The Global South Viewed from China's Perspective

Shin Kawashima


This paper seeks to examine how China views and discusses the concept of the "Global South (全球南方)." To this end, it is necessary to understand China's self-perception, worldview, and the tenor of its foreign policy.

China was initially skeptical of the term "Global South." It criticized the term being used at press conferences during the May 2023 Hiroshima Summit, warning against the attempt to involve Global South countries in geopolitical disputes.1 However, the April 2, 2023 article by Guo Heping, while expressing skepticism about the Global South discourse, concludes that as the "First High-Level Conference of the Forum on Global Action for Shared Development" is scheduled during 2023, "Global South" countries should take advantage of this opportunity to unite. Quotation-marking the term Global South, he still appears to urge accepting it.2 The Chinese use of quotation marks indicates that the marked term or concept is not accepted.

When the First High-Level Conference of the Forum on Global Action for Shared Development took place on July 10 following the enactment of the Foreign Relations Law on June 28, 2023 (effective July 1, 2023), Politburo member Wang Yi stated at the conference that China is "the largest developing country in the world and a natural member of the Global South."3 After this, he continued to refer to the Global South at the BRICS preparatory meetings and on other occasions. The Chinese government appears to have drastically changed its position regarding the Global South at the Closing Ceremony of the BRICS Business Forum on August 22, 2023. Xi Jinping reportedly stated, "As a developing country and a member of the ‘Global South,' China breathes the same breath with other developing countries and pursues a shared future with them. China has resolutely upheld the common interests of developing countries and worked to increase the representation and voice of EMDCs in global affairs."4 Although the Chinese government did not endorse the concept of Global South because the term was quotation-marked in Xi's speech text, his use of it indicated that China has officially accepted it. On September 15, 2023, when Secretary of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection Li Xi attended the "G77+China" meeting held in Cuba, he also referred to the Global South, stating that China stands firmly with Global South countries.5

It can therefore be said that China has drastically changed its position on the concept of the Global South during the year 2023. This paper aims to examine the background and reasons for this change.

1. The "Impact" of the Global South Summit

In the background of the appearance of the Global South discourse was the prevalence following the outbreak of the Ukraine war of the argument that distinguished China and Russia as despotic states from democracies. Many discussions define countries other than China and Russia as the Global South and ask which side they take―democracies or tyrannies. In this context, China has been casting a dubious eye on the term Global South.

It was the Global South Summit, held online under the auspices of India on January 12-13, 2023, that made it impossible for China to ignore the term Global South―China was not invited to the meeting. At a press conference, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said, "We have taken note of the relevant reports. The Indian side has informed the Chinese side of its considerations and plans for organizing the conference." He stated that China had received advance notice of the meeting and emphasized China's support for developing countries and the intensity of its relations with them.6 But this statement only paraphrases the fact that China was effectively not invited.

There was much debate in China on the question of why China was not invited. Many argued that India, as the chair of the G20, sought to position itself as representing the views of developing countries. Others argued that nobody would consider China, the world's second-largest economy, as a developing country. Some argued that India deliberately excluded China, pointing out, as background, the China-India struggle over leadership among the non-aligned and developing countries.7 What is intriguing is the discussion that points to the possible linkage between the question and the Indian Ocean Region Forum on Development Cooperation. This conference was held on November 21, 2022, in Kunming, Yunnan Province, organized by the China International Development Cooperation Agency (CIDCA). Nineteen countries participated in it: Indonesia, Pakistan, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Maldives, Nepal, Afghanistan, Iran, Oman, South Africa, Mozambique, Tanzania, Seychelles, Madagascar, Mauritius, Djibouti, Kenya, and Australia―India did not participate.8 The Indian side could not remain silent about the "Indian Ocean region forum without India."9 At a press conference on November 28, CIDCA spokesman Xu Wei stated, "India is an important major country in the Indian Ocean region, and the China-Indian Ocean Regional Development Cooperation Forum, co-hosted by the China International Development Cooperation Agency and the People's Government of Yunnan Province, has of course extended an invitation to the Indian side."10 He said that an invitation was extended to India, but India did not participate. Then, why did India not accept China's invitation? The first probable reason may be the ongoing China-India border disputes, which have worsened Indian public opinion toward China. According to a Pew Research Center poll survey released in July 2023, Indian people's negative impressions of China reached 67%―a significant change from 46% in 2019 and 32% in 2015.11 Second, there are undoubtedly some "frictions" between China and India over different international frameworks. For example, India has never been invited to the Trans-Himalaya Forum for International Cooperation, which China has been hosting annually since 2018―the third of the series took place on October 5, 2023.

2. China's Caution against the Global South Discourse and the Subsequent Change

Thus, from the outset, China was wary of the Global South discourse. However, the failure to be invited to the January 2023 Global South Summit made it difficult for China to simply define the term Global South as a phrase employed by the West to check it. China felt challenged by India regarding the question as to who would represent developing countries.

