Table of contents
Concern has gripped policymakers in Washington that the United States and its democratic partners in Europe and the Indo-Pacific have “lost” the Global South to China. Support among the world’s developing countries will prove critical in deciding who wins and who loses in the widening and intensifying competition between the United States and China over global governance, the role of international institutions, the norms and principles of diplomacy, methods of trade and finance, and the shape of the global order itself.
Beijing has devoted ample diplomatic and financial resources to wooing the governments of the Global South to support its goals and ideas—from the lavish infrastructure-building Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) to the formation of special forums—all wrapped in a pointed message: China won’t do the awful things the West did to you. It’s an appealing package to many leaders in the Global South, who are frustrated with their countries’ slow pace of development and lack of influence within the US-led global system, and they are looking for alternative sources of finance, assistance, and support to advance their desire for greater wealth and influence. Beijing has been able to capitalize on these justified complaints and concerns to portray China as the defender and partner of the Global South against what Chinese messaging characterizes as an unsympathetic West intent only on maintaining its political and economic dominance.
By contrast, the United States and its partners have appeared to lack the same commitment to the wants and needs of the Global South or have taken their influence within the developing world for granted. Distracted by domestic divisions, burdened by the heavy baggage of past mistakes, and fixated on issues of marginal interest to the developing world (such as the war in Ukraine), policymakers in Washington and elsewhere in the West seem to have forfeited the initiative in the Global South to a more focused and assertive China. Even though the Biden administration has recognized this flaw in American foreign policy and started to devote more attention to the Global South —with new development initiatives and forms of outreach —the US is clearly playing from behind, and with an effort that still appears short on focus and resources. That narrative of a failing West, however, is not entirely true, either. The United States still holds tremendous sway throughout the Global South and engages with developing nations much more deeply and broadly than China, which is still in the process of building its diplomatic networks and programs in many parts of the world.
Nevertheless, there is clear evidence that Beijing’s tireless efforts are bearing fruit. Beijing’s diplomats have been able to garner support from the Global South at the United Nations to defend its human rights record against criticism from the major democracies and to forward its economic programs and political ideas within the institution’s system.1See, for instance, Kristine Lee and Alexander Sullivan, “People’s Republic of the United Nations,” Center for a New American Security, May 2019, https://www.cnas.org/publications/reports/peoples-republic-of-the-united-nations. Chinese influence is growing in regions of the world where it has previously played a minor role, most notably, the Middle East. Beijing surprised the diplomatic community by mediating a détente between Saudi Arabia and Iran in March, potentially reshaping the region’s politics.2Michael Schuman, “China Plays Peacemaker,” Atlantic, March 14, 2023, https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2023/03/china-iran-saudi-arabia-diplomacy-soft-power/673384/. Even in Latin America—Washington’s supposed backyard—China is making inroads. During a official visit to China in April, Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva said that the world’s developing countries should use their own currencies in trade rather than the US dollar, a position that dovetails perfectly with Beijing’s efforts to end the greenback’s global dominance.3Joe Leahy and Hudson Lockett, “Brazil’s Lula Calls for End to Dollar Trade Dominance,” Financial Times, April 13, 2023, https://www.ft.com/content/669260a5-82a5-4e7a-9bbf-4f41c54a6143. Meanwhile, China’s central bank has been a major source of emergency funds for Argentina that have helped the cash-strapped country avoid defaulting on International Monetary Fund loans.4“China Holds the Key to Avoiding Argentina’s IMF Default, the Price Tag Is Unknown,” Reuters, Aug. 2, 2023. https://www.reuters.com/markets/china-holds-key-avoiding-argentinas-imf-default-price-tag-is-unknown-2023-08-02/.
So, is it “game over” for America in the Global South? Not quite. What has gone generally unrecognized is how dramatically the relationship between China and the Global South is changing, and how those changes—and Beijing’s fumbled response to them—are hampering Chinese ambitions to lead the nations of the developing world and capitalize on their support to remake the global order.
The growing difficulties, disputes, and disparities between China and much of the rest of the Global South are opening up new opportunities for Washington and its partners to reassert their influence in the developing world and push back against China’s growing power. The game over influence in the Global South is really just beginning.
China’s diplomacy in the Global South
The leaders of the People’s Republic of China have long considered themselves to be fellow travelers with the poor nations of the world. By its reckoning, China has shared a similar experience over the past two centuries with the postcolonial world. “Sliced like a melon” by Western powers in the nineteenth century, China claims to sympathize with those societies in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East, which also had their destinies altered by European imperialism and continue to face frustrations with persistent poverty and lack of influence in a world still dominated by their former rulers.
Beijing’s outreach to the Global South has been longstanding and extensive. China has been a leading voice for the interests of downtrodden developing countries on issues such as climate change. China’s President Xi Jinping has intensified Beijing’s campaign to win the Global South as both a method of expanding Chinese political and economic influence and of attempting to pressure and marginalize the democratic powers. The BRI was designed to create stronger ties of trade, investment, and finance between China and the developing world, with the intent of enhancing Chinese political influence and offering low-income countries an alternative source of development financing to the institutions of the Western powers, such as the World Bank. Chinese leaders have introduced myriad forums, conferences, and summits to promote dialogue with and closer ties to nations in the Global South.5Michael Schuman, Jonathan Fulton, and Tuvia Gering, “How Beijing’s Newest Global Initiatives Seek to Remake the World Order,” Atlantic Council, June 21, 2023, https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/in-depth-research-reports/issue-brief/how-beijings-newest-global-initiatives-seek-to-remake-the-world-order/. For instance, in May 2023, Xi hosted China’s inaugural summit of Central Asian leaders in the city of Xi’an, the historic eastern point of the Silk Road trading routes that long connected the two regions.6Statement from China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, May 19, 2023, https://www.fmprc.gov.cn/mfa_eng/zxxx_662805/202305/t20230519_11080116.html. The Global Development Initiative (GDI), a major plank of Xi’s vision for a China-centric world order, is crafted to appeal to the Global South with lofty goals of pursuing greater economic justice in the international economy.7See Schuman, Fulton, and Gering, “How Beijing’s Newest Global Initiatives Seek.”
