China and America Are Competing for Influence In the Third World

The major geopolitical story of the 21st century will be the Great Power struggle between the United States and China.

One of the main theaters of this competition has been in the Third World. Conventional wisdom used to hold China as a competitor who would embrace democratic ideals and play by the rules of the liberal international order. However, the last few decades, and most importantly, during the recent Wuhan virus pandemic, has demonstrated that China does not want to play by the rules.

In fact, it wants to become the center of a new order that it will spearhead. To accomplish such a task, it will have to spread its influence across different regions of the world. The most ripe targets are in the Third World.

Hal Brands of Bloomberg News provides some context to the changing nature of international relations now that China is emerging as a competing pole to the U.S:

By deepening its domestic repression, pressuring a democratic Taiwan, and coercing countries that criticized or resisted the Chinese Communist Party, Beijing created a wave of diplomatic blowback. China’s favorability ratings have plummeted in Europe and East Asia, and the European Union has labeled it a ‘systemic rival.’ More and more advanced democracies have opted, implicitly or explicitly, to avoid using the Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei in their critical digital infrastructure.

Like the previous Cold War, certains points of competition will take place in Latin America, Central and Southeast Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. These countries tend to be more institutionally fragile, susceptible to large-scale corruption, and less economically developed. Brands argues that these factors make the “offer of Chinese loans (even predatory ones) or low-cost digital infrastructure more attractive.”

Brands added some more historical context to the Third World’s potential attraction to a Chinese political order:

Thanks to their historical experience of colonialism and foreign intervention (sometimes at the hands of Washington), developing nations tend to favor the norm of nonintervention in the internal affairs of other states, and are less inclined to condemn the authoritarian abuses of the Chinese Communist Party. The quest for influence in the global south is thus at the heart of Beijing’s geopolitical strategy.

Whatever economic disadvantages Third World countries have, they make it up in numbers, which play crucial roles in international bodies such as the United Nations Human Rights Council. For China to control these institutions, they will need votes from Third World countries.

China’s renowned Belt and Road initiative has the goal of connecting emerging markets along diplomatic, economic, military, and technological lines. For Beijing, establishing a sphere of influence in developing regions is how it can match the U.S. in terms of power and influence on the world stage.

China has also established a Digital Silk Road so that it can integrate countries into its technological network. As BLP previously reported, Chinese nationals have also been involved in helping Mexican drug cartels launder money, thus destabilizing the U.S. in an indirect manner. While these activities may not be directly coordinated by the CCP, they could be hypothetically exploited by the Chinese government in the near future. After all, we’re dealing with a Chinese government that does whatever it takes to spread its influence.

Democratic nations have responded to the rise of China with the establishment of the Quad —  a security forum dedicated to maintaining a free Indo-Pacific. In addition to securing free shipping lanes, the Quad may likely function as a coalition to balance an ascendant China.

This should be the strategy going forward. Ever since China abandoned its Maoist experiment, it has taken a distinct path of pursuing economic growth and industrial development. In turn, it has used its economic gains to build a stronger military and build itself up as the next power that will challenge the U.S.

The U.S. should make sure to re-shore its alliances in East Asia and use clever diplomacy to build balancing coalitions with East Asian countries, India, and even Russia to keep China in check.