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Pushing the Global South into China's embrace

Beijing is vying for the leadership role among these countries and making inroads. Is Washington nimble enough to make adjustments?

Analysis | Africa

Earlier this month, leaders around the world offered their condolences to the British Royal family for the death of Queen Elizabeth II. And people, primarily in the Western world, mourned her passing. 

In the Global South and in the North, professors of post-colonial studies, history, and anthropology chose to refresh people’s memories on colonization and the brutality of the British empire, leading to sparring between the two groups on social media. The debate epitomizes not simply the differences in readings of history between the West and the Global South, but a larger phenomenon that affects American and Western foreign policy. 

The perennial challenge with international relations theories in the United States is the linear view of foreign affairs and, as a consequence, unilateral decision making. Analysts, think tankers, and policymakers in Washington and New York tend to formulate policies based on their understanding or assumption of the needs of the global populace, that is, if they choose to include the needs of the global populace in their decision making at all. 

A concoction through that line of thinking is the Biden administration’s fracturing of the world into two camps of democracies and autocracies. There cannot be a more disconnected framing of the world than that dichotomy. The privileges that come with a fully functioning democracy such as freedom of speech, expression, and thought are not necessarily the needs of societies of the Global South as much as they are a desire.

This could be news to many in Washington, but, even today, many in Latin America, Sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, and even Eastern Europe struggle to meet the basic necessities at the bottom of Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs” pyramid — physiological needs (air, water, food, shelter, clothing) and safety needs (employment, resources, health, property). Leaders of the G-7, meanwhile, promote esteem needs near the top, such as freedom and self-respect.

A Kenyan official summed it up well, saying, “when a British leader visits we get a lecture; when a Chinese leader visits we get a hospital.” 

The United States needs to recalibrate its foreign policy. A case in point is the response of countries like Russia, China, and India to the COVID-19 pandemic. They were the first to deliver vaccines to countries of the Global South. When the United States under Trump had export bans, Chinese and Indian vaccines reached countries in America’s backyard.

Take the case of the last few iterations of the BRICS vs the G-7 meetings. For one, members of the G-7 not wearing a tie made more headlines in the United States than members of the BRICS proposing alternatives to the U.S. dollar for trade, increasing cooperation on energy, and expanding the group to include more nations from the Global South. 

Meanwhile, since the Western world unleashed unilateral sanctions against Russia last spring, the developing world has consistently voiced concerns over their impact on their economies. Rising prices of crude, fertilizer, and grains have a direct impact on the lives of billions in the Global South. While the G-7 was deliberating on effective ways to defeat Russia, the developing world had bigger concerns of putting food on the table and keeping homes and hospitals lit. 

Contrast that to the G-7 and in particular, Biden’s response to rising prices  — “natural gas prices will remain high until Ukraine victory.” This disconnect with the needs of the Global South could be well exploited by China, which is actively seeking the leadership mantle of this part of the world.   

Through AIIB, SCO, BRI and now the BRICS, China and through a few forums, Russia, are engaging the developing world and awakening dormant concerns such as the long term effects of colonialism and educating the developing world about the West’s alleged disregard of their needs. This messaging is well received by few if not many poor countries.

Based on the interest expressed by nations in joining the BRICS, it would not come as a surprise if China someday tried to use island nations and territories of Western nations in the Pacific to orchestrate an “island spring” that would essentially try to overthrow or actively protest Western presence. 

The case of the Solomon Islands should serve as a lesson for the Western world to ascribe to the old saying “prevention is better than cure.” Reactionary foreign policy approaches such as the United States hosting the leaders of the Pacific Islands at the Pacific Islands Forum in Hawaii on September 13, months after China reached a security partnership with the Solomon Islands, shows that these measures are merely in response to China’s overtures in the region. 

Unlike the Soviet Union in the Cold-War era, China today has trillions in capital to invest around the world through its Belt and Road Initiative. Beijing offers developing economies quick access to capital as well as infrastructure such as roads, bridges, and ports. Economic and social benefits of these projects vary country by country, with  sporadic but not widespread discontent surrounding the initiative in the Global South. 

China is the world’s largest trading nation and controls the supply chains of several industries vital to U.S. national security. Moreover, according to reports, Beijing is  planning to increase its military presence in the South China Sea and in countries such as Iran, Pakistan and Equatorial Guinea. Most importantly,  China is vying for the leadership role of the Global South and making inroads, not just into countries that have an existing dispute with the Western world such as Iran and Argentina, but many others in the developing world through a camaraderie and solidarity of shared, existential challenges. 

In order to address these multifarious challenges, the United States should use economic statecraft, diplomacy, and strategic soft power over conventional military power.  

Firstly, American economic statecraft should hinge on three types of shoring — friend shoring, onshoring, and nearshoring, which will reduce America’s over reliance on China for vital goods and services while increasing economic opportunities for American allies and neighbors. 

As an extension, the United States Should help deliver roads, bridges, and hospitals to countries that are in dire need. Second, diplomacy should constitute dialogue and support of civil institutions that would assist in the goal of winning friends over antagonistic measures of regime change. Furthermore, Washington should include developing countries in the decision-making process — particularly on decisions that could have a wide-ranging impact on their economies and societies such as sanctions and security agreements. 

Finally, strategic soft power should be executed through public diplomacy initiatives and increased scholarly exchanges with countries in the Pacific Islands and other parts of the developing world. 

As the United States makes the pivot to Asia while engaging island nations in the Pacific and other nations in the broader Global South, it should make a concerted effort to read history through the prism of the people of the region and adopt a more egalitarian foreign policy that addresses their needs. If not, they will soon find the developing world in China’s embrace. 

(Oleg Elkov/Shutterstock)
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