In fact, Xi’s administration is attempting to redefine world affairs as something of a global class war: the rich, advanced economies against the poor, developing world. According to a summary of March 2023 comments published in state media, Qin Gang, China’s foreign minister at the time, said that “the principal contradiction in today’s world is not at all a so-called ‘democracy vs autocracy’ played up by a handful of countries, but a struggle between development and containment of development, and between global justice and power politics.”8“Chinese FM Expounds on Xi’s State Visit to Russia,” China Global Television Network, March 23, 2023, https://newsaf.cgtn.com/news/2023-03-23/Chinese-FM-expounds-on-Xi-s-state-visit-to-Russia-1iol8wgHGYE/index.html.
Beijing wraps that idea into a broader message to the Global South: China is not the West, and Beijing will treat developing nations with greater respect; China, for instance, won’t meddle in other countries’ internal affairs, preach its political ideology, or impose policies through forms of economic coercion, as the United States and its partners regularly do. In typical comments, Chinese Vice President Han Zhang told the United Nations General Assembly in September 2023 that China “breathes the same breath with other developing countries and shares the same future with them.” Beijing, he continued, supports methods of’ development “in keeping with their national conditions.”9“China, at UN, Presents Itself as Member a Member of the Global South, Alternative to a Western Model,” Associated Press, Sept. 22, 2023. https://apnews.com/article/un-china-global-south-general-assembly-d8620e4502757c4de9ab41543f14eccb.
Increasingly, Xi is marketing what he considers China’s model of modernization as a superior alternative (and antidote) to “Westernization.”10“Xi Stresses Grasping, Advancing Chinese Modernization,” Xinhua, February 7, 2023. https://english.news.cn/20230207/07996f730a29494391b6b95d9651b8de/c.html. Qin stated in March that “Chinese modernization is not pursued through war, colonization, or plundering. It is dedicated to peace, development, cooperation and mutual benefit…It is a new path different from Western modernization.”11Qin Gang Press Conference of March 17, 2023, Transcript, Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, https://www.fmprc.gov.cn/eng/wjdt_665385/zyjh_665391/202303/t20230307_11037190.html.
Beijing’s message clearly has appeal in parts of the Global South. While views of China among the developed democracies and their partners are almost universally negative—83 percent of Americans, 76 percent of Germans, 87 percent of Japanese, and 87 percent of Australians held unfavorable opinions of China in a 2023 Pew Research Center survey12“Record High Negative Ratings for China in Most Countries Surveyed,” Pew Research Center, July 26, 2023. https://www.pewresearch.org/global/2023/07/27/chinas-approach-to-foreign-policy-gets-largely-negative-reviews-in-24-country-survey/pg_2023-07-27_views-of-china_0-03/.—the country’s image in the developing world tends to be more positive. A 2022 global poll by the YouGov-Cambridge Globalism Project noted “an obvious divide between the West and other parts of the world in general sentiment” toward China.13“China’s Reputation Declines While America’s Gets a Boost,” YouGov (website), October 24, 2022, https://yougov.co.uk/topics/international/articles-reports/2022/10/24/chinas-reputation-declines-while-americas-gets-boo. In Saudi Arabia and Egypt, 57 percent expressed a positive view of China’s role in the world; in Mexico, 59 percent; Brazil, 50 percent; Indonesia, 53 percent; Thailand, 66 percent; Kenya, 82 percent; Nigeria, 83 percent; and South Africa, 61 percent.14YouGov-Cambridge Globalism Project 2022, Data from Global Survey (February 25, 2019, to September 22, 2022), https://docs.cdn.yougov.com/iwjpfp3ao9/Globalism%202022%20-%20China%20and%20country%20reputation%20-%20Annual%20comparison.pdf.
China’s growing influence in the Global South is supported by its expanding economic role. The country’s largest trading partner is not the United States or European Union, but the ten-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), with $975 billion of goods exchanged between them in 2022.15Address by Chinese Ambassador to ASEAN, February 21, 2023, http://asean.china-mission.gov.cn/eng/stxw/202302/t20230221_11028599.htm. In 2001, a mere 4 percent of sub-Saharan Africa’s merchandise trade was with China; by 2020, that share had topped 25 percent, overtaking the region’s trade with the United States and the European Union.16Amin Mohseni-Cheraghlou and Naomi Aladekob, “China in Sub-Saharan Africa: Reaching Far Beyond Natural Resources,” Atlantic Council, March 6, 2023, https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/in-depth-research-reports/issue-brief/china-in-sub-saharan-africa-reaching-far-beyond-natural-resources/. A rising proportion of Chinese outbound foreign direct investment is also flowing to the developing world. According to data from the American Enterprise Institute, less than a quarter of China’s foreign direct investment went to countries affiliated with the BRI in 2017; in 2022, that proportion rose to 60 percent (though of a smaller total amount).17Michael Schuman, “China and the West Are Coming Apart. Can China’s Economy Continue to Rise?” Atlantic, June 8, 2023, https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2023/06/china-economy-xi-jinping-us-relationship-investment-trade/674321/.
