By Alex Callinicos
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Southern powers flex muscles in Bali

This article is over 1 years, 2 months old
Some ruptures over the Ukraine war were smoothed over—for now—at the G20 summit last week
Issue 2832
Rishi Sunak holds a press conference at the G20 summit

Rishi Sunak holds a press conference at the G20 summit (Picture: Number 10/Flickr)

The growing inter-imperialist rivalries at the world scale are creating opportunities for the smaller powers in the Global South. This is the lesson from the G20 summit in Bali last week.

The G20 calls itself “a strategic multilateral platform connecting the world’s major developed and emerging economies”. It brings together the Western imperialist powers of the G7 and their closest allies, South Korea and Australia. Also in the alliance are China, Russia, and the leading powers of the Global South—India, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Brazil, Mexico, Argentina, South Africa, and Indonesia.

The G20 helped coordinate the response to the global financial crisis in 2007-9. But it has been increasingly stymied by the polarisation between Washington and Beijing. Many commentators—myself included—expected this to continue last week. But we were wrong.

The summit issued a joint declaration stating that “most members strongly condemned the war in Ukraine and stressed it is causing immense human suffering and exacerbating existing fragilities in the global economy … The use or threat of use of nuclear weapons is inadmissible. The peaceful resolution of conflicts, efforts to address crises, as well as diplomacy and dialogue, are vital. Today’s era must not be of war.”

This was a big setback for Russian president Vladimir Putin, who stayed away from the summit. The Southern states generally abstained from the United Nations vote in March condemning the Russian invasion of Ukraine and refuse to join in the Western economic campaign against Moscow.

But now, according to the Financial Times newspaper, Putin found his partners in the Brics group—Brazil, India, China and South Africa—plus the host, Indonesia, acting as “the crucial swing votes that decided that a joint statement featuring language critical of the war was preferable to no statement at all”.

Why this shift? There are two obvious reasons. The first is that everyone hates Putin’s nuclear sabre-rattling. Nowhere would be safe from the radiation and the nuclear winter that an all-out war between the United States and Russia would produce. Secondly, as the declaration says, the current war has exacerbated the inflation that is having an especially harsh impact on the populations of the Global South.

China somewhat reluctantly went along with the declaration, probably to avoid sharing Russia’s isolation. The Chinese president, Xi Jinping, had his first face to face meeting with his US counterpart, Joe Biden, since the latter was elected. He seems to have generally emphasised China’s role as a constructive global power.

All in all, Bali was a success for the US and its allies. But one shouldn’t overstate this. The G20 declaration will make no difference to the war on the ground.

India, which was very active in drafting the declaration in Bali, will carry on buying Russian oil and gas on a large scale. Saudi Arabia, which sought to bridge the gap between the US and the southern powers, will continue to work closely with Russia in the Opec+ energy cartel.

What Bali shows is that the biggest states in the South are discovering that the geopolitical antagonisms between the US, China, and Russia give them new room for manoeuvre.

The Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has already been showing this with great gusto. Turkey controls the Straits that give access to the Black Sea. And because it’s a Nato member with generally friendly relations with Moscow, it’s well placed to take advantage of the Ukraine war. A few weeks ago Erdogan used this leverage to force Putin to retreat when he tried to renege on the deal, brokered by Turkey, to allow the export of Ukrainian grain.

This isn’t like the postcolonial Non-Aligned Movement that sought to remain neutral between the US and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. It’s less a matter of ideology than of states that are sub-imperialisms in their own regions manoeuvring for advantage.

The context is very different now. Between them the US and Europe accounted for nearly three quarters of global output in 1960. Now their share is around 42 percent. The balance of global economic power is shifting southwards, and the geopolitical consequences are now becoming visible.

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