M.A. in Politics, Jawaharlal Nehru University
Research Assistant, JCGS
As we enter the third decade of the twenty-first century the past differences like the dichotomy of core and periphery, the structure of dependency, the gulf between haves and have-nots still exists, and in certain cases, these differences have been accentuated.
Mankind has developed manifold in the past decades. But the contemporary society is still marred by the historical patterns of inequality. Asia and Africa were lacking in the 20th century and they are still poor in the 21st century. “Underdevelopment was and still is generated by the very same historical process which also generated economic development” (Frank, 1974). The world is still divided into north/south, developed/developing, and first/third world.
David Ludden (2005) argues that in the struggle for freedom between Asian nationalists and European imperialists, the inequalities perpetuated by imperialists got transmitted into Asian societies, shaping the patterns of global inequalities.
Today, these inequalities have manifested in the divide between the underdeveloped global south and developed global north. Structures of inequity, “are part and parcel of Asia’s rise, as patterns of global inequality” (Ludden, 2005). In this context, the current position of India and China appears to be enigmatic. Both the countries suffer from internal and external inequalities. But internal inequalities have outpaced external inequalities by several miles. If we look at raw monetary figures without applying filter, it would be extremely difficult to fathom external inequality. This is because China is the largest economy in the world in the PPP terms and India is the third-largest (International Monetary Fund World Economic Outlook April-2021).
Internal inequalities reinforce external inequalities and perpetuate the existing gap between the global south and the global north. But few countries in the global south, particularly India and China backed by their tremendous economic growth in the last 2-3 decades have achieved moderate success in decoupling (such)external and internal inequalities. This partial decoupling has enabled India and China to minimise external inequalities independently of internal inequalities. This article analyses the role of internal and external inequalities in the global south, focusing on India and China and how these inequalities will affect the Indian and Chinese positions vis-à-vis the global south.
Internal and External Inequalities
Historically, India and China have struggled with both internal inequality and external inequality. Both the countries have highly unequal societies with the top 1% of the population owning a mammoth share of the country’s wealth. Despite all their efforts the internal inequality seems to persist and time and again reinforces itself. The most recent example of this self-reinforcing feature was visible during the pandemic when the lowest strata lost their wealth much quicker vis-à-vis the well-to-do strata of the society.
Both the countries have achieved excellent growth in the last half a century and have brought millions of people out of poverty. But despite this growth, internal inequalities persist. According to World Inequality Lab report 2020 “In India, the top 10% income share grew from 30% in the 1980s to over 56% in 2019, while in China, the top 10% share grew from 28% in 1980 to 41% in 2019”.
However, this internal inequality is not replicated on the world stage. Both India and China have performed much better and have significantly reduced the global gap. China had become the 2nd largest economy and India had become the 5th largest.
Inequalities in Asian societies shaped the patterns of global inequalities (Ludden, 2005; Kaur & Wahlberg, 2012).
The question that arises here is that, do internal inequalities of India and China manifest themselves on the global stage and negatively shape the patterns of global inequalities?
The recent rise of the global south led by India and China shows that internal inequalities have a little adverse effect on reducing external inequalities. Internal inequalities undermine the human development indicators of a country, like HDI, per capita income, living standard, etc. but in the international system cumulative size of the economy plays a bigger part in bridging the south-north divide. India and China are rich countries with poor people. Both countries have created a niche for themselves in the international system and command a stature that no country in the global north can afford to ignore or sideline. This growth is far from optimum, but it has helped in bridging the global economic gap. Countries of the global south are heterogeneous and marred with structural, cultural, and internal inequalities. Indian and Chinese case shows us that internal inequalities will not hamper the external growth of countries of the global south. Resolving external international inequalities will act as the high tide, raising all the sections of the global south population. fixation over addressing internal inequities will be counterproductive. Suppose we can address the global north-south divide by setting global standards and global rules that fairly accommodate the interest of the global south. In that case, it will help in addressing the problem of internal inequalities in the global south.