However, China did not recognize the Global South discourse as such. It remained skeptical of it. The argument that demonstrates China's doubts about the Global South discourse is the one that compares the discourse to the well-known adage, "The true aim lies elsewhere (醉翁之意不在酒)." This argument alleges: first, the United States and other Western countries are investing funds in the development and growth of Global South countries, simultaneously introducing various norms and policy agendas, and controlling the Global South discourse, thereby attempting to win over Global South countries. Second, the United States uses its Indo-Pacific strategy to make the Global South a point of contention in an attempt to split developing countries, or, specifically, to alienate China from other developing countries; the West attempts to play China and other emerging and developing countries off against one another to profit from their quarrel.12 Nonetheless, the conclusion of this argument is that China should accept the Global South concept with reservations and strengthen its solidarity with Global South countries.

Wu Hailong, a former senior official of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs and currently president of the Chinese People's Institute of Foreign Affairs, stated in a June 2023 interview: "Some Western countries adhere to the Cold War mentality and engage in group politics. They attempt to use the concept of ‘Global South' to divide and weaken the camp of developing countries, draw lines based on ideology and social systems, and force developing countries to choose sides. Some countries even attempt to deny China's status as a developing country, sow discord between developing countries and China, and poison the international environment and atmosphere of cooperation for global development."13 This is another argument that considers the Global South discourse as an invention of the West to check China.

Never free from such skepticism about the Global South discourse, domestic debates in China, however, took a major turn in July 2023, sparked by Wang Yi's statement on July 10, 2023, at the First High-Level Conference of the Forum on Global Action for Shared Development. On July 24, 2023, Wang Yi met with South African Foreign Minister Pandor and stated, "... the BRICS mechanism is the most important platform for emerging market representatives and developing countries to strengthen dialogue and cooperation, and it is also the most important channel for strategic communication in the ‘Global South.'"14 The reason for his distinguishing between emerging markets and developing countries is due probably to his considering Russia and some other countries not as developing countries. Furthermore, Wang Yi He referred to and defined the Global South at the 13th Meeting of BRICS National Security Advisers and High Representatives on National Security in Johannesburg, South Africa, on July 25. As if echoing Wang Yi's remarks, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning explained the "Global South (全球南方)." She said, "The ‘Global South' is a collection of emerging market countries and developing countries... Director Wang Yi put forward a four-point proposal on strengthening cooperation in the ‘Global South': first, to eliminate conflicts and build peace; second, it is necessary to revitalize vitality and jointly promote development; the third is to be open and inclusive, and seek common progress; fourth, we must unite and discuss and cooperate." Wang Yi stressed that "independence is the political background of the ‘Global South,' development and revitalization is the historical mission of the ‘Global South,' and fairness and justice are the common propositions of the ‘Global South.'" He added that "China is a natural member of the ‘Global South' and will always be a member of the family of developing countries."15

Thus, China redefined the "Global South" through its language and demonstrated a different understanding of it from the Global South discourse based on developed countries' worldviews. Lately, in China, we have encountered examples of using the term Global South without quotation marks,16 but this is not yet well-established.

3. China's Worldview and the Positioning of the "Global South"

What then does China's criticism of the "Global South" discourse and its subsequent change mean?17 Xi Jinping articulated the country's national goals and foreign strategy in his report at the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China in the fall of 2017: to become a great modern socialist country and to realize the dream of the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation by the 100th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China in 2049. Generally speaking, since the unification of Taiwan is recognized as a national dream, the above national goals seem to imply the unification of Taiwan in 2049. Meanwhile, Xi's report states that a new type of international relations will emerge in 2049, which assumes that China will replace the United States in taking the lead in shaping the world order. Therefore, relations with the United States will constitute the basis of China's foreign policy.

China defines its current relationship with the United States as a long-term, intense "competition," which, however, is not incompatible with efforts to avoid conflict and to cooperate where cooperation is possible. To maintain this difficult relationship, it is essential to maintain close communications and management. The US side also understands the nature of this relationship.

China is already the world's second-largest economy, with a per capita GDP exceeding 10,000 yuan; nonetheless, it positions itself as a developing country and often refers to itself as a developing superpower. Obviously, China does not intend to join any "club" comprising only developed countries like the OECD and the G7 but aligns itself with the G77. This is the reason why China cannot accept the Global South discourse proposed by developed countries, which China considers to help separate China from developing countries. This can be explained by the fact that China has abided by the five principles of peace and friendship since the 1950s. This stance of China assumes that it should behave in the international community as a "non-aligned" or "developing" country. Meanwhile, China has maintained its foreign policy line of independence and self-reliance since the early 1980s, which stipulates that China should have no allies but fundamentally pursue omnidirectional diplomacy, thereby avoiding head-on collisions with developed countries.