This combination of effective messaging, diplomatic persistence, and real economic heft has already paid dividends for Xi’s global agenda. For instance, in October 2022, the United Nations Human Rights Council voted against a debate on China’s conduct in Xinjiang that was proposed by the United States and its allies—a diplomatic victory for China that was largely achieved with support from the Global South.18Yuan Yang, “UN Human Rights Council Blocks Debate on China’s Abuses in Xinjiang,” Financial Times, October 7, 2022, https://www.ft.com/content/e00c7c4f-f28a-4d6e-b9a4-eb89df8d6d81. More broadly, Beijing has tried to beat back criticism of its record in Xinjiang through its influence in the Global South. During a June visit to Beijing, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas endorsed Beijing’s repression of its Muslim minority in Xinjiang, asserting in a joint statement that the policy has “nothing to do with human rights” and instead is “aimed at excising extremism.”19“Palestinian Leader Abbas Ends China Trip after Backing Beijing’s Crackdown on Muslim Minorities,” Associated Press, June 16, 2023, https://apnews.com/article/china-palestinians-abbas-xinjiang-7aa4038f6a3302dcaaedd23d44e0a3de.
Xi’s ultimate goal appears to be to overwhelm the United States and its allies and partners by creating a larger bloc of supporters within the Global South. In that way, he can outvote the United States in international organizations, such as the UN, in order to repurpose them to advance his own aims and promote new forums that can act as counterweights to the American alliance system and groups comprised of American partners, such as the Group of Seven. That strategy has become apparent in Xi’s approach to the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa), for instance. At its summit in August 2023, the BRICS added six more members. At least half of those are states with close economic links to China (Egypt, Ethiopia, and Iran), while another (Argentina) is increasingly reliant on Chinese economic support. Of the remaining two, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, the former appears to be drifting into Beijing’s orbit. The Global Times, a news outlet controlled by the Chinese Communist Party, opined after the summit that “as long as the spirit of BRICS is upheld, opportunities for cooperation and progress can be found everywhere. As more like-minded developing countries join BRICS, a stronger collective force will form, emitting a more resounding ‘BRICS voice,’ driving the world toward good governance.”20“West Underestimates BRICS’ Resolve for Solidarity, Cooperation,” Global Times, Aug. 24, 2023, https://www.globaltimes.cn/page/202308/1296939.shtml.
The new balance of power in the Global South
The increasing importance of China’s political and economic role in the Global South also points to the changing nature of Beijing’s relationship with other developing countries. Chinese leaders may like to characterize themselves as like-minded sufferers of poverty and discrimination, but the reality is that China has become a great power and the dominant player in the Global South, with far larger resources, industrial might, and diplomatic influence than any other developing country. China’s gross domestic product represents about 18 percent of the world total: only slightly smaller than the share of the rest of the developing world, which is just above 24 percent.21Figures are based on data from the IMF World Economic Outlook database of April 2023. Add in Xi’s widening ambitions to rival the United States and reshape global governance, and China is now in the position of acting as an alternative power to the West within the Global South, not merely one developing country among many, or even a first among equals.
Those factors have altered the power dynamic within the Global South and between China and the developing world. China now has an unequal relationship with the Global South. It is the one with the money, the power, and the ambition to lead not just the Global South, but the world—and thus it has become both a patron and a superior. In many respects, China’s relationship with developing countries has become remarkably similar to the relations that “First World” countries have with the Global South. Even more, Xi actively seeks influence over the Global South to bolster China’s efforts to remake the world order, roll back American power, and assert its own dominance. Increasingly, Beijing expects members of the Global South to follow its lead, adhere to its principles, and support its aims. China’s larger political and economic influence in the Global South has come with strings firmly attached.
At the same time, China’s increased power has also come with greater responsibility for the welfare and interests of the Global South—a role with which Beijing seems profoundly uncomfortable. That has sparked dissension within the Global South over China’s policies and position and made Beijing a target of criticism from other developing countries.
The most obvious indication of this altered balance of power is China’s role as banker to the world’s emerging economies. China is now the largest official bilateral creditor after a decade-plus surge of lending. According to Boston University’s Global Development Policy Center, China’s two main state-owned policy banks—the Export-Import Bank of China and China Development Bank—provided $498 billion in development finance to 100 countries between 2008 and 2021, which is about 80 percent of the World Bank’s lending over that same period.22Rebecca Ray, “Small Is Beautiful: A New Era in China’s Overseas Development Financing?,” Boston University Global Development Policy Center, Global China Initiative (GCI) Policy Brief 017, January 2023, https://www.bu.edu/gdp/files/2023/01/GCI_PB_017_CODF_EN_FIN.pdf. This offered poor countries an alternative source of financing to those traditionally provided by Western powers and their institutions.
That has made China a major creditor to many of the world’s poorest countries. China’s lending has placed Beijing in a similar position to that of other major Western donors, such as the members of the Paris Club, holding huge sums of developing world debt and thus wielding tremendous influence over their economic direction. In the case of Zambia, for instance, China agreed to cochair a creditors’ committee with France to restructure the debt of the African nation, which defaulted in 2020.23“The Response to Debt Distress in Africa and the Role of China,” Chatham House, December 2022, https://www.chathamhouse.org/2022/12/response-debt-distress-africa-and-role-china.
Zambia’s woes are just one part of a wider debt crisis in the developing world, for which China’s lending is partially responsible. Chinese banks are heavily involved in some of the worst cases of debt distress, including Sri Lanka, Pakistan, and Ethiopia. This has forced Beijing to take responsibility for its actions and take an active role in resolving the global problem. Chatham House, a London-based think tank, noted in a 2022 study that “China did not cause African debt distress in most cases”—its lenders account for 12 percent of the region’s external debt— “but it is key to finding a solution.”24“The Response to Debt Distress in Africa and the Role of China,” Chatham House.
