, whose voice often goes unheard."—Narendra Modi1

On December 1, 2022, when India officially took over the G20 presidency from Indonesia, Indian Prime Minister Modi contributed an article to leading domestic and international newspapers, expressing his intention to reflect the voice of the "Global South" in the agenda of the G20 Summit he was to host.

The term "Global South," now widely used as a generic concept referring to developing and emerging countries, was much in vogue in the Indian academe at least a decade ago. The International Studies Association (ISA), founded in 2012 by Indian scholars of international politics, chose as the main theme for its 2013 conference "Re-Imagining Global Orders: Perspectives from the South." The present author, who had attended the 2012 inaugural conference, received the 2013 convention concept note via e-mail, in which the importance of perspectives from the "Global South" was repeatedly emphasized.2 The ISA subsequently announced the establishment of a "Global South Task Force" in 2017 and conducted an awareness survey for researchers at home and abroad. These trends seem to have been generated mainly by young scholars critical of Western-centered international relations (IR) theories and old-time left-wing scholars.

However, it is only recently that the term "Global South" has been added to India's diplomatic vocabulary, which was occasioned by the country's G20 presidency in December 2022. On December 1, 2022, when Prime Minister Modi made the contribution cited above, India's External Affairs Minister Jaishankar stated at the G20 summit kick-off event as follows: "Our intention is to be very much a champion of Global South. The majority of guests that are brought are actually from the Global South."3

Since then, "Global South" has been frequently employed by Indian diplomats. On January 12-13, 2023, the Indian government hosted an online meeting entitled "The Voice of the Global South Summit 2023." True to his declaration cited above, Prime Minister Modi called for the participation of emerging and developing countries outside the G20; the number of participant countries for the meeting totalled 125.

During the opening session of the first day of the meeting, Prime Minister Modi stated that countries in the Global South should have a voice commensurate with their population and that "most of the global challenges," including the war in Ukraine, "have not been created by the Global South. But they affect us more." Thus, he expressed his strong dissatisfaction with the Western industrialized countries. He also articulated India's willingness, as the G20 chair, to amplify the voice of the Global South, to secure the fruits of development, and to attempt to redesign global political and financial governance. "As far as India is concerned, your Voice is India's Voice. Your Priorities are India's Priorities," continued Prime Minister Modi, thereby declaring India to serve as the mouthpiece of the Global South.4

External Affairs Minister Jaishankar further elaborated on the significance of India's leading the Global South. He first pointed out that the Global South countries "shoulder the burdens of a colonial past" and "face the inequities of the current world order." He noted many Global South countries are suffering from "unsustainable debt" and "unviable projects" (obviously with China in mind) and facing "trade barriers (set by developed countries), contracting financial flows, and climate pressure." In particular, he argued that the international community has failed to adequately deal with the Ukraine war, even though the Global South countries are suffering from its "knock-on effects"—"the costs and availability of fuel, food and fertilizers." He expressed the Indian government's willingness to actively discuss these issues. In the end, the Indian foreign minister justified his country's neutrality following Russia's invasion of Ukraine, stating, "From decolonization movements to resisting alignment in the face of a deeply polarized world, the Global South has always shown the middle path."5

Although the event was called a summit, a summit-level meeting in the real sense of the word took place only at the beginning and end; the other eight sessions were not more than foreign and other ministerial meetings, with partial participation by countries other than India.6 No written agreement was worked out; the meeting was designed for India to show its listening to the "voice of the Global South." Nevertheless, India has undoubtedly come to utilize the "Global South" discourse following its taking over the G20 presidency.

