2024/45 “Southeast Asia and the Global South: Rhetoric and Reality” by Hoang Thi Ha and Cha Hae Won

Southeast Asian countries are generally categorised with the Global South across various material indicators and normative dimensions, including their developmental level, membership in organisations representing the Global South, and alignment with the Global South discourse advocating for a more representative and equitable international order. In this picture, a Laotian woman harvesting rice in Don Kong, Laos, taken on 11 November 2019. Photograph by Mathilde Limito/Hans Lucas via AFP.


  • The Global South discourse has been gaining greater salience in contemporary global politics, driven by the shift of the world’s centre of gravity to the Indo-Pacific, the rise of non-Western powers, and intensified great power competition.
  • Both China and the US recognise the strategic importance of engaging the Global South. China focuses on infrastructure development and economic integration with developing nations, while the US prioritises a values-driven development agenda. US engagement with the Global South is further constrained by its withdrawal from the global free trade agenda and its focus on industrial revitalisation through reshoring and friendshoring,
  • Southeast Asian countries are associated with the Global South across various material indicators and normative dimensions, including their developmental level, membership in organisations representing the Global South, and alignment with the Global South discourse advocating for a more representative and equitable international order.
  • However, Southeast Asian countries make their foreign policy decisions based on their respective national interests rather than on ideological solidarity with the Global South. This is evident in their varied responses to the Russia-Ukraine war, the Israel-Hamas conflict, and South China Sea disputes.
  • In economic relations, the region’s prosperity has hinged on its interconnectedness with both the Global North and South, its pragmatism, and its ability to bridge diverse value systems rather than ideological allegiance to any bloc, especially one as heterogeneous as the Global South.

* Hoang Thi Ha is Senior Fellow and Co-coordinator and Cha Hae Won is Research Officer at the Regional Strategic and Political Studies Programme, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.

ISEAS Perspective 2024/45, 14 June 2024

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The Global South discourse – which highlights the perspectives and development needs of developing nations, along with their demand for a more “democratic and equitable international order”[1] – has garnered growing attention in recent years. One catalyst for the comeback of the term “Global South” is the intensifying great power competition. As these powers vie for international support, they increasingly speak of the importance of taking into account Global South perspectives and interests.

Major powers’ approaches to Southeast Asia have begun to embrace the Global South discourse. China positions its relations with the region not only within the traditional context of its neighbourhood policy but also in the Global South framework. Its recent statements to Southeast Asian audiences co-opt Global South language to critique the West and advance its discourse power, such as “safeguarding the interests of developing countries”, “true multilateralism”, “equal and orderly multipolar world”, “universally beneficial and inclusive economic globalisation”, and “common peace, development and prosperity.”[2]

Competing with China for leadership and representation of the Global South, Indian Prime Minister Modi has urged ASEAN leaders to “elevate the Global South for the common interest of all”.[3] Meanwhile, Japan is seeking to be a bridge between the Global North and Global South, and views ASEAN as an important gateway for Japan to strengthen relations with the Global South.[4]

This article contextualises Southeast Asian countries within the Global South discourse, examining where they align with the characteristics generally associated with the Global South and where they diverge in terms of development levels, positions on global governance and security issues, participation in multilateral institutions, and economic relations. It starts by exploring the normative concepts associated with the term “Global South” and its growing salience in global politics today. It then posits that the complexity and diversity of Southeast Asia mirror the broader heterogeneity within the Global South, where states make foreign policy based on their national interests rather than aligning wholly with the normative discourse surrounding the Global South. While regional countries exhibit common concerns, needs, and historical associations with the Global South, they are deeply integrated with different political and economic value systems. This interconnection enables them to thrive in ways that defy simplistic Global North-South classifications.