Beijing has addressed this responsibility only grudgingly. Resolving the debt crisis will entail working closely with other creditor countries, including the West and its partners. Beijing has been reluctant to cooperate since that would run counter to its self-portrayal as an alternative to the United States and the existing order. Instead, Chinese leaders continue to try to take their own course on the debt issue. For instance, China has in part usurped the usual role of the International Monetary Fund by bailing out troubled borrowers on its own. A 2023 study by research lab AidData, the World Bank, and Harvard Kennedy School calculated that as of 2021, Chinese lenders had provided $240 billion in emergency rescue financing, most of it since 2016. That suggests that China is, for some countries, playing the role of “lender of last resort.”25“Belt and Road Bailout Lending Reaches Record Level, Raising Questions about the Future of China’s Flagship Global Infrastructure Program,” AidData, March 27, 2023, https://www.aiddata.org/blog/belt-and-road-bailout-lending-reaches-record-levels.
As China’s power has grown, Beijing’s expectations for the behavior of its development partners have risen in tandem. China’s leaders often attempt to contrast their foreign policy with that of the United States by claiming they uphold “noninterference” in other states’ internal affairs while presenting Washington as a messianic force always preaching about democracy and human rights. That supposed distinction, however, is diminishing as Beijing has extended its assault on the US-led world order into the realm of ideas and values. Now Beijing, too, is pushing other governments to accept and endorse its own set of diplomatic and political principles and proposals. China’s diplomats routinely trot out Xi’s GDI and Global Security Initiative (GSI), his ideological framework for a new world order, at meetings with counterparts. Over the course of just two days in June, three leaders visiting Beijing—from Mongolia, Barbados, and Vietnam—expressed support for the Global Security Initiative.26“Xi Meets with Mongolian PM,” Xinhua, June 28, 2023, https://english.news.cn/20230628/d79df45731b649ceb422a6e7bc085d9d/c.html?utm_source=substack&utm_medium=email; “Xi Meets with Barbados PM,” Xinhua, June 27, 2023, https://english.news.cn/20230627/cff6c4acb8bd407d900c32cb3aa2361f/c.html?utm_source=substack&utm_medium=email; and “Xi Meets with Vietnamese PM,” Xinhua, June 28, 2023, https://english.news.cn/20230628/b1903e3e2ae04c2896bc842979d6afa0/c.html?utm_source=substack&utm_medium=email.
Similarly, Xi has a tendency to treat his poorer partners more like supplicants than equals. BRI participants have been expected to send high-level delegations to three forums for the project held in Beijing in 2017, 2019, and this October —in a sense, not fundamentally different than the old “tribute missions” that China’s emperors demanded in exchange for access to the empire’s largesse.
China’s new imperialism
China’s new dominance in the Global South has already strained Beijing’s diplomatic endeavors. In mid-2022, Wang Yi, then serving as China’s foreign minister, went on an expedition through the South Pacific carrying a security and economic pact he expected the leaders of the island nations there to sign. Fears emerged in Washington that China was about to draw the South Pacific into its orbit.
That didn’t happen. Wang’s pact failed to gain the necessary support within the region, and he went back to Beijing empty-handed.27“China and Pacific Islands Unable to Reach Consensus on Security Pact,” CNBC, May 30, 2022. https://www.cnbc.com/2022/05/30/china-and-pacific-islands-unable-to-reach-consensus-on-security-pact.html. The effort collapsed because the islands’ governments felt that Beijing was dictating to them rather than treating them as partners. Wang had brought the document already prepared, without consultations with the South Pacific leaders themselves. “It was that that our members reacted against,” Henry Puna, the head of the Pacific Islands Forum explained in a briefing. “It’s not other people—it’s us.”28Ben Westcott, “Pacific Leader Blasts China’s Botched Attempt to Strike Pact,” Bloomberg, July 14, 2022, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2022-07-15/pacific-leader-blasts-china-s-botched-attempt-to-strike-pact?sref=4LEYncfM. Since then, Beijing’s mission in the South Pacific has unraveled. Papua New Guinea, Palau, and Micronesia have all recently signed agreements29“U.S. Strengthens Ties to Key Pacific Island Partners,” United States Institute of Peace, June 1, 2023, https://www.usip.org/publications/2023/06/us-strengthens-ties-key-pacific-island-partners. with the United States. In September 2023, US President Joe Biden hosted a summit with the 18 members of the Pacific Island Forum at the White House, and only one leader, the president of the Solomon Islands, which has a security pact with China, stayed away.30Michael Crowley, “Biden Hosts Pacific Islands with Rising China in Mind,” The New York Times, Sept. 25, 2023. https://www.nytimes.com/2023/09/25/us/politics/biden-pacific-islands-china.html.
The fiasco in the South Pacific is only one indication that Beijing is growing out of touch with the needs and desires of the Global South. Chinese leaders have also been criticized for hampering a resolution to the developing world debt crisis. Its state lenders have a long history of being reluctant to absorb losses on loans and rarely offer deep debt relief to financially strained borrowers in the developing world.31Sebastion Horn et al., “Hidden Defaults,” World Bank, February 2022, https://documents1.worldbank.org/curated/en/773311643912553263/pdf/Hidden-Defaults.pdf. That practice has continued in the current crisis. Chinese state banks have consistently been resistant to taking “haircuts” on their loans to relieve financial pressure on troubled low-income countries. Beijing has also insisted that multilateral institutions, such as the World Bank, participate in debt restructurings and offer relief, too, which would represent a break with precedent.32“China Wants the World Bank to Offer Debt Relief to Zambia,” Bloomberg, January 31, 2023, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2023-01-31/china-wants-the-world-bank-to-offer-debt-relief-to-zambia?sref=4LEYncfM.