India maintained this fundamental line of its Global South diplomacy at the G7 Hiroshima Summit in May 2023, to which India was invited. Prime Minister Modi stressed the importance of food and fertilizer issues in "Working Session 6: Working Together to Address Multiple Crises," calling for priority to "the hopes and expectations of the Global South."7 Meanwhile, at "Working Session 9: Toward a Peaceful, Stable and Prosperous World," where the war in Ukraine was the main topic, Modi also emphasized that the war faced developing countries with "the maximum and most profound impact of the food, fuel, and fertilizer crisis." On the previous day of the session, he had a separate meeting with Ukrainian President Zelensky.8

On the other hand, as the split between China/Russia and the West over the Ukraine war deepened, none of the ministerial meetings held in India from February 2023 produced a joint statement. Consequently, there were concerns that the G20 summit would not result in a document for the first time in history. However, a surprising announcement came on September 9, or the first day of the summit, when Prime Minister Modi revealed that a summit declaration had been agreed upon. With no prospect of concessions from Russia or China, India, along with other emerging countries, came up with a draft declaration that included no mention of Russia, let alone its condemnation, and had it accepted by the West as it was.9 More remarkable than the absence of condemnation of Russia was the insertion of the language prepared by India that focused on the economic impact of the Ukraine war. Although the term "Global South," which the West is reluctant to embrace, was avoided, the plight of developing countries and the need for assistance were noted throughout the summit declaration.10

What the Modi Administration Intends

Why has India begun to develop a foreign policy that depends so heavily on the "Global South"? Solidarity with developing countries or the Third World is reminiscent of the non-aligned diplomacy adopted by the Indian National Congress governments since the time of India's first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. On the other hand, the Modi administration seems to have parted from such Nehruism by, among other measures, strengthening the Quad framework with Japan, the United States, and Australia. The term "non-alignment" has not been mentioned at all since the Modi administration took office. Prime Minister Modi is also indifferent to the Non-Aligned Movement. He was absent from two consecutive summits of the Non-Aligned Movement in 2016 and 2019, which previous Indian prime ministers attended.

India's gross domestic product (GDP) surpassed that of its former sovereign state, the United Kingdom, to become the world's fifth-largest economy in 2022. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) predicts that India will surpass Japan to become the world's third-largest economy in 2027, after the United States and China. In his 2022 Independence Day speech, Prime Minister Modi declared that India would join the club of developed countries by 2047, or the 100th anniversary of its independence.11 It is clear that India today aspires to become a "world power."12 Why, then, is India now calling for solidarity with developing countries?

Somewhat atavistic use of "Global South" discourse by the Modi administration, staffed by non-INC people who belong to post-independence generations, meets little objection at home. Given the current international situation and India's position, the administration's Global South policy is considered a rational response for the following three reasons.

First, the Modi administration's Global South policy is a reaction to the criticism of India spreading in the West. The United States and other Western countries openly voiced their dissatisfaction with India's refusal at the United Nations, Quad, or bilateral arenas to condemn Russia for its invasion of Ukraine and to join economic sanctions against the country. In particular, many Western countries distrust India's "explosive purchases" of Russian crude oil and fertilizers at discounted prices.13 Compelled to justify its position and actions, India turned to positioning itself in the "Global South."

What matters for developing countries is not the Russian aggression as such but rather the energy and food crises caused by the prolonged war. This situation enables India to use the logic that the country is helping poor people in other developing countries by procuring crude oil and fertilizer from Russia to stabilize the prices of these goods not only at home but also in those countries.

Second, India's Global South policy aims at countering China's expanding influence. China's economic, political, and military impacts have recently been growing in India's "direct neighborhood" such as South Asia and Myanmar, which India has long considered to be under its influence, as well as in its "extended neighborhood" including the Indian Ocean coastal areas. The reality is that almost all of these neighbors, except Bhutan, have joined Xi Jinping's "One Belt, One Road" initiative.14 To counter China's move, the Modi administration, since its inauguration in 2014, has attempted to conduct aggressive summit diplomacy under the "Neighborhood First Policy" and to adopt friendly policies of, among other steps, swiftly providing its neighbors with free vaccines in the wake of the COVID-19 breakout. Still, it is not easy for India to restore its influence, as exemplified by the cancellation of the Japan-India development project of the Colombo East Terminal in Sri Lanka to be replaced by a Chinese company. To further increase its influence, China is utilizing the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and the expanded BRICS. Amid such adversity, India may have calculated to use the "Global South" discourse as a new diplomatic tool to counter China's influence. It should be noted, in this connection, that the Modi administration unilaterally downscaled the 2023 SCO summit, which India chaired, to an online conference. Reportedly, China expressed its displeasure with the action of India, which some believe accounts for President Xi Jinping's absence from the G20 summit.15

