The world is witnessing a new era of great power competition between the United States and China, with Russia playing a spoiler role. The outcome of this rivalry will shape the global order for decades to come.
But the fate of this contest will not be decided by the actions of Washington, Beijing, or Moscow alone. It will also depend on how a group of influential countries in the global south navigate the shifting geopolitical landscape.
These countries are the geopolitical swing states of the 21st century. They are relatively stable and prosperous nations that have their own global agendas independent of the great powers, and the will and capabilities to turn those agendas into realities.
They are more demanding, flexible, dynamic, and strategic than they could have been in the 20th century, when they had to choose between alignment or non-alignment with one bloc or another.
And they will often choose multi-alignment, a strategy that will make them critical—and sometimes unpredictable—forces in the world’s next stage of globalization, and the next phase of great power competition.
These geopolitical swing states fall into four overlapping categories:
– Countries with a competitive advantage in a critical aspect of global supply chains.
– Countries uniquely suited for nearshoring, offshoring, or friendshoring.
– Countries with a disproportionate amount of capital and willingness to deploy it around the world.
– Countries with developed economies and leaders with global visions that they pursue within certain constraints.
Six countries stand out as exemplars of these categories: Turkey, India, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Indonesia, and Brazil. These countries have more power today than ever before for several reasons: They have more agency, they benefit from regionalization, and they can leverage U.S.-China tensions.
The geopolitical swing states have more agency than ever before because they have grown more confident and capable in pursuing their own interests and values on the global stage. They have developed their own sources of soft and hard power, such as cultural influence, economic clout, military strength, diplomatic networks, and technological innovation.
They have also diversified their partnerships and alliances, seeking to balance their relations with both the U.S. and China, as well as other regional and global actors. Turkey has emerged as a regional powerbroker and a global player in defense, energy, humanitarian aid, and mediation. It has pursued an assertive foreign policy under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has sought to expand Turkey’s influence in its neighborhood and beyond.
Turkey has intervened militarily in Syria, Libya, Iraq, Azerbaijan, and Somalia; challenged Greece and Cyprus over maritime rights in the Eastern Mediterranean; supported Qatar against a Saudi-led blockade; hosted millions of refugees from Syria and Afghanistan; mediated between Iran and the West; and built close ties with Russia despite being a NATO member.
India has risen as a major economic and strategic power in Asia and the world. It has pursued a multi-aligned foreign policy under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has sought to enhance India’s role as a leading voice for democracy, development, and diversity.
India has deepened its strategic partnership with the U.S., joined the Quad alliance with Japan, Australia, and the U.S., engaged with China on trade and border issues despite tensions; expanded its outreach to Africa and Latin America; invested in connectivity projects in its neighborhood; and championed initiatives such as the International Solar Alliance and the Coalition for Disaster Resilient Infrastructure.
Saudi Arabia has transformed its economy and society under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), who has sought to diversify Saudi Arabia’s sources of income away from oil dependence, modernize its social norms and institutions, and assert its leadership in the Arab and Muslim worlds.
Saudi Arabia has launched an ambitious Vision 2030 reform program, led a military intervention in Yemen against Iranian-backed rebels, normalized relations with Israel, hosted major summits such as the G20, invested heavily in emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence and biotechnology, and established strategic partnerships with China, India, and Russia, while maintaining its alliance with the U.S.
The geopolitical swing states have also benefited from regionalization, the process by which regions become more integrated and interdependent economically, politically, and culturally. Regionalization offers opportunities for these countries to enhance their influence and interests in their respective regions, as well as to cooperate with other regional powers on common challenges and opportunities.
Regionalization also creates a buffer against the pressures and uncertainties of the global system, allowing these countries to pursue their own models of development and governance. South Africa has played a pivotal role in advancing regional integration and cooperation in Africa, as well as representing African interests and perspectives on the global stage.
It has been a founding member and a leader of the African Union (AU), the Southern African Development Community (SADC), and the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD). It has also participated in peacekeeping and mediation efforts in countries such as Sudan, Somalia, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. South Africa has leveraged its position as the most industrialized and diversified economy in Africa to attract foreign investment and trade, especially from China, India, and the EU.
Indonesia has emerged as a key player in Southeast Asia and the wider Indo-Pacific region, as well as a bridge between Asia and the Islamic world. It has been a driving force behind the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), and the Asia-Africa Strategic Partnership (AASP).
It has also engaged in dialogue and cooperation with other regional actors such as China, Japan, India, Australia, and the U.S. on issues such as maritime security, counterterrorism, climate change, and pandemic response. Indonesia has leveraged its position as the largest economy and the most populous Muslim-majority country in Southeast Asia to promote its vision of a democratic, tolerant, and prosperous region.