What the term “Global South” entails and whether it merits any analytical or policy relevance have sparked many debates among its supporters and critics.[5] Its meanings are fluid, depending on the specific context and prevailing international circumstances, often appropriated by different countries to advance their own agendas. The term gained traction in the 1970s and 1980s to underscore the socio-economic divide between developed nations, mostly in the Northern hemisphere, and post-colonial developing countries, mostly in the Southern hemisphere.[6] It is viewed as a less derogatory alternative to the term “Third World”, which is used to distinguish developing non-aligned nations from the industrialised democratic “First World” and the now-defunct communist Soviet-led “Second World”.[7] In its most simplistic interpretation, “Global South” is employed by its proponents to denote the “Rest” of the global community versus the “West”,[8] signifying the former’s desire for a multipolar world and their challenge to the Western liberal values and privileges embedded in the system. While such contestations have historically existed, they are more pronounced today, propelled by the shift of the world’s centre of gravity from the Trans-Atlantic to the Indo-Pacific, the ascent of non-Western powers like China and India, and the West’s relative decline.

As it encompasses a diverse array of developing countries in Asia, Africa, Oceania, and Latin America, the term “Global South” glosses over numerous contradictions, diversities and exceptions. The fact that the two self-proclaimed leaders of the Global South – China and India – cannot forge Asian solidarity because of their own territorial disputes, nationalism, and contest for influence in their neighbourhood, is a clear reflection of this condition.[9]

Despite its inherent heterogeneities, some characteristics are generally associated with the Global South. Firstly, it represents the general state of underdevelopment across many developing nations and their economic divide with industrialised and developed countries. The former are represented in the Group of 77 (G-77), which now boasts 134 member countries.[10] The latter are members of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) or the more exclusive Group of Seven (G-7). Secondly, this North-South economic divide is perceived by Global South countries as “rooted in the colonial era and sustained by global capitalism”,[11] perpetuated by the imbalances in the post-World War II international system favouring Western countries. These imbalances persist in developing countries’ limited representation and decision-making power in the United Nations Security Council and international financial institutions, the dominance of the US dollar, and developed countries’ discriminatory trade policies. Thirdly, Global South countries historically share normative solidarity in anti-colonialism, anti-neocolonialism, anti-hegemonism and advocacy for multipolarity. They have consistently voiced their calls for global governance reforms, stressing the importance of national sovereignty and opposing external interference, resisting Western-centric agendas concerning human rights and democracy, and demanding more equitable access by developing countries to markets, technologies and finance. As noted by Nour Dados and Raewyn Connel, “the term Global South functions as more than a metaphor for underdevelopment. It references an entire history of colonialism, neo-imperialism, and differential economic and social change through which large inequalities in living standards, life expectancy, and access to resources are maintained.”[12]

These normative commonalities make the Global South discourse appealing to non-Western powers in their contest for global influence. It also pressures the West to refocus on addressing the developing world’s economic needs instead of merely pursuing a values-driven agenda surrounding environmental standards, labour rights, civil society and gender equity. Despite its inherent heterogeneities, the increasing use of the term “Global South” in today’s global politics demonstrates that whether the Global South exists as an ontological reality matters less than how nations utilise it to advance their interests. As described by Sarang Shidore “the global south exists not as a coherent, organised grouping so much as a geopolitical fact.”[13]

China, in particular, has actively utilised the Global South discourse, portraying itself as the world’s largest developing country, hence “a natural member of the ‘Global South’”.[14] China maintains longstanding institutional connections with the Global South through the “G-77 and China” framework.[15] Beijing also played a key role in the BRICS expansion to include Argentina, Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in 2023.[16] Beijing’s strategic elbow-locking with the Global South is evident in its launch of the Global Development Initiative and China International Development Cooperation Agency (CIDCA) aimed at promoting South-South cooperation, and its increased contribution to the South-South Cooperation Assistance Fund. This concerted effort is seen as a significant repositioning of the Global South “to the centre of Chinese foreign policy”.[17]