These positions have slowed the progress of negotiations to ease the debt burdens on poor economies and help them emerge from painful economic crises. Earlier this year, when asked about China’s stance on the World Bank, Zambian Finance Minister Situmbeko Musokotwane, frustrated by the glacial pace of negotiations over a debt workout for his country, complained that it makes “our situation worse, because what we are looking for is urgent solutions, not discussions that may drag out the matter.”33Joseph Cotterill, “Zambia’s Finance Minister Criticizes Creditor Delays on Debt Restructuring,” Financial Times, February 13, 2023, https://www.ft.com/content/b136a36b-5822-4647-8efe-67fc18b00ea3. When a deal among official creditors was finally struck in June 2023, China got its way on many key issues. Though the restructuring did include a significant reduction of interest rates and extensions on maturities, it provided no reduction of principal. The agreement also includes an unusual feature through which China and some other creditors can claw back money if Zambia has a stronger than expected economic recovery.34Matthew Wingey and Logan Wright, “China’s External Debt Renegotiations after Zambia,” June 28, 2023; and Joseph Cotterill et al., “Zambia Agrees ‘Milestone’ Debt Relief Plan with China and Other Creditors,” Financial Times, June 23, 2023, https://www.ft.com/content/e3b66798-1c5c-4c0c-8339-83a76e1e2c34.
China is also generating ill will in the Global South by abusing these countries’ natural resources. In the days of Western imperialism, European countries enriched themselves by siphoning off the wealth of their colonies, whether spices or silver. Modern China may not be capturing these riches through conquest, but it is exploiting them, nonetheless. Natural resources are the top target of Chinese overseas investment. Data from the American Enterprise Institute shows that more than 40 percent of Chinese outbound direct investment—or some $600 billion—has been plowed into energy and metals since 2005.35Derek Scissors, “2023: ‘Zero-COVID’ Ends, and Chinese Investment Returns,” American Enterprise Institute, January 2023, https://www.aei.org/wp-content/uploads/2023/01/2023-Zero-COVID-Ends-and-Chinese-Investment-Returns.pdf?x91208. A current point of contention between China and some developing countries is aggressive fishing practices. Chinese trawlers have been accused of stripping fishing grounds off the coast of West Africa, shoving aside the smaller, less advanced craft of local fishermen. “They are stealing what should be ours,” one aggrieved Ghanaian told The Telegraph.36Torbjorn Wester, “‘They Are Stealing What Should Be Ours’: Chinese Trawlers Are Emptying West African Fishing Grounds,” Telegraph, June 5, 2023, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/global-health/climate-and-people/how-chinese-trawlers-are-emptying-west-african-fishing-grou/. The Philippines in recent years had tried to forge stronger relations with China, but now, President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. has swerved firmly back into the US camp. One sensitivity between Manila and Beijing has been fishing rights in the contested waters of the South China Sea, where Chinese fleets have muscled out their rivals. “I explained to President Xi that last year was the first year in the entire history of the Philippines where we had to import fish, which is a ridiculous situation for a country that consists of 7,100-plus islands,” Marcos said, adding that he had told President Xi, ”Perhaps we can take the little step of allowing, once again, our fishermen to ply their trade.”37“Marcos Says Philippines Bases Could Be ‘Helpful’ If Taiwan Attacked,” Reuters, May 5, 2023, https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/marcos-says-philippines-bases-could-be-useful-if-taiwan-attacked-2023-05-05/.
Such self-interested behavior has left Beijing open to criticism on other fronts, including climate change. Beijing has been an advocate for the developing world in climate forums for some time and has earned significant support on this issue from the Global South. But its position has come under pressure as China’s economy has developed. China has been the largest emitter of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere since 2006,38Harry Stevens, “The United States Has Caused the Most Global Warming. When Will China Pass It? Analysis, Washington Post, March 1, 2023, https://www.washingtonpost.com/climate-environment/interactive/2023/global-warming-carbon-emissions-china-us/. and despite Beijing’s pledges to attain carbon neutrality, those emissions are still increasing. China’s leaders, however, have taken the position that they are not responsible for the damage done to poor countries by global warming, and though they have offered to aid them in certain ways, they have refused to contribute funds to compensate them for losses. That has made China an outlier on this point since the United States and other industrialized countries agreed to create such a fund at last year’s UN climate summit, COP27. That refusal has not gone down well with some developing countries. Small island nations called on Beijing to financially compensate poor countries for damage and loss due to global warming at the summit.39“COP27: Island Nations Want China, India to Pay for Climate Damage,” Reuters, November 9, 2023, https://www.google.com.hk/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=&ved=2ahUKEwjdw8fLsPz_AhXmJkQIHQyiAvYQFnoECBEQAQ&url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.reuters.com%2Fbusiness%2Fcop%2Fcop27-island-nations-want-china-india-pay-climate-damage-2022-11-08%2F&usg=AOvVaw2i7FWtNhKfIwYVp-394eP2&opi=89978449. Chinese officials “are always seeking language that would protect them, give them less responsibilities, no obligations for developing countries,” one former climate negotiator from the Global South grumbled to The Washington Post.40“How China, the World’s Top Polluter, Avoids Paying for Climate Damage,” Washington Post, November 23, 2022, https://www.washingtonpost.com/climate-environment/2022/11/23/china-climate-finance-cop27/.
Rivals from within
The new, unbalanced relationship between China and the Global South has left the door ajar for other contenders to challenge China’s quest for primacy in the developing world. That includes the United States, which should be able to take advantage of emerging tensions within the Global South to extend its own influence. But Beijing is also facing challengers from within the Global South as other up-and-coming powers seek a greater voice in the developing world and international community more broadly.
