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[Asia's Next Page] The Global South Scaled in Japan's New Outreach

A deeper connection with the Global South is imperative for Japan, the author argues, to help counter the dependence on China and Russia for economic security.



Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi holds a bilateral meeting with Japan's Prime Minister Fumio Kishida on the sideline of the G7 leaders' summit in Hiroshima. May 20, 2023. (©Kyodo/via REUTERS)

The "Global South" is no longer just a growing buzzword confined to academic publications. It has found increasing resonance in strategic circles. Even as Russia's invasion of Ukraine consolidated the West, it also catalyzed the already existing fissures between the developing world and the industrialized nations. 

The absence of the Global South countries in supporting the Western sanctions, as also to some extent the abstentions in the United Nations resolutions against Russia, has propelled the global geostrategic significance of this part of the often-neglected world. 

Against this scenario, India via its current presidency of the Group of Twenty (G20) has re-directed its focus on the Global South and emerged as its "voice." Amplifying the stakes of this "equivalent voice" has in fact become one of the preeminent goals of India's multipolar global vision. 

India's long-standing partner Japan has taken a cue from this reshuffle in global geopolitics. It has been highlighting the shifting balance of power in global politics. And also the importance of sharing global governance responsibilities with the Global South. 

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has since January emphasized reconfiguring an international order that takes note of the growing need to embrace diversity to further cooperation and minimize divisions. 

Japan invited eight guest countries for the May summit of the Group of Seven (G7), which it hosts in 2023. And the inclusive agenda at the G7 summit in Hiroshima reflected Kishida's desire to unify the world to face the rising threats from the authoritarian states. Those are primarily China and Russia. 

What would be the trajectory of this new outlook striving for equivalence among nations? Can Japan engage in a meaningful way with the Global South, or will the grand rhetoric fade away in time?

What's in a Name?

The Global South as a concept has been traditionally used in the post-Cold War scenario. It has been rooted in the Non-Aligned Movement to refer to economically disadvantaged states. Importantly, the term often transgresses geographical borders to include territories with a shared experience of historical (e.g. colonial experiences) or post-globalization economic and political control by primarily the industrialized West. 

Today, it mainly includes developing and emerging economies. A bulk of these lie in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and Oceania


It is often seen as a viable alternative to the term "Third World." The latter has obvious negative hierarchical connotations – putting "three-fourths of humanity" as an afterthought to the First and Second Worlds. The terminological debates notwithstanding, "Global South" seeks to neutralize the damages, if not create a new united but diverse identity, caused by traditional normative Western views. 

Above all, these developing nation-states in contemporary geopolitics have begun to reclaim their own stake and relevance in regional and world politics by exercising their limited means (eg, access to natural resources or votes/support in multilateral initiatives). Their new "non-aligned 2.0" stance in the Russia-Ukraine war is an example of such political-strategic resistance. 

PM Kishida digitally attends a joint press conference after the close of the Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD) on August 28. (©Kyodo)

Not Yet Ideal for Japan?

In January, Prime Minister Narendra Modi was headlining "Voice of Global South Summit 2023." He did this as part of his G20 presidency. At the same time, Kishida began Japan's G7 presidency by emphasizing relations with "those referred to as the Global South." This cooperation was in fact one of the three key agenda points in his vision for the "next international order." 

Kishida's March visit to India laid the blueprint for his new "free and open Indo-Pacific" plan. However, it also consolidated the view that Japan was serious about facilitating the Global South states as partners for inclusive global governance. Both times, Kishida did not avoid using the term. Even the "issues to be addressed at the G7 Hiroshima Summit" section mentioned outreach to the Global South.

However, the G7 leaders' communique released at the summit eschewed the use of the term. So did Japan's official statement post-meeting with Modi. India retained the use of the term in its official statement, however. 

At the same time, the G7 documents included engagement with "developing and emerging" countries. They focused on areas ranging from taxation to climate action through a "cooperative approach." 

