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Beijing's Bid For Influence in the Global South

  • China criticizes Western policies and hypocrisy, particularly in their responses to conflicts in Ukraine and Gaza.
  • Beijing's diplomatic efforts are focused on presenting an alternative to the Western-led world order, appealing to countries in the Global South.
  • China's stance on global conflicts is part of a broader strategy to gain influence and challenge U.S. and European global leadership.
Yuan

For Chinese Ambassador to the EU Fu Cong, the Israel-Hamas war laid bare the West’s double standards and how Beijing sees it falling out of touch with the rest of the world.

Speaking in Brussels in mid-November, shortly after the October 7 outbreak of hostilities in Israel and Gaza, Fu railed against the bloc’s labeling of China as a “rival” on the global stage, saying that if having different foreign policy views makes Beijing a rival then Brussels will find it has many other competitors.

“From the Middle East to Africa, from Asia to Latin America, there are many countries who obviously do not see eye to eye with Europe when it comes to values,” he said. “We can clearly tell [this] from the divergence of responses to the ongoing Gaza crisis in the Middle East.”

Those comments have come to crystallize China’s long-term effort to gain clout across the so-called Global South -- featuring countries such as China, India, Brazil, South Africa, Pakistan, Indonesia, and Nigeria -- where nations are looking for alternatives to the Western-led world order.

Bloody conflicts -- in Ukraine and most recently in Gaza -- have exposed global divisions over the plight of Palestinians and lingering resentment over perceived Western hypocrisy about the use of force and civilian casualties that Beijing is looking to capitalize on.

“This is a huge victory for China [in its campaign] in the Global South to demonstrate the hypocritical and ideological nature of U.S. foreign policy towards Palestine, which indirectly affects the views of the Global South towards the war in Ukraine,” Haiyun Ma, a Chinese foreign policy expert at Frostburg State University in Maryland, told RFE/RL.

As U.S. President Joe Biden tied American support for Ukraine and Israel together in October -- describing the countries as democracies fighting enemies determined to “annihilate” them -- many in the developing world heard a double standard.

China and many other countries saw it as hypocritical for the West to condemn an illegal Russian occupation in Ukraine but to stand staunchly behind Israel, which has occupied parts of Palestinian territory for decades and has settlements on the West Bank.

The White House has recently grown more critical of Israel’s military campaign in Gaza, but many leaders of countries in the Global South that have historically supported the Palestinian cause have noted the differing Western reaction to both crises.

Experts say these perceived gaps in Western policy -- galvanized recently by scenes of civilian casualties from Israel’s attack on the Gaza Strip -- have presented an opportunity for China to better position itself as an alternative to Washington’s global leadership and could work to undermine the United States’ attempt to rally global support to isolate and punish Russia for invading its neighbor.

Since the deadly attack in Israel on October 7, China has presented itself as a peace broker while taking aim at the West.

Chinese diplomats at the UN and Chinese state-run news outlets that broadcast globally in local languages have stepped up their criticism, saying that U.S. military support for Israel is contributing to the war. Meanwhile, Beijing has looked to build up its clout by calling for an immediate cease-fire in Gaza and hosting a peace conference with Arabic and other Muslim ministers in November.

“It was tried with Ukraine, but now with the Israel-Hamas war, it’s clear what China is trying to do,” Etienne Soula, a research analyst with the German Marshall Fund’s Alliance for Securing Democracy, told RFE/RL. “They’re portraying the West -- and the United States in particular -- as isolated, while China is surrounded by Arab and African countries on the side of the Global South.”

The Ukraine, Gaza Tightrope

China has been seeking to expand its influence across the Global South for years and recently concentrated its efforts in the Middle East, culminating in a Chinese-mediated deal in March that restored relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Beijing has looked to build off that diplomatic win, and in both Gaza and Ukraine, China has tried to balance its message to varying degrees and avoid blowback, though still working to discredit the United States.

“Beijing wants to pin responsibility for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on Washington and [demonstrate] that the [United States] and Europe have significantly weakened their capacity to uphold the existing world order,” Michael Schuman, a China analyst at the Atlantic Council, wrote in November.

On Ukraine, Beijing has refused to condemn Moscow’s invasion and offered economic support to Russia that has helped the Kremlin survive Western sanctions. Beijing has also kept its diplomatic distance from Kyiv, with Chinese leader Xi Jinping not speaking directly with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy until 14 months after Russia’s full-scale invasion.

But China has also tried to appear as a neutral party, despite Xi and Russian President Vladimir Putin declaring a “no-limits” partnership in February 2022. Beijing unveiled a 12-point proposal to broker peace in Ukraine in February that was widely dismissed in Western capitals, but China later stepped up efforts in the spring by dispatching Li Hui, a special representative on Eurasian affairs, to travel to several European capitals, including Kyiv and Moscow.