Brazil’s Lula intends to restore his country’s reputation and role in regional and international diplomacy, including greater engagement with the Global South.41Diana Roy, “Lula Is Back. What Does That Mean for Brazil?,” Council on Foreign Relations, January 1, 2023, https://www.cfr.org/in-brief/lula-back-what-does-mean-brazil. In September, Lula teamed up with Biden to launch an initiative to promote workers’ rights,42“The United States and Brazil Launch First-Time Global Initiative to Advance Rights of Working People Around the World,” White House website, Sept. 20, 2023. https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2023/09/20/fact-sheet-the-united-states-and-brazil-launch-first-joint-global-initiative-to-advance-rights-of-working-people-around-the-world/. and during a speech to the United Nations General Assembly that same month, he argued that the current global order is failing the developing world. “When institutions reproduce inequalities, they are part of the problem, not the solution,” he said.43President Lula speech to the UN General Assembly, Sept. 20, 2023. https://www.gov.br/planalto/en/follow-the-government/speeches/speech-by-president-luiz-inacio-lula-da-silva-at-the-opening-of-the-78th-un-general-assembly.
India, though, may be China’s most determined and capable rival. New Delhi has perceived itself to be a leading voice within the developing world since the days of Jawaharlal Nehru. Now Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (though hardly a Nehru disciple) is engaged in an intensified effort to claim that his country, not China, better represents the interests of the world’s poor countries. Ahead of his appearance at the May 2023 G7 summit in Japan, Modi said that he intended to “amplify the voices and concerns of the Global South.”44Kirak Sharma, Satoshi Iwaki, and Nupur Shaw, “Modi Says He Will ‘Amplify Global South’ at G7,” Nikkei Asia, May 19, 2023, https://asia.nikkei.com/Editor-s-Picks/Interview/Modi-says-he-will-amplify-concerns-of-Global-South-at-G-7. He proposed inviting the African Union to have full membership in the G20 to enhance Africa’s voice at the international forum.45“India’s Modi Seeks African Union’s Full Membership in G20,” Reuters, June 18, 2023, https://www.reuters.com/world/indias-modi-seeks-african-unions-full-membership-g20-2023-06-18/. This proposal gained approval at the September 2023 summit in New Delhi.46“The African Union Is Joining the G20, a Powerful Acknowledgement of a Continent of 1 Billion People,” Associated Press, Setp. 9, 2023. https://apnews.com/article/g20-membership-africa-economy-india-ae58459261bc2722b54da422debc5b83. (Xi, who chose not to attend, was not present for the important decision.) Modi made sure to show up at the September 2023 ASEAN summit in Indonesia,47Transcript of Special Briefing on Prime Minister’s Visit to Indonesiia, Indian Ministry of External Affairs, Sept. 5, 2023. https://www.mea.gov.in/media-briefings.htm?dtl/37066/Transcript_of_Special_Briefing_on_Prime_Ministers_visit_to_Indonesia_September_05_2023. which Xi also skipped. His administration has been openly critical of Beijing’s foot-dragging on debt restructurings for low-income nations, stating that Chinese banks must be willing to absorb losses on their loans.48“China Must Take a Haircut on Its Loans to Poor Countries: India’s G20 Sherpa,” Hindu, February 15, 2023, https://www.thehindu.com/news/international/china-must-take-a-haircut-on-its-loans-to-poor-countries-says-indias-g20-sherpa/article66512408.ece. Modi has also tried to take advantage of China’s mistakes by portraying India as a more trustworthy and sympathetic partner. India, for instance, acted more quickly than China to provide debt-stricken Sri Lanka the assurances it required to facilitate an IMF bailout.49“India Commits to Help Sri Lanka on Debt in Prospective IMF Program,” Reuters, January 26, 2023, https://www.reuters.com/markets/asia/india-commits-help-sri-lanka-debt-prospective-imf-program-2023https://www.reuters.com/markets/asia/sri-lanka-says-positive-news-coming-imf-29-bln-package-2023-03-07/ -01-23/; and “Sir Lanka Closes in on $3.9 Billion IMF Deal after China’s Support,” Reuters, March 8, 2023. “India considers it a responsibility to bring the issues, expectations, and aspirations of the Global South to the attention of the world,” Modi told Pacific Island leaders in a meeting in Papua New Guinea in May 2023. “We share your belief in multilateralism. We support a free, open, and inclusive Indo-Pacific.”50“Modi’s Opening Statement at the FIPIC III Summit,” third forum for India-Pacific Islands Cooperation, India’s Office of the Prime Minister (website), May 22, 2023, https://www.pmindia.gov.in/en/news_updates/pms-opening-statement-at-the-fipic-iii-summit/.
New Delhi’s development assistance to other developing countries has also increased significantly on Modi’s watch as it attempts to offer an alternative to China’s BRI program in South Asia.51Benjamin Parkin and Chloe Cornish, “India’s Plan to Take On China as South Asia’s Favorite Lender,” Financial Times, December 1, 2022, https://www.ft.com/content/67abce3d-7313-4788-8649-abb9343a2ebc. Still, India, with a much poorer economy than China’s, may not be able to muster the resources to compete with its richer rival. Yet the gap may not be as large as it would appear. Beijing, facing economic woes at home, also seems to be straining its own capacity to fund its global ambitions. For example, Beijing’s official lending to the developing world has all but dried up. According to Boston University, China’s two main policy banks provided a mere $10.5 billion of development financing in 2020 and 2021 combined.52Ray, “Small Is Beautiful.” Perhaps this retrenchment is temporary, but more likely, Beijing is refocusing its lending program on the quality of projects rather than the quantity. That may make Chinese lending more effective. But it also shows the limits of Beijing’s ability to use its economic muscle to buy influence in the Global South and offers opportunities to rivals on tighter budgets to compete with more beneficial development projects or other programs.