This reflected a subtle shift in Japan's outlook. Or, perhaps more so, in the G7's outlook. There was a lack of a substantive or focused agreement on the Global South during the G7 summit. They indicate that Japan may view the Global South through a narrow developmental lens, not as an equal partner. 

This is in contrast to India's approach, which by placing itself as the leader of the diverse group, has put the Global South at the forefront of its global ambitions and goals. 

Complications Galore 

One of the most important factors contributing to Japan's reluctance to fully embrace the Global South concept is the significant domestic pressure and competition for limited resources within Japan. The country faces its own economic challenges, such as an aging population and high public debt. 

These necessitate careful allocation of resources. Keeping this in mind, Japan's foreign policy trends suggest a cautious, conditional approach toward the Global South. 

Notably, Japan's developmental engagement often emphasizes bilateral cooperation and targeted initiatives rather than blanket policies for the entire Global South. Tokyo's foreign policy focuses on building strategic partnerships with countries that have shared interests and align with its objectives. 


For example, infrastructure development, technology transfer, and capacity building. This approach allows Japan to maximize its impact and ensure the effectiveness of its assistance. 

Hence, institutionalizing the Global South as one entity, when even the countries of the Global South have no full consensus over the idea and what it should encompass, poses a challenge for Tokyo. Officially, Japan does not have a clear definition of the Global South. Mostly Tokyo refers to it as including "emerging and developing countries."

Moreover, as a trusted, quality-conscious top ODA provider, Japan's reluctance can also be attributed to concerns regarding the effectiveness and efficiency of aid delivery mechanisms. As such, it may be cautious about the potential risks and unintended consequences associated with broad-based initiatives. It is concerned with tailoring assistance to specific country contexts. 

Specialist Shin Uota works with his counterparts in the laboratory of the Noguchi Memorial Institute for Medical Research. This laboratory in Accra, Ghana, was built with Japanese support. It commemorates the achievements of Hideyo Noguchi, who conducted research on yellow fever in Ghana. (© JICA/Akio Iizuka via MOFA)

Engaging the Global South: Not All Is Lost

Nonetheless, it is Japan's very status as a regional Asian giant that propels its stake and role in the Global South and the related geopolitics. Japan is an emerging world power, and most importantly, the world's top ODA provider since the 1980s. 

As a result, Tokyo's engagement with the Global South assumes central importance, alongside that of India. And alongside China, which has long advocated the Global South terminology and idea of "reclaiming" its potential, albeit within the socialist fold. 

Yet Japan has been viewed often as a "passive member of the Global North." And countries like China and Russia, which build bilateral and multilateral consensus by playing on the prevalent fears that the West's interests do not align with the rest of the world's, have also hyped the notion of Japan as a wealthy nation-state seeking to "assert its 'Western identity' on Asian soil." 

Hence, a deeper connection with the Global South, besides the usual developmental aid partnership, is imperative. It will help counter the dependence on China and Russia for economic security. For example, in accessing critical minerals where the two authoritarian states have dominance. And it will help counter their disinformation campaign to discredit Tokyo's global image among the developing world. 

Fitting Into Kishida's Trade Policy 

Kishida's intent to support sustainable infrastructure, including manufacturing, transportation, and renewable energy in the Global South is a step in the right direction. Japan's latest white paper on trade highlights cooperation with "reliable" emerging and developing countries on materials supply chains. 

Such prioritization is important for Japan's long-term goals to enhance domestic growth and global competitiveness. 

Notably, the Global South has emerged as a fulcrum for India and Japan's combined efforts toward integration through third-country cooperation. At the same time, the two partners differ in their approaches to the Global South. India identifies itself as part of this growing diversity of nations. Meanwhile, Japan, the sole Asian leader among the largest industrialized economies of the G7, has an outsider's perspective. 

For Japan, the Global South is certainly an important avenue to strengthen economic security via access to diverse markets. But, importantly, Japan in the new era should look to build bridges. It should be a reliable balancer in the rich versus poor or North versus South dichotomy discourse.



Author: Jagannath Panda

Find Dr Panda’s column [Asia’s Next Page] on JAPAN Forward.

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