The Global South has become the focus of inter-imperialist rivalry


The German economic institute Institut der Deutschen Wirtschaft (IW) has published a highly interesting report about the shift in trade of Global South countries. In this study, the IW surveyed the development of trade relations of Global South countries with the United States, European Union, China and Russia between 2010-23. 1

The IW calculated the trade of the 25 most important semi-colonial capitalist countries (“Global South”). These countries, which The Economist — an influential bourgeois journal published in Britain — has called the “Transactional 25“ are: nine countries from Asia (Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam), eight countries from the Middle East (Algeria, Egypt, Morocco, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Türkiye, United Arab Emirates and Israel — which, in reality, is an imperialist country), six countries from Latin America (Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Mexico and Peru) and two countries from Sub-Saharan Africa (Nigeria and South Africa)

The main findings of the study are:

1) China has substantially increased its trade with semi-colonial countries since 2010. Between 2019-23 alone, its trade with these countries grew by 47%. While China had a share of nearly 12% in 2010, this has grown to 20% in 2023. Today, it is the most important trading partner for these countries, ahead of the US. The author of the study points out: “If one excludes Mexico, which has a free trade agreement with the USA, from this group of states, the gap becomes one and a half times larger.”

2) The US’ share of Global South trade has remained stable at about 18% during the same period. However, the EU’s share dropped from 18% to 14%.

3) At the same time, Russia has increased its share in the Global South’s trade since 2021, from 1% to 3% — slightly below Germany’s share.

It is worth pointing to another important development: while China’s exports to the Global South have doubled in the past four years, its exports to so-called “developed markets” — a bourgeois economist category for Northern America, Western Europe and Japan — have not moved much. As a result, since 2022, China exports more commodities to semi-colonial countries than to Western imperialist states (including Taiwan and South Korea).2

Lenin and rivalry between imperialist powers

These developments confirm our analysis of imperialism in the 21st century. Global political and economic relations have been characterised by the decline of the “old” imperialist powers — mainly the US, Western Europe and Japan — and the rise of new imperialist powers, first and foremost China but also Russia.3These Great Powers strive for global domination and, therefore, are engaged in accelerating rivalry. Such rivalry results in global trade wars, armament, sanctions, etc.

One of the most important fields of such rivalry is the attempt of these imperialist Great Powers to expand their sphere of influences in the semi-colonial world at the expense of their rivals. Vladimir Lenin, the greatest Marxist thinker of the 20th century together with Leon Trotsky, once pointed out that imperialism is a stage of capitalism where a small group of Great Powers oppresses and exploits most of the peoples on the planet — either directly as colonies or indirectly as formally independent but effectively subjugated semi-colonies.

Imperialism is the highest stage in the development of capitalism, reached only in the twentieth century… Capitalism has developed concentration to such a degree that entire branches of industry are controlled by syndicates, trusts and associations of capitalist multimillionaires and almost the entire globe has been divided up among the “lords of capital” either in the form of colonies, or by entangling other countries in thousands of threads of financial exploitation.4

The essence of Lenin’s analysis of imperialist super-exploitation of the oppressed peoples remains valid, albeit most countries have become formally independent capitalist semi-colonies and only few peoples face direct colonial oppression. One of these are the Palestinian people, who are currently facing genocide by the Zionist Apartheid state of Israel.5Another are the Chechen people, who experienced two horrific wars by Russian imperialism in 1994-96 and 1999-2009.6

As Lenin also noted, imperialist Great Powers strive to hold their own spheres of influence in the Global South and, at the same time, push back rivals in their spheres of influence. 

Imperialism is a fierce struggle of the Great Powers for the division and redivision of the world.7

International socialism versus ”multipolar world order”

As the IW study shows, China — and to a lesser degree Russia — have expanded their spheres of influence in the past years, as their increasing share in trade with the Global South shows. While the US faces various political and economic problems — see for example their current isolation in the UN because of their unconditional support for Israel’s genocide — it is European and Japanese imperialism which have become even weakened in the recent past.8

The study also shows that we no longer live in a “unipolar world” dominated by the US. While the latter remains a strong power, it is no longer the absolute hegemon. However, it would be a mistake to imagine the US could be replaced by another hegemon — at least not for the foreseeable future.9Rather, we have entered a historic period where several imperialist Great Powers — the US, China, Russia, Western Europe and Japan — are rivalling for hegemony. This development is accelerating global instability, wars and economic crisis. The current wars in Ukraine and in Gaza, as well as various other crisis flashpoints (Taiwan and the South China Sea, the Korean Peninsula, Venezuela–Guyana, etc.) are expressions of such a tendency.

The task of Marxists in such a period is not to propagate the concept of a ”multipolar world order”, which is merely a propaganda tool of Eastern imperialism as it glorifies the rise of China and Russia as Great Powers. Rather, it is to oppose all Great Powers — in the East and West —, support the struggles of oppressed peoples against any Great Power and fight for the overthrow of the imperialist system by an international socialist revolution!

Michael Pröbsting is a socialist activist and writer. He is the editor of the website where a version of this article first appeared.