China’s investment in the Global South aligns with its strategic goals amid its intensifying competition with the US and estrangement from the West. From the Chinese perspective, alignment with the Global South forms “a strong constraint on hegemony, Cold War thinking, and bloc politics” and helps boost China’s international legitimacy, support and partnerships since it views the Global South as “gradually coalescing into a united international political and economic force” to reshape global governance.[18] China also co-opts the Global South’s anti-hegemonic discourse, especially the appeal of global governance reforms to achieve a more “equitable” international system. By aligning itself with this discourse and presenting itself as a champion of developing countries’ interests, China seeks to challenge Western dominance in the international system and secure a greater role in shaping the global order. China’s investment in the Global South also has a powerful economic logic as developing countries have emerged as the largest markets for Chinese goods, investments and development financing. For example, the ten ASEAN countries collectively are currently China’s largest trading partner, a major export market for Chinese electric vehicles (EV), and a key destination of Belt and Road Initiative financing.[19] The increasing protectionist policies by the US and its western allies, which disadvantage Chinese goods and investments in these countries, have underscored the urgency of China’s economic pivot towards the developing world.[20]

While the US does not embrace the “Global South” discourse, it recognises the strategic necessity to compete with China in the developing world, especially in terms of addressing shared global challenges, as articulated in its 2022 National Security Strategy and Indo-Pacific Strategy.[21] It launched the new strategy towards Sub-Saharan Africa in 2022[22] and the first ever U.S. Pacific Partnership Strategy,[23] hosted the inaugural Americas Partnership for Economic Prosperity Leaders’ Summit,[24] and donated nearly 700 million doses of Covid-19 vaccines to 116 developing countries.[25] The proposed budget request of US$63 billion for the US State Department and the US Agency for International Development (USAID) in 2024 reflects this strategic imperative, supporting initiatives aimed at “outcompeting China” and addressing global development challenges.[26] However, while China’s focus is primarily on infrastructure building and economic integration with the Global South, the US’ development agenda is heavily values-driven, with a strong emphasis on supporting democracies, promoting gender equality, fighting corruption, and addressing climate change.

The US has also pooled resources with its Indo-Pacific partners with a view of “offering a better value proposition to developing countries”.[27] Initiatives such as the Quad Vaccine Partnership, the India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor,[28] the G-7’s Build Back Better World (B3W) initiative,[29] and the Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment (PGII)[30] and the Blue Dot Network are aimed at meeting global challenges and infrastructure needs in the developing world.[31] However, their tangible outcomes have been limited. Challenges include the discrepancy between ambitious plans for high-quality infrastructure on the one hand, and insufficient financing to realise these projects, on the other. The Biden administration’s strategic priorities on rebuilding national power and strengthening alliances have necessitated re-thinking on globalisation and free trade policies, towards a greater emphasis on economic security and industrial revitalisation through reshoring and friendshoring. This shift implies that access to the US market, technologies, and investments will face more restrictions for the majority of developing nations going forward. Furthermore, the US political economy, which relies on the private sector to drive foreign investments (and infrastructure building is not Corporate America’s forte) poses structural constraints for Washington in matching the magnitude of Chinese state-led investments in developing countries.


As post-colonial nations with mostly developing economies and non-aligned foreign policies, Southeast Asian countries are generally categorised as part of the Global South, albeit with Singapore and Brunei as outliers in terms of development level. Singapore’s per capita GDP of US$82,808 nearly doubles the OECD average of US$44,671 whereas Brunei closely trails the OECD at US$37,512. The remaining Southeast Asian countries fall well below the OECD average, spanning from US$1,000 to US$12,000.[32] Singapore and the OECD also share similar levels of human development index (HDI), with respective HDI at 0.949 and 0.906. Following behind are Brunei, Malaysia and Thailand in the low 0.8 range; Vietnam, Indonesia and the Philippines in the low 0.7 range; and Laos, Myanmar, Cambodia and Timor-Leste between 0.5-0.6.[33]

In terms of membership in multilateral institutions associated with the Global South, all Southeast Asian countries are members of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) and the G-77, whose aim is to promote the collective interests of developing countries, enhance their negotiating capacity on international issues, and foster South-South cooperation. Statements by Southeast Asian leaders at these fora emphasise the importance of upholding sovereignty and political independence, reforming multilateral institutions for more equity and greater presentation of developing countries, refraining from trade discrimination, adequately financing developing countries to meet sustainable development goals.[34] On the climate change issue, they uphold the principle of “Common but Differentiated Responsibilities and Respective Capabilities” (CBDR-RC), emphasise the historical contributions of developed countries to greenhouse gas emissions, and demand assistance to developing nations to achieve climate goals.[35] China is on the same page with Southeast Asian countries in this respect. The US acknowledges the CBDR-RC but such acknowledgment does not imply that it “recognizes or accepts any international obligation or liability, or alleviates the liability of the developing country”.[36]