Ultimately, the battle for hearts and minds in the Global South will be about more than money. Values, too, will play a key role, and here, India and others may hold an advantage over China. Though the example of China’s historic economic rise is undeniably attractive to the leaders of other developing countries, its appeal may suffer as the economy slows under the burden of debt, excess capacity, poor policy, and deteriorating relations with the world’s advanced economies. Even more, whether Beijing’s political and social systems can woo adherents remains an open question. There will always be authoritarian regimes in the Global South that envy the Chinese Communist Party’s methods of control and repression. But democratic ideals still capture the imagination and stir the hopes of many in the developing world. Afrobarometer, a pan-African, nonpartisan research network, found in its 2019-2021 surveys across Africa that seven in ten respondents agreed that democracy is preferable to any other form of government.53E. Gyimah-Boadi and Joseph Asunka, “Do Africans Want Democracy—and Do They Think They’re Getting It?” Afrobarometer, November 2, 2021, https://www.afrobarometer.org/articles/do-africans-want-democracy-and-do-they-think-theyre-getting-it/. That proportion remained steady over the course of the preceding decade. “Africans remain committed to democracy,” the organization noted in a 2023 report. “We find that despite the many efforts to undermine democratic norms and freedoms, citizens continue to adhere to them.” The report went on to note that “concerns that China’s active economic presence on the continent might undermine democracy are generally not supported by our survey findings. Africans who prefer the Chinese model of development are about equally likely to endorse democracy and democratic institutions as those who favor the US model.”54“Africans Want More Democracy, but Their Leaders Still Aren’t Listening,” Afrobarometer Policy Paper No. 85, January 2023. https://www.afrobarometer.org/wp-content/uploads/2023/01/PP85-PAP20-Africans-want-more-democracy-but-leaders-arent-listening-Afrobarometer-Pan-Africa-Profile-17jan23.pdf Vanderbilt University polls also showed that support for democracy in Latin America remains relatively strong, at 61 percent in 2021.55“Support for Democracy Across Americas Remains Lower Than a Decade Ago, New Vanderbilt University LAPOP Lab Survey Finds,” Vanderbilt University, November 16, 2021, https://news.vanderbilt.edu/2021/11/16/support-for-democracy-across-americas-remains-lower-than-a-decade-ago-new-vanderbilt-university-lapop-lab-survey-finds/.
The widespread and enduring support for democracy flies in the face of Beijing’s claims to speak for the Global South and may act as a barrier to the expansion of Chinese influence. In January, a new, democratically elected government in Fiji scrapped an agreement that the previous administration had made with China to train the Pacific island’s police force, citing a divergence of political values. “There’s no need for us to continue; our systems are different,” Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka explained to The Fiji Times. “Our system of democracy and justice systems are different so we will go back to those that have similar systems with us,” by which he meant Australia and New Zealand.56“PM Terminates MOU,” Fiji Times, January 26, 2023, https://www.fijitimes.com/pm-terminates-mou/.
Such sentiment means that the emergence of a multipolar world creates as many challenges as opportunities for Xi’s ambitions in the Global South. China’s leaders seem to believe that they will be the big winners in a world shifting away from a global hegemon to one with multiple centers of power. Even though Modi participates in forums with China, including the BRICS group, it is not in his interests for China—a potential adversary—to become the dominant force in the Global South. The China-centric bloc of developing countries Xi is attempting to forge could just as easily be employed against India as against the United States. Nor can Modi afford to see China gain global influence to the point that Beijing can dictate to New Delhi or shape global governance and institutions in ways contrary to India’s ideals or interests. The same can be said of other major players in the Global South, which are unlikely to find it in their interests to see one hegemon replaced by another. These new, emerging global influencers will multiply within the Global South itself, which will surely produce numerous voices, ideas, and programs that will offer its members a smorgasbord of options. China’s platter of proposals will only be one tray on the crowded buffet table, and the leaders of the Global South are likely to sample from them all.
In this we may find the true flaw in Xi’s strategy toward the Global South. Xi wishes to create a unified Global South that he can use to isolate the West and promote Chinese power. But such unity will be elusive, if not impossible. What is emerging instead is a multipolar Global South, with other significant powers that share some, but certainly not all, of Xi’s goals. Nor will they agree on the methods of achieving those goals. Xi, however, does not appear prepared for or interested in working within a multipolar Global South.
In this highly complex Global South, Xi’s attitude toward the West may be problematic for, and possibly even damaging to, his quest for leadership of the developing world. Xi sees the future global order as a struggle between the West and the rest, a struggle he wants to lead and control. But even though many leaders in the Global South are frustrated with Washington, its policies, and its attitude, they won’t see it in their interests to choose sides in the competition between the United States and China and burn their bridges to the West. The advanced democracies simply remain too important to many members of the Global South for them to take an oppositional stance. That reality may increase the appeal of other, less confrontational, approaches to global governance reform than what Xi is proposing. For instance, Modi, through his approach at the recent G20 summit, is offering a more inclusive vision, in which the voice of the Global South is heard and enhanced within the context of cooperation with the West and its institutions. That could well be a more appealing, and more pragmatic, strategy for other leaders in the developing world.