Brazil has been a leader in Latin America and the Caribbean, as well as a voice for the global south on issues such as trade, environment, and human rights. It has been a founding member and a driving force behind regional organizations such as Mercosur, Unasur, and Celac.
It has also engaged in dialogue and cooperation with other regional actors such as the U.S., China, India, and the EU on issues such as energy security, infrastructure development, and social inclusion. Brazil has leveraged its position as the largest economy and the most populous country in Latin America to advance its interests and values in the region and beyond.
The geopolitical swing states have also gained more leverage in the global system by exploiting the opportunities and challenges created by U.S.-China competition. They have sought to maximize their benefits from both sides, while minimizing their costs and risks.
They have also tried to shape the rules and norms of the emerging global order, according to their own preferences and principles. They have not hesitated to challenge or defy either of the great powers, when they perceive their interests or values are threatened or violated.
Turkey has sought to balance its relations with both the U.S. and China, while pursuing its own strategic autonomy. It has maintained its NATO membership and cooperation with the U.S. on issues such as counterterrorism, Afghanistan, and Iran, while also resisting U.S. pressure on issues such as human rights, democracy, and Syria.
It has also expanded its economic ties with China, especially under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), while also expressing concern over China’s treatment of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang. Turkey has also defied both the U.S. and China by acquiring Russian-made S-400 missile defense systems, despite facing sanctions and criticism from both sides.
India has deepened its strategic partnership with the U.S., especially under the Quad framework, while also maintaining its engagement with China on trade and border issues, despite tensions. It has welcomed U.S. support for its bid for a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council, its membership in multilateral export control regimes, and its role as a net security provider in the Indo-Pacific region.
It has also increased its trade with China, especially in sectors such as pharmaceuticals, electronics, and renewable energy, while also pushing back against China’s assertiveness along their disputed border, where a deadly clash occurred in 2020. India has also defied both the U.S. and China by joining RCEP, despite U.S. withdrawal from the pact and China’s dominance in it.
Saudi Arabia has maintained its alliance with the U.S., especially on security and energy issues, while also diversifying its relations with China on economic and technological issues. It has relied on U.S. support for its military intervention in Yemen, its confrontation with Iran, and its normalization with Israel, while also facing U.S. pressure on issues such as human rights, democracy, and nuclear proliferation.
It has also increased its investment in China, especially under the BRI framework, while also seeking Chinese cooperation on issues such as cybersecurity, artificial intelligence, and biotechnology. Saudi Arabia has also defied both the U.S. and China by pursuing its own nuclear program, despite U.S. opposition and Chinese competition.
The rise of these geopolitical swing states will have significant implications for the global order and the great power competition. The global order will become more multipolar and complex, as these countries will shape the rules and norms of the emerging system according to their own preferences and principles.
They will not accept a binary choice between the U.S. and China, but will seek to preserve their strategic autonomy and flexibility. They will also demand more voice and representation in global institutions and forums, such as the U.N., the IMF, the WTO, and the G20.
The great power competition will become more nuanced and dynamic, as these countries will leverage their relations with both the U.S. and China to maximize their benefits and minimize their costs and risks.
They will also exploit the opportunities and challenges created by U.S.-China rivalry to advance their own interests and values. They will not hesitate to challenge or defy either of the great powers, when they perceive their interests or values are threatened or violated.
The global challenges and opportunities will require more cooperation and coordination among these countries and the great powers, as these countries will play a key role in addressing issues such as climate change, pandemic response, cyber security, nuclear proliferation, terrorism, trade, development, and human rights. They will also offer new markets, sources of innovation, and partners for cooperation to both the U.S. and China.
The geopolitical swing states of Turkey, India, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Indonesia, and Brazil are the middle powers of the global south that will decide the future of geopolitics. They have more agency, they benefit from regionalization, and they can leverage U.S.-China tensions.
They have their own global agendas independent of the great powers, and the will and capabilities to turn those agendas into realities. They are more demanding, flexible, dynamic, and strategic than they could have been in the 20th century.
And they will often choose multi-alignment, a strategy that will make them critical—and sometimes unpredictable—forces in the world’s next stage of globalization, and the next phase of great power competition. The U.S., China, and Russia should not take these countries for granted or ignore their interests and values.
They should engage them with respect and pragmatism, seeking areas of convergence and managing areas of divergence. They should also recognize that these countries are not passive bystanders or pawns in their rivalry, but active players and partners in shaping the global order. The geopolitical swing states should not be complacent or reckless in their actions.
They should be aware of the risks and responsibilities that come with their power and influence. They should also be constructive and responsible in their contributions to the global order. They should not only pursue their own interests and values, but also uphold the common interests and values of humanity.