Although it is avoiding conflict with developed countries, the Xi Jinping administration is deeply suspicious of the existing global order. Until the Hu Jintao administration, the Chinese government had maintained that developed countries shaped the global order and China's role was to modify it as a developing country. The Xi Jinping administration, however, insists that China is taking the lead in shaping the global order. Consequently, China is suspicious of the current global order led by Western developed countries and vehemently criticizes Western values and the US-centered security network while declaring that it upholds the United Nations' core values and respects international law―as far as they are based on its understanding. In China, vigilance and criticism of the United States and Western developed countries is intensifying extremely. China seeks to position itself as representing "less industrialized countries" under its worldview of "developed countries vs. less industrialized countries." This widely differs from the "developed countries/dictatorial countries/Global South" worldview entertained by the West. China considers the Global South discourse as a developed countries' invention designed to alienate China from other developing countries. It believes the West is imposing its norms and values on Global South countries.

The new type of international relations advocated by the Xi Jinping administration aims to build an economy-based win-win relationship, which will evolve into a partnership and, then, a community bound by a common destiny. It features the absence of Western values such as democracy. The Chinese government asserts that this new type of international relations should embody the notion of the UN Charter as understood by China; the One Belt, One Road initiative is positioned as its testing ground. The cooperative relationship with the "Global South" that Wang Yi calls for is fundamentally an extension of this new type of international relations. China proposes the Global Development Initiative and the Global Security Initiative as extensions of the new type of international relations. These are thought to involve gradually developing economy-based relationships into the spheres of politics and security. It remains to be seen how China will create, especially, security relations with developing countries in the future.

As explained above, what the Xi Jinping administration has in mind from the outset is confrontation and competition with developed countries, particularly the United States. Given this, it may have been a "shock" to China that India did not invite it to the January 2023 Global South Summit. China has now come to also face a challenge from India. In other words, if the Global South had remained a favorite concept shared only by developed countries, China would have had only to continue using the term developing countries while criticizing the concept of the Global South. However, India not only picked up the term Global South but went so far as to try to demonstrate its leadership among developing countries by doing so. This move by India appears to have made it impossible for China, also attempting to represent less industrialized and developing countries, to ignore the term Global South. The use of the term by quite a few leaders of developing countries seems to have exerted pressure on China.

China's worldview, global order perception, or foreign policy has been fundamentally formulated along the axis of rivalry with developed countries or is based on its relations with the United States. None of them takes fully into account China's competitive relationship with other "less industrialized countries." Therefore, although it has border disputes with India and also a competitive relationship with it over some regional frameworks, China appears to have not gone beyond criticizing India, which held the Global South Summit but did not invite China.


This paper has examined the way the concept of the "Global South" (全球南方in Chinese) is viewed and discussed in China. Initially, criticism against it was dominant, but by July 2023, the climate of opinion had changed in China.

It is hard for China, which envisages the axis of rivalry between "developed countries vs. less industrialized countries" and boasts of its leadership among the latter, to recognize the "developed countries/dictatorial countries/Global South" worldview. China considers the Global South discourse as an invention meant to separate China from developing countries. China cannot admit the "Global South" discourse emanating from developed countries, for it holds fast to the five principles of peace and friendship and deems itself to be a developing superpower.

India held the Global South Summit without inviting China; quite a few leaders of developing countries are employing the term Global South―in such an adverse climate, China changed course in July 2023, with Wang Yi personally redefining the Global South as "a collection of emerging market countries and developing countries." Thus, China clarified its relationship with the Global South. This series of developments means that China has refused to accept the way developed countries use the term Global South, proposed a definition from its understanding of the Global South based on its worldview, and showed its willingness to compete to gain the initiative in discussing the term. However, since quotation marks are still attached to the term Global South used in official discourse in the Chinese language, competition over the term may be considered to be defensive rather than aggressive efforts.

This stance of China on the Global South may be explained in part by the presence of India. China's worldview, perception of the global order, and foreign policy are predicated on competition and confrontation with developed countries. On the other hand, its relationship with developing countries is almost stable; the possibility of competition with them is not assumed. Although China has had friction with India over border disputes and issues related to some international frameworks for the South Asian region, it has yet to incorporate the competitive relationship with India into its global order perception or worldview. In this sense, the Global South discourse poses new problems for China. We should continue to see whether China will adjust its political ideas and strategy with an eye on its competitive relationship with India. Many relevant questions await further clarification, such as why the Chinese government policy on the Global South in July 2023 changed or whether the shift is related to the Foreign Relations Law enacted at the end of June 2023. These questions require continued consideration.

(Professor, The University of Tokyo)
(Translation by Tsutomu Inuzuka)

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