China’s political elite seem to recognize the vulnerability of their position in the Global South. Shortly after the G20 in September 2023, the state-run China Daily insisted that Washington’s efforts to marginalize China “will hardly pull the wool over the eyes of most developing countries about the irreplaceable role China has been playing in defending the interests and rights of developing countries.”57“An Indispensable Member of the Global South,” China Daily, Sept. 21, 2023. https://enapp.chinadaily.com.cn/a/202309/21/AP650c2f90a310f3b0aff681d4.html. A day earlier, the Global Times, run by the Chinese Communist Party, called the notion of a Global South without China a “pseudo-proposition.” It went on to argue that “some people in the West attempt to exclude China from the ‘Global South,’ but they cannot deny our close ties and cooperation with developing countries, nor can they deny the contributions China has made to the development of ‘the South’ countries and South-South cooperation.”58“A ‘Global South’ without China Is a Psuedo-Proposition,” Global Times, Sept. 20, 2023. https://www.globaltimes.cn/page/202309/1298494.shtml. Such editorials offer a window into the discomfort some within the Chinese government feel about China’s position in the developing world.
Conclusion and policy recommendations
China will without doubt be a major political and economic force in the Global South. But its dominance is far from inevitable or assured. What is more certain is that the Global South will be one of the great battlefields of the growing US-China competition, much the same as the “Third World” had been during the Cold War with the Soviet Union. In a sense, this is potentially one way in which superpower competition is not entirely negative for the world. Many countries in the Global South are likely to play one camp off the other, in the process attempting to win for themselves greater attention, influence, financing, and economic opportunities. Regions that languished in a unipolar world, deprived of leverage, can now have their voices heard and respected. The contest also can offer fresh possibilities for the United States and its partners as well: to reengage with regions, countries, and peoples who have been marginalized in the post-Soviet era. Despite prevailing perceptions—or misperceptions—the Global South remains a fertile ground for advancing US ideals, influence, and business in a way that offers the promise of mutual benefit for many developing nations. Beijing has, with its usual lack of foreign policy finesse, fostered dissension and controversies in its relations with the Global South that Washington can exploit to reassert US influence within the developing world. Achieving that goal, however, will require some new thinking in US foreign policy circles and Washington’s approach to the developing world.
The recommended approach has four facets:
- Offer a fresh vision: The United States and its partners in Europe and the Indo-Pacific already have in place most of the pieces they need to improve their standing in the Global South: well-established aid and development programs, effective and respected international institutions, deep and experienced diplomatic networks, and engagement on a wide scale, not only with governments but also with civil society. What is missing is a new, broad, and compelling vision for the future of the relationship between the developed and developing worlds. China’s leaders are attempting to fill that void through their varied diplomatic initiatives, but those are either still in their embryonic stage (such as the GSI) or already tainted by poor management (such as the BRI). The democratic allies must offer their own vision that pulls together their programs, initiatives, and ideals into a coherent framework that outlines the benefits to, and addresses the aspirations of, the members of the Global South. This framework should also stress the benefits of open societies and civil liberties to counter China’s pro-authoritarian principles. It also must clearly outline how current global governance institutions will be reformed to become more inclusive and better represent the Global South, as well as explain how that altered system can and will successfully address the pressing issues facing the developing world, from climate change to inequality.
- Support that vision with real money: The launch of two infrastructure programs to compete with China’s BRI—the G7’s Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment and the European Union’s Global Gateway—is a good start, but the allied democracies need to do more to prove they can provide prosperity in ways China cannot. Their vision should highlight the superior quality of development programs offered by the democratic allies, in terms of planning, financial structure, and provision of local jobs and benefits for the recipients. But the allies also must go beyond aid to show that their principles and policies can provide real economic progress to the developing world. That means introducing a new mechanism for trade and investment to accelerate the development of poor nations. Such an effort also dovetails nicely with the strategy of “derisking” from China by promoting new locations for production and supply chains.
- Speak softly—and leave the stick at home: China’s “wolf warrior” diplomacy and self-interested approach to the Global South provides opportunities for the United States and its allies to present themselves as the more responsible global players. In its diplomacy, Washington should downplay criticism of China and stress instead the positive aspects of US policies and engagement. For instance, Washington can market its more generous stance on debt workouts and climate compensation for the developing world to characterize itself as more sensitive to the needs of poor nations. Diplomats from the United States and Europe should also talk less and listen more. The Global South wishes to be heard and the democratic allies should act to enhance its voice in international forums and organizations, and even form new organizations specifically to foster better communication between the advanced and developing economies. The recently launched Partnership for Atlantic Cooperation, which brings together countries from Africa, Europe, and North and South America to work on issues such as development and the environment, is a good example. 59“32 Countries Launch the Partnership for Atlantic Cooperation,” White House website, Sept. 18, 2023. https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2023/09/18/fact-sheet-32-countries-launch-the-partnership-for-atlantic-cooperation/.
- Support China’s rivals: The United States and the other advanced democracies should cooperate closely with potential rivals to China from within the Global South, especially India, to promote alternatives to Chinese influence. That could entail coordination of global initiatives and development programs to present them as joint efforts between the advanced and developing economies. For instance, instead of organizing new development schemes among the advanced countries, why not invite members of the Global South as partners in management and implementation to refashion the program as a joint effort? Washington and its partners can also channel resources through India and other partner countries in the Global South to promote their own efforts to expand their influence. In short, the United States should take a more collaborative, collective approach to the Global South and countering Chinese influence within it.
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Recommendations on how US policymakers and European and Indo-Pacific partners can better understand China’s latest development and security initiatives to meet the rising competition.
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Dr. Julian Gewirtz and Chris Backemeyer join us to provide unique insights from a US perspective on the potential implications of China’s growing presence in the Middle East and its efforts to replace US dominance on global governance, as well as the priorities of the US in the MENA region.
Michael Schuman is a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Global China Hub and a contributing writer for the Atlantic magazine.