Southeast Asian countries have historically demonstrated normative alignment with the Global South through common voting behaviours on political issues at the UN. In the early 1990s, they advocated “Asian values” as a challenge to “the hegemony of liberal democracy as a political norm”.[37] They consistently support resolutions aligned with Global South perspectives on human rights and democracy, which challenge the universalisation of human rights, oppose unilateral coercive measures, and advocate for “alternative approaches” to the realisation of human rights, placing emphasis on “cultural diversity”, “national and regional particularities”, “the right to development” and “the economic-social dimensions” of democracy (Figure 1). Conversely, they vote against or abstain from Global North-leaning human rights resolutions that criticise human rights conditions in other countries (Figure 2). China’s voting aligns closely with Southeast Asian countries, while the US’ voting stance is diametrically opposed. Another area of alignment between Southeast Asian countries and the Global South, including China, is in supporting resolutions on “decolonisation”. Accordingly, they consistently vote for resolutions condemning Israeli settlements in occupied Palestinian territory and affirming the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination. In stark contrast, the US has consistently stood in direct opposition (Figures 3 and 4).

Figure 1. Votes for Global South-Leaning Human Rights Resolutions (2019 – 2023)

Source: UN Digital Library (Compiled by authors)

Figure 2. Votes for Global North-Leaning Human Rights Resolutions (2019 – 2023)

Source: UN Digital Library (Compiled by authors)

Figure 3. Votes on Resolutions Pertaining to Decolonisation (2019-2023)

Source: UN Digital Library (Compiled by authors)

Figure 4. Votes on Resolutions Supporting the Palestinian People and Statehood

Source: UN Watch Database (Compiled by authors)


National Interests Override Global South Rhetoric

Despite the normative alignment among Global South nations in demanding a more equitable world order, Southeast Asian countries do not make their foreign policy decisions based on their ideological solidarity with the Global South, but primarily on their respective national interests and priorities. There is considerable diversity within Southeast Asia, and their foreign policies do not always match the normative expectations associated with the Global South.

For example, while many commentaries have highlighted varied international responses to the Russia-Ukraine war as a reflection of the Global North-South contrast,[38] Southeast Asian responses span the whole spectrum (Figure 5), challenging assumptions of uniform alignment within the region or with the Global South. Singapore has imposed sanctions on Russia and supported UNGA resolutions condemning Russia; the Philippines transitioned from abstentions to supporting these resolutions under the Marcos Jr administration; Indonesia, Malaysia, Cambodia, and Thailand maintain a neutral stance, offering certain support for resolutions condemning Russia; and both Vietnam and Laos predominantly abstained (78% of the votes).

On the Israel-Palestine issue, despite their widespread sympathy for the Palestinian people and support for the establishment of an independent Palestinian state, Southeast Asian responses to the Israel-Hamas conflict in October 2023 were varied between Muslim majority nations and non-Muslim nations. Singapore and the Philippines condemned the attacks by Hamas which then led to Israel’s subsequent disproportionate attacks on Gaza. Muslim-majority Indonesia attributed “the root of the conflict” to “the occupation of the Palestinian territories by Israel”,[39] Malaysia expressed solidarity with the Palestine people and maintains ties with Hamas,[40] and Brunei condemned Israel’s occupation and illegal settlements.[41] Thailand and Vietnam meanwhile have expressed concerns but adopted a more neutral stance.[42]

Closer to home, the South China Sea (SCS) issue sheds light on how nations in Southeast Asia and the Global South at large have prioritised their interests over standing up for international law and for fellow small states in the face of larger powers, i.e. China. This dynamic has played out at NAM meetings in recent years. In 2016, ASEAN countries reached a consensus for an update on the SCS language in the conference’s Final Document (the update mentioned their concerns over developments in the SCS), but it eventually was not reflected due to objection by some NAM members. At the 2024 NAM, ASEAN countries even failed to reach consensus on the group’s proposed wording on the SCS due to differences among themselves.[43]

