The Global South and the return of geopolitics

By Wil Hout / New Rhythms of Development blog series

Students of international relations are typically familiarised with the work of Alfred Thayer Mahan and Halford Mackinder, who both stressed the relevance of geographical dominance for great power status. Mahan focused on the role of sea power, while Mackinder’s notion of the ‘heartland’ (which referred to Eastern Europe) stressed control of land masses as a central factor for great power status. Mahan and Mackinder’s work is usually discussed to illustrate the popularity of geopolitical thinking at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century.

When opening a newspaper or looking at news websites in early 2023, it is obvious that we are witnessing the return of geopolitics. In Europe, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has spurred transformations that were unimaginable since the end of the Cold War, leading amongst others to a spike in military spending, the application for NATO membership by Sweden and Finland and the granting of EU candidate status to Ukraine and Moldova. Relations between the US and China have soured and led to a so-called ‘chip war’. Apprehension about China’s expansion in the South China Sea and the Indo-Pacific, as well as about its claims to Taiwan, resulted in the completion of a US-led defensive ‘arc’ in East Asia and the establishment of the Australia-United Kingdom-United States Partnership (AUKUS) in 2021. Vulnerabilities related to the sourcing of rare earths elements have led to increased activities on the part of the US and the European Union to strengthen their position in regional value chains related to these metals.

Geopolitics and the Global South

While current news reports pay much attention to the geopolitical dimensions of great power interactions, the return of geopolitics is certainly as relevant for countries across the Global South as for those in the Global North. In many cases, the manifestations of geopolitics will differ in the Global South, and that is why it is relevant to pay specific attention to them. For reasons of space, the following paragraphs will mainly focus on Africa.

One of the most important – and by now quite well documented – developments has been the challenge to the post-World War II international or ‘liberal’ order posed by the so-called rising powers. Currently, China is seen as one of the key challengers of the principles of the liberal, multilateral order: the creation of so-called parallel institutions such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), the Chang Mai Initiative Multilateralization (CMIM) and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) is often seen as an attempt to provide alternative mechanisms for Western-dominated, multilateral organisations as the World Bank, IMF and NATO. Further, the Belt and Road Initiative is a Chinese attempt to forge stronger ties with countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America, importantly through increased investment and the extension of loans. The rhetoric of South-South Cooperation is applied quite regularly to emphasise China’s solidarity with countries in the Global South, but many scholars have voiced criticism of China’s claim to position itself within the developing world.

Africa is an obvious target of the new geopolitics. A first sign of this is the increased diplomatic activity targeting the continent that has been visible in recent months. In December 2022, delegations from 49 African countries and the African Union were hosted by President Biden at the US-Africa Leaders Summit, at the occasion of which US Secretary of State Blinken emphasised that ‘Africa is a major geopolitical force’. In the first two months of 2023, representatives of most major powers toured the continent, with the foreign ministers of China, Russia, Germany and France, the US treasury secretary and the EU’s high representative for foreign affairs and security policy visiting fourteen African countries.

Will Africa benefit from the increased attention?

While former colonial powers such as France and Britain remain involved in Africa for economic and security considerations and the EU recently concluded, together with the African Union, a Joint Vision for 2030 as part of the Africa-EU Partnership, some of the rising powers have also made deliberate attempts to strengthen their foothold in the continent. With the vast majority of countries in Africa having signed a memorandum of understanding with China on the Belt and Road Initiative, China has expanded its investment in infrastructure across the continent. The Kampala-Entebbe and Nairobi Expressways, together with the Mombasa-Nairobi Standard Gauge Railway, are the most visible signs of Chinese investment in Africa. Critical voices have meanwhile criticised the Chinese presence in Africa because it has led to a new form of dependency by luring countries into a ‘debt trap’. Through the activities of the notorious Wagner Group, Russia has also been active militarily in the Central African Republic, Mali, Libya, Sudan, Mozambique and Madagascar, where they supported the incumbent regime or particular groups in exchange for mining concessions. India, as one of the champions of the Non-aligned Movement, is picturing itself as an alternative to Western and Chinese involvement and has supported, for instance, Africa’s call for a permanent seat on the UN’s Security Council, which is also referred to as the Ezulwini consensus.

External involvement in Africa is undoubtedly important, but developments in the continent also have important geopolitical dimensions. A recent report of the European Union Institute for Security Studies discusses the ‘new geopolitical frontlines’ in terms of four geographical spaces (sands, oceans, cities and peripheries) and four functional domains (trade, digital, jobs and information). It is obvious that Africa currently faces a broad array of geopolitical opportunities and challenges. Driven by Africa’s economic dynamism, the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) is an obvious opportunity to redraw the (regional) economic boundaries that are dividing the continent. The agreement could be a motor for economic development, by creating a larger intra-African market, and could reduce economic dependence on other parts of the world. The AfCFTA not only aims to liberalise continent-wide trade, but is also intent on establishing the free movement of persons, capital and services.

The various geopolitical spaces contain noticeable centripetal forces that may have a positive influence in the African geopolitical landscape, while certain centrifugal developments could lead to more adverse outcomes. The Sahara is both the area that connects the countries of North and sub-Saharan Africa, and a fertile ground for criminal activity, including human and drug trafficking, and the rise of transnational terrorist networks. Likewise, the Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Guinea are areas of trade and military activity while they also attract groups involved in piracy and armed robbery. African cities are the hotbed of growing middle classes and economic dynamism, but they also contain the potential for political mobilisation and resistance to the dominance of political and economic elites. Finally, peripheral areas, which are distant from the political centre of the state, are vulnerable to the rise of extremist, jihadist groups.

The upcoming panel at the EADI CEsA 2023 General Conference will be a place to assess and discuss the extent to which geopolitics has returned in the Global South and what are the implications of this return. Important questions are: does heightened geopolitical struggle offer opportunities for the countries in the Global South to maintain or strengthen their political and/or economic position, are there any obvious allies for addressing geopolitical challenges, how do the countries in the Global South define their own geopolitical position, and is regional cooperation a viable instrument to counter geopolitical fallout?

Wil Hout is Professor of Governance and International Political Economy at the International Institute of Social Studies, Erasmus University Rotterdam, The Netherlands.

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