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G7 Unlikely to Sway ‘Global South’ to Switch Camps, ex-U.N. Official Says

To blunt China’s growing influence with nonaligned emerging economies, the Group of Seven has been stepping up efforts to support these countries — mainly in Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Pacific — in areas such as infrastructure and climate change.

But while mutually beneficial, these initiatives, including those announced at the recent G7 Hiroshima summit, are unlikely to persuade most “Global South” nations to curb ties with Beijing or switch sides, according to former Singaporean diplomat and ex-U.N. Security Council (UNSC) President Kishore Mahbubani.

“The United States is very keen to rally as many countries as possible to join its side against Beijing, but it is also gradually realizing how difficult it is to isolate China,” Mahbubani said in an exclusive interview, noting that — despite Washington’s containment efforts — Beijing’s trade with the rest of the world keeps growing, including with U.S. allies and partners.

This is especially the case in the Global South, where most governments are primarily concerned with economic development.

The term Global South refers to a loose grouping of roughly 100 nations, many of which are developing and not aligned with any major power. As these countries prioritize economic development, they want to cultivate close ties with both Washington and Beijing and do not wish to take sides in the geopolitical contest, added Mahbubani, who is now a distinguished fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Asia Research Institute.

‘Economic suicide’

This also applies to countries belonging to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which saw trade with China rise from less than $40 billion in 2000 to $975 billion last year.

“For us in the region, decoupling from the almost $1 trillion trade relationship China would be akin to committing economic suicide,” he said. At the same time, he added, geographic proximity inevitably means that ASEAN will face more challenges in dealing with China than with the United States.

But as Beijing deepens trade and investment ties with states across the world, more countries have begun looking to adopt what the diplomat described as a “pragmatic approach to balancing Beijing’s and Washington’s concerns.”

Consequently, he said, some in Washington have begun to realize the need to adopt a different tone in dealing with Beijing.

U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping meet in Bali, Indonesia, last November.  | DOUG MILLS / THE NEW YORK TIMES
U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping meet in Bali, Indonesia, last November. | DOUG MILLS / THE NEW YORK TIMES

In fact, the first indications of such a realization may have already emerged following the latest G7 gathering. Shortly after the three-day summit, which ended Sunday, U.S. President Joe Biden told reporters he believes relations between the two superpowers may begin to “thaw very shortly.”

He also suggested that high-level talks could become more frequent, although the State Department on Monday walked back Biden’s remarks that the U.S. was considering lifting sanctions on Chinese Defense Minister Li Shangfu, a critical obstacle to talks between him and U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin. That said, Defense Minister Yasukazu Hamada is expected to meet Li on the sidelines of the Shangri-La Dialogue — a regional security summit in Singapore — in early June.

This comes as G7 leaders affirmed in their final communique the importance of dialogue with China. Despite criticizing Beijing over everything from “economic coercion” to “militarization activities” in the South China Sea, the bloc struck a more tempered tone on Beijing compared with the increasingly hawkish, zero-sum rhetoric coming from the United States in recent years.

Not only did the group stress that each country would work in its national interest, it also said it did not seek to thwart China’s economic progress and development.

Moreover, the G7’s alignment on “de-risking” instead of “decoupling,” along with its willingness to build “constructive and stable relations” with Beijing, indicates that a consensus was reached with Washington, presumably to ease European and Japanese concerns about a complete severing of economic ties.

Differences between the G7 leaders in their approach to China had already emerged before the summit, with French President Emmanuel Macron saying Europe should pursue a path of strategic autonomy to become a third superpower.

Not a Cold War

China is not only one of the biggest export markets for many European countries, it is also the largest trade partner for a number of them. And given the economic losses incurred over the Ukraine war, losing China as a trade partner “would pose a major problem for European economies as well as for Japan,” Mahbubani said.

This is a key reason why these countries will try and maintain strong trade ties with China, even though they will continue to criticize some aspects of Chinese policy, he added.

Indeed, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said Sunday that G7 members would ensure big investments in China continue even as Berlin tries to limit overexposure to the world’s second-largest economy.

“While divisions between the U.S. and China remain, I don’t think the European countries are ready to join Washington in imposing sanctions on Beijing,” Mahbubani said.

G7 leaders walk toward the cenotaph for atomic bomb victims during a wreath-laying ceremony at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park as part of the G7 leaders summit in the city on Friday. | EPA / VIA BLOOMBERG
G7 leaders walk toward the cenotaph for atomic bomb victims during a wreath-laying ceremony at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park as part of the G7 leaders summit in the city on Friday. | EPA / VIA BLOOMBERG

Asked whether he believes the world is facing a new type of Cold War, the former UNSC president said he thinks the opposite is the case, with the collective power of developing countries resulting in an increasingly multipolar world, as reflected in emerging blocs such as the Group of 20 and the BRICS — Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa.

“During the Cold War, the divisions between the Soviet and U.S. blocs were very clear because you knew which country was a member or sympathetic to which alliance and because there was very little trade between the two sides,” the former ambassador said.

But now divisions are not nearly as clear-cut, he noted, arguing that even the majority of U.S. allies are doing more trade with Beijing than Washington, making this “a completely different situation.” The expert also said that, despite what is often claimed, China and Russia do not constitute a bloc, as there are still “significant differences” between the two.

But with tensions in the Indo-Pacific escalating rapidly, it is unclear what the best approach would be to prevent a total breakdown in U.S.-China relations, similar to the one between Russia and the West today.

Many fear such a breakdown could veer into conflict, a scenario that would have grave economic consequences not only for Asia but all Global South countries, as China is already making deep inroads across Africa, Latin America and the Middle East.

More pragmatism needed

According to Mahbubani, Washington should take a page from China’s neighbors in Southeast Asia.

“If the United States wants to preserve and deepen its ties with countries in these regions, it should learn from the ASEAN success story,” he said.

A pragmatic, positive-sum approach that looks past political differences and is open to cooperation with all would be more warmly received in the Global South than a zero-sum approach that aims to divide the world into opposing camps, the former diplomat added.

For instance, Mahbubani pointed out that even though China and four ASEAN countries continue to have maritime disputes, the pragmatism in their bilateral relations has prevented any major flare-ups.

Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam have all increased their economic engagement with China, despite their disputed territorial claims in the South China Sea, he noted.

However, pragmatism goes both ways, meaning it would be wise for China to also make compromises in the future, similar to its 1952 decision to remove two dashes from its original 11-dash line as a show of friendship to Vietnam.

Mahbubani is convinced that most developing countries do not wish to choose sides.

With Sino-U.S. ties in free-fall, there is no time to lose, he stressed, encouraging both Washington and Beijing to engage in “a pragmatic balancing act” and start identifying mutually beneficial cooperation areas to tackle global problems.

“Such cooperation will remain elusive, however, unless Washington stops viewing any win for China as a loss for the United States, and vice versa.”

Source : Japan Times