Third, India's Global South policy serves as a strategy for India, the G20 chair, to make the G20 Summit a "success." As mentioned earlier, there were fears that the G20 might become dysfunctional due to the confrontation between the West and China/Russia over accusations against Russia and support for Ukraine. Meanwhile, the Modi administration has been playing up its hosting of the G20 as a great achievement, with the general elections scheduled for the spring of 2024 in view. From the end of 2022, India was awash with huge billboards and posters of the G20 Summit in towns and villages from Ladakh and Kashmir to the State of Tamil Nadu. Although India had hosted the Non-Aligned Movement Summit in the past, the G20 Summit was the first international conference in India attended by representatives from developed, emerging, and developing countries. Publicity efforts were made to make citizens believe that Prime Minister Modi enabled the prestigious conference in India. Therefore, the Modi administration could not commit the blunder of failing to produce an outcome document until the last minute. They considered emphasizing the "Global South" to be strategically effective, for it is a value-neutral concept, and both the West and China and Russia want to draw into their camp these emerging and developing "Global South" countries with growing potential. It is natural for India to calculate that focusing on problems the "Global South" countries are facing would make it easier to forge a consensus with less opposition from the West, China, or Russia.

Thus, emphasizing the "Global South" is a rational foreign policy for India to gain practical interests under the current circumstances. It should be noted, however, that the "Global South" is a convenient concept. The Modi administration, which does not conceal its being great power-oriented, does not emphasize the "Global South" to the Indian people.16 India unlikely considers itself a "member of the Global South." When Prime Minister Modi addressed the leaders of developing countries at the "Voice of the Global South Summit," he pronounced, "We, the Global South." Yet, his honest recognition seems to be "They, Global South,"17 which was stated by Indian Ambassador to Japan Sibi George. From beginning to end, India is not a member of the "Global South" countries but regards itself as their "leader" or "champion." Otherwise, India's slogans like "the third largest economy" or "joining the club of developed countries" would be contradictory if it did not hold this belief.

Japan Echoes India's Global South Diplomacy

It is noteworthy that the Kishida administration has begun to stress cooperation with the "Global South," as if in response to India's "Global South" foreign policy. During his trip to the United States in January 2023, Prime Minister Kishida stated as follows:

"Relations with those referred to as "the Global South" offer us important challenges and opportunities. A world emerging after the current period of transition will not see a converged single set of values, as was generally viewed in the era of globalization. The world is diverse, and as a practical matter, comparatively speaking, we are observing the rise of national powers of countries with diverging characteristics. Many of them are boosting confidence in their own economic development and are seeking a greater voice on the global stage. We cannot have our values imposed as they are. Meanwhile, those nations themselves do not have a clear and unified vision either.

"We need to be more committed to our values, and at the same time, when engaging with the Global South, we need to remain humble while putting aside preconceptions and then have a firm understanding of their respective historical and cultural backgrounds. On that basis, there is a greater imperative for us to share the principle that the international community is not where the strong overwhelm the weak, but rather that it should be driven by rules, not by force."18

In his policy speech to the 211th Session of the Diet immediately after his return to Japan, Prime Minister Kishida said, "In order for the international community as a whole to act in cooperation in responding to the various challenges now facing the world, the G7 will unite and work to strengthen its engagement with what is often called the Global South."19 Once again, he positioned cooperation with the "Global South" as a major issue in his foreign policy. In answering questions from the Diet members, Kishida articulated, "When I use the term ‘Global South,' as was the case of my recent policy speech, I do not think that China is included in it."20 He expressed the same position as India's view of the Global South.