India, China, and the Global South
A lot of literature extensively focuses on the competing relationship of India and China. The two giants of Asia sharing a border and having antagonistic security and economic interest are bound to compete. And many times, this competition turns into conflict. India and China have various conflicts ranging from a full-frontal war in 1962 to the recent deadly clashes in the Galwan valley in 2020. Despite all these differences, contradictory interests, and competing foreign policies, India and China time and again showed synergy in the global south. Both India and China have fought vigorously against the global north-driven definition of development. Both the countries have rejected the trade standards that were set from the northern perspective. Not just limiting to bilateral partnership, India and China have tried to bring the developing and emerging economies together and use the numerical strength of global south partners in the UNGA to pass several landmark resolutions that have pushed the world towards a more equitable and fairer society. Such united stand and coordination showed that south-south cooperation is not just the group of poor, undeveloped misfits but a voice of a major portion of the world. Despite all their differences, India and China have put forth a united front in negotiations with the developed world at the global institutions like WTO, IMF, WB. This synergy between India and China became evident during the Doha rounds of negotiation. And since then, increased into other fields concerning the global south. Global legislation on climate change is the latest field where south-south cooperation is conspicuous.
India-China synergy was evident during the first WTO ministerial meeting at Cancun in 2003. This was the first time when both the countries entered the negotiations as a team in the WTO. Both the countries pushed for the dismantling of agriculture subsidies and support given by the developed countries to their agriculture sector. India, Brazil, and South Africa built a coalition of developing countries, which resulted in establishing the G20 group on agriculture. China put its weight behind the G20 group during the Cancun ministerial meeting. This partnership was surprising as China had little to gain from siding with the G20 group and yet China batted for the global south. As Amitendu Palit (2011) puts it “Given its heavily protected agriculture sector, it was strategically natural for India to organize an alliance like the G-20 by including countries with similar interests. For many, however, China’s support of G-20 was surprising given that it had already liberalized its domestic agriculture and therefore hardly had as defensive interests as India’s”.
China’s stand at WTO is marred with contradictions. It is a developing country and yet a major player in the world economy. Dilution of safeguards for developing and underdeveloped countries will enable wider penetration of Chinese goods and services into new untapped markets. Still, it will also hurt China’s domestic players. India also faces a similar dilemma in contemporary times. In the 90s and early 2000s, India could afford to be vocal and play a leadership role. But as India’s share in the global trade has increased so does the trade-offs of choosing the global south.
Though, driven by their separate national interest, their actions at the international organisations have helped push forth the interest of the global south. India and China’s effort differs in approach from the past south-south cooperation efforts which were explicitly driven by the objectives of pushing forth the interest of the global south. India and China rely more on western liberalisation and capitalisation principles to make their case strong (Gray & Gills, 2016).
The tremendous economic rise of India and China had served the interest of the global south. Today, India and China are more confident and knows that global rules cannot be set without accommodating their demands. Since the interest of the global south and India-China are overlapping, accommodation of Indian and Chinese demands indirectly leads to the accommodation of the demands of the global south. This is the imperfect form of symbiotic relationship wherein India and China use the numerical strength of the global south to push forth their national interest and the global south benefits from the economic might of India and China as long as all interests overlap. This symbiotic relation is hard to explain using the mainstream IR theories which are ill-equipped to explain the realities of the global south. The closest mainstream IR theory which can perfunctorily explain this symbiotic relationship is the theory of bandwagoning. But in no way it is bandwagoning.
The rise of the global south so far shows that the rise in the international system is to a large extent insulated from the internal inequalities that exist in the countries of the global south. India and China with their highly unequal societies had made a niche for themselves in the international arena. Likewise, other global south countries can achieve the same. Secondly, on the overlapping of interests, it is challenging to say at this point. It is possible that India and China will outgrow the mould of the global south as their market saturates. But in the near future, India and China will remain the torch bearers of the global south.
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The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author (s). They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the Jindal Centre for the Global South or its members.