Figure 5. Votes on Resolutions Condemning Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine (2022-2023)

Source: UN Watch Database (Compiled by authors)

Global North-South Interconnection, Not South-South Cooperation, Is Key to Southeast Asia’s Economic Success

While joining the Global South chorus in demanding for a more just world, Southeast Asia – perhaps more than any other Global South sub-region – stands out as a success story of globalisation through cross-border trade, investment and technology flows. Since the end of the Cold War, all Southeast Asian nations, except for the Philippines, have climbed up their respective income levels in World Bank rankings. Their economic development is intricately tied to extensive connections with both developing and developed nations as they play a significant role in the global supply chains. ASEAN has consistently been either the first or second-largest recipient of foreign direct investment (FDI) in the developing world. Despite a decline in global FDI flows, the region remains an attractive investment destination, reaching US$224 billion in 2022, accounting for 17% of global FDI despite representing only 8% of the world population.[44] Collectively, ASEAN countries rank as China’s largest trading partner, Japan and Korea’s 2nd largest trading partner, the EU’s 3rd trading partner, and India and the US’ 4th largest trading partner. As noted by Ian Chong, “much of the region’s economic growth and prosperity over the past three decades lay in accessing capital and technology from North America, Europe and Japan to produce components for export to China or assemble parts from China for the world market.”[45] Between 2013 and 2022, Global North countries collectively accounted for 36-38 per cent of ASEAN’s total trade, the rest of the world 19-22 per cent, and China 14-20 per cent.

Notably, ASEAN maintained a robust trade surplus with Global North countries at US$82.4 billion on average in 2013-2022 and sustained an equivalent trade deficit of US$84 billion with China in the same period.[46] Of note, the trade dynamics between China and ASEAN increasingly resemble the typical North-South pattern with China exporting high-value, high-tech manufactured goods while some Southeast Asian nations mainly export commodities or serve as assembly and packaging locations.[47] In these economic relations, the pursuit of national economic power and the logic of capitalism trump any abstract notion of South-South solidarity.

The economic realities of Southeast Asian countries demonstrate that they have been active participants and beneficiaries of the current economic system, not hapless victims or passive price-takers. In fact, through ASEAN and other minilateral approaches, they have forged a network of regional free trade agreements with almost all major trading partners, actively shaping rules that align with their interests. While grievances exist, particularly regarding trade conditionalities imposed by developed nations on environmental or political grounds, they do not represent wholesale discontent with the system, as implied by the Global South rhetoric.


The resurgence of the Global South discourse has magnified the voices of developing nations, including those in Southeast Asia, enabling them to air their grievances and advocate for their interests more assertively. However, despite the general normative alignment within the Global South in the demand for a more “democratic and equitable international order”, the realities of global politics and economy are far more intricate, diverse and nuanced than the simplistic North-South binary. This complexity is particularly pronounced in Southeast Asia.

In this regard, Indonesia presents an intriguing case. On the one hand, it is the most vocal ASEAN country in pushing the Global South discourse for its own interests. President Joko Widodo asserted, “Global South nations must have the opportunity to export more than just raw materials, unlike during the colonial era”, to make the case for Indonesia’s development of downstream industries in the EV supply chain.[48] A senior Indonesian diplomat lambasted the EU’s deforestation regulations, which impact Indonesian timber and palm oil exports, as “recolonisation of the Global South”.[49] Foreign minister Retno Marsudi actively highlighted the needs and grievances of the Global South at many international engagements.[50] On the other hand, Indonesia has applied for accession to the OECD, hoping that OECD standards will serve as benchmarks and best practices, and that OECD membership will provide peer support for its development.[51] Indonesia’s hedging of its bets between the Global South and North illustrates the Southeast Asian DNA of pragmatism and inclusiveness. The success formula for Southeast Asian countries has historically been their ability to integrate into and bridge between different value systems rather than ideologically subscribing to a particular bloc, especially one that is as heterogeneous as the Global South.


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