Those talks have gone nowhere, and Beijing appears to have stepped back from engaging diplomatically as the war edges towards the two-year mark with no end in sight.

In Gaza, China has refused to condemn Hamas -- declared a terrorist group by the EU and the United States -- and remains critical of Israeli treatment of Palestinians, especially due to the rising civilian death toll. In its first statement in October following the Hamas attack in Israel that killed at least 1,200 people, China urged both sides to “exercise restraint” and embrace a “two-state solution.”

That statement drew immediate backlash from Israeli and U.S. officials for minimizing the brutality the Palestinian militants had visited on Israel on October 7, with Yuval Waks, a senior official at the Israeli Embassy in Beijing, saying: “When people are being murdered, slaughtered in the streets, this is not the time to call for a two-state solution.”

Soula says China has moved more carefully since then in its messaging regarding Israel -- with whom it had been building strong ties prior to the war -- and in showing its sympathy for the plight of Palestinians. Still, Beijing has looked to channel the collective voice expressed by other leading Global South countries, such Brazil and South Africa.

“In terms of success, it’s hard to say,” said Soula. “I think that China has followed the way that the wind has blown. Where the global majority leans, you can see China adopt a stance in that direction.”

Hearts And Minds

Soula and his colleagues at the Alliance for Securing Democracy have been tracking Chinese messaging from its diplomats and state-run news outlets for the wars in Ukraine and Gaza.

A February study focused on Ukraine found that officials online and in Chinese media have provided “rhetorical cover for the Kremlin” in Ukraine despite Beijing's official stance as a neutral party in the conflict.

“To weaken Western democracies and their allies, China also has tried to isolate those countries by appealing to the Global South,” the report said. “In the context of the war in Ukraine, Chinese messaging has consistently argued that countries supporting Ukraine are hypocrites and indifferent to the rest of the world.”

A companion study released in November looking at Chinese messaging around the Israel-Hamas war also documented how Chinese state-run news outlets have leveraged their global networks, especially across Africa and the Middle East, to blame the United States as the alleged malign cause for the war in Gaza.

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But it is still unclear exactly how much influence these campaigns have translated into. While the Israel-Hamas war has complicated the West’s argument that Russia’s invasion is a danger to the current world order, Beijing has not emerged as a deciding diplomatic force in either war.

Giulia Sciorati, a fellow at the London School of Economics (LSE) focused on China’s role in the Global South, says that while “China has successfully played on shared worldviews with the Global South,” it’s unclear if Beijing’s positions have truly placed itself as a de facto leader for non-Western countries.

“On paper, this [stance] may comply with the perceived priorities of the Global South,” she told RFE/RL. “[But] it has shown not to comply with the expectations of Global South countries overall, [many of] which had wished for China to take on a more prominent role in peace negotiations.”

Global opinion surveys also paint a more nuanced picture for how China’s bid to woo the Global South is shaping up.

While recent polling has shown that anti-China sentiment in many Western countries is growing, China’s narratives do seem to be resonating across the Global South, where the West has failed to win over countries like India and Gulf nations into supporting sanctions against Russia.

A poll released in late February by the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) found that while strong majorities in Western countries stand in support of Ukraine, those surveyed across the Global South were less supportive of continued war, more likely to sympathize with Moscow's grievances, and to be suspicious of Western leaders' motives.

But a follow-up public opinion poll released in November by the ECFR that surveyed 21 Western and non-Western countries found that people had lost faith in Western policy and instead favored “an a la carte arrangement” where their governments can choose which major player to partner with depending on the issue at stake rather than be locked into a clear geopolitical bloc.

Frostburg State University’s Ma says Chinese foreign policy will grapple with challenges in the coming years as it’s likely to face more competition from the United States and the EU in courting the Global South, but there’s no guarantee that China will “lose some of this newfound influence if the West is able to reassert itself.”

“First of all, once China gains, it will consolidate and even expand,” he said. “Second, even if the West returns and reasserts, it takes time to recover credibility and to channel resources.”

By RFE/RL

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Leave a comment
  • Mamdouh Salameh on January 03 2024 said:
    China is the world’s largest economy based on purchasing power parity (PPP), a superpower in its own right, the driver of the global oil market, leader of the BRICS association and Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO).

    With such strategic and economic power and influence, it inevitable that China will make a bid to become leader of the global south.

    It is equally inevitable that it wants to create a New multipolar World Order to replace the unipolar system led by the US and also to establish a fairer global financial system which reflects its economic power..

    Dr Mamdouh G Salameh
    International Oil Economist
    Global Energy Expert

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