It should be likewise noted that the "free and open Indo-Pacific" inherited from the Abe administration is also undergoing redefinition from the viewpoint of cooperation with the "Global South." During his visit to India in March 2023, Prime Minister Kishida praised India—an indispensable partner in building the "free and open Indo-Pacific"—as "the world's largest democracy." Yet, he added, "The people of the two countries humbly acknowledge that there are diverse values, cultures and histories on this planet, and that fully understanding them is not an easy task."21 Kishida did not refer to the so-called "democratic retreat" in India, such as the ongoing suppression of minorities and media restrictions but regarded the "free and open Indo-Pacific based on the rule of law" as an international order. Kishida's foreign policy is in stark contrast with that of the Biden administration, which often stresses the importance of freedom, human rights, and democracy; it also differs from the "value diplomacy" advocated by the Abe administration.

The Risk of Viewing India as a Global South Country

It is needless to repeat that India welcomes Kishida's foreign policy, which, unlike the West, does not criticize the undemocratic realities in India. Given that the West has often provoked India's anger by criticizing its "democratic retreat," some may consider Kishida's as very sensible diplomacy to avoid friction with the Modi administration and to promote practical cooperation in areas where the interests of two countries coincide in addressing China, such as strengthening supply chains, building infrastructure, and dealing with the debt problems of neighboring countries.

However, if India, a country destined to become a great power, departs from the conceptual model of liberal democracy, we must consider its possible implications on the Indo-Pacific region and the world order in the medium to long term. In other words, will India remain committed to a liberal international order if authoritarianism and Hindu nationalism dominate in the country?

Dangerous signs are already beginning to be visible. In September 2023, Canadian Prime Minister Trudeau informed the House of Commons of the "credible allegations" that Indian government agents were involved in the murder of a Canadian national Sikh in Canada in June 2023. Intelligence on this matter has reportedly been provided and shared by the Five Eyes, including the United States and the United Kingdom. The US Ambassador to Canada expressed concern that Indian involvement, if true, could be "a potentially very serious breach of the rules-based international order."22

The Indian side dismissed Trudeau's statement as "nonsense," and strongly opposed it by suspending the issuance of visas to Canadians. External Affairs Minister Jaishankar, who visited the United States, also denied India's involvement at a Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) event, saying that "it is not [an Indian] government policy to engage in such acts [extrajudicial killings abroad]." At the same time, he did not conceal his displeasure with Canada, complaining that "Canada had a very permissive environment as far as secessionist activity was concerned" and meddled with India's domestic politics.23 An Indian nationalist view went so far as to assert that if the United States can kill Bin Laden, India has the right to take similar steps.24 However, any legal system whatsoever—international law or Indian domestic law—may not justify a political assassination on foreign soil (Canada).

What has raised further concern is that the Indian side unilaterally demanded the deportation of 41 Canadian diplomats stationed in India to ostensibly reduce the size of the Canadian diplomatic corps in India to the same level as that of the Indian diplomatic mission in Canada. The Indian government set a deadline for their departure and threatened to revoke their diplomatic privileges, including those of their peers allowed to stay, if they failed to leave. The Canadian side finally yielded to the Indian pressure and agreed to leave, but the United States expressed concern that such behavior violates the Vienna Convention.25

Afterward, when the October terrorist attacks on Israel by Hamas occurred, and the massive Israeli attack on Gaza ensued, an Indian Foreign Ministry spokesperson condemned the terror but did not forget to caution and call on Israel to act by following international humanitarian law. Yet, Prime Minister Modi declared on X (former Twitter) that "the Indian people stand with Israel." He skipped mention of international humanitarian law even after the large number of civilian casualties took place in Gaza.26 He seems to think that forging a climate of public opinion accusing Hamas through identifying it with Pakistani and Islamic fanatics will be advantageous to the ruling party in the run-up to the 2024 general election.27

Given the above, we must conclude that the unconditional acceptance of India's "Global South" discourse is risky indeed.

(Professor, National Defense Academy)

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