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For the past decade, Chinese President Xi Jinping has endeavored to help China attain what it considers to be its rightful position at the center of the world stage. To do this, Xi—along with the rest of China’s leadership—is attempting to consolidate the country’s economic, political, diplomatic, and military power. It is also working to counter U.S. pressure in the Indo-Pacific region. Xi’s desire to turn China into the world’s most powerful state is, after all, coupled with an inextricable corollary: the imperative of stopping what he sees as efforts by the West to contain it.
But China’s grand strategy includes a third component: asserting its dominant position over a different international system of states. Chinese policymakers are attempting to create a sphere of influence comprising not just their country’s immediately contiguous region but also the entire emerging, non-Western, and largely nondemocratic world—the “global South.” Securing dominance over this vast swath of nations would provide a strong base for China’s power while restricting the United States’ actions and influence. Ultimately, that could help spell the end of U.S. global hegemony.
The developing world has been a constant focus of Chinese diplomacy since the early years of the People’s Republic. Between 1946 and 1974, Mao Zedong perfected his vision of how the struggle against imperialist powers should unfold by focusing on the global South. His “three worlds” theory envisioned a united front bringing together countries from Africa, Asia, and Latin America, constituting the Third World, in a common fight against the First World—composed of the imperialist United States and (after the Sino-Soviet split) the Soviet Union. Meanwhile, China would cajole and neutralize the Second World, made up of middle powers such as Australia, Canada, Japan, and the states in Western Europe. Mao believed that a united front of developing countries led by China could encircle and isolate the hegemonic powers, much as the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in its early years of political struggle had “surrounded the cities from the countryside,” in Mao’s words, eventually enabling the communist revolution to triumph. Toward this end, starting in the mid-1950s, Beijing provided technical and financial assistance to revolutionary and anticolonial liberation movements in the Third World.
China’s own domestic turmoil and limited economic means, however, ultimately constricted its ability to consolidate an effective anti-hegemonic coalition. And so when Deng Xiaoping took power after Mao’s death, he abandoned his predecessor’s revolutionary fervor and instead prioritized the construction of China’s national power. But developing countries remained important to Beijing, if for different ideological and geostrategic reasons. Instead, the global South helped serve China’s national development objectives, including by enabling the country’s continued access to energy and natural resources to feed its growing economy. Deng’s successors remained interested in the economic potential of the developing world as they encouraged Chinese companies to “go out” and conquer new markets overseas. The 16th Party Congress, in 2002, officially included developing countries as “the foundation” for China’s diplomacy—behind relationships with great powers and with China’s neighbors, but ahead of its work in multilateral institutions.
But China still nurtured developing countries in order to achieve major geopolitical objectives. By openly using economic aid and investment as incentives, China got countries in the global South to break off relations with Taiwan, helping diplomatically asphyxiate the island. Through a mix of similar inducements and appeals to shared anti-Western sentiment, Beijing leveraged the votes of developing countries in the United Nations to avoid international condemnation of its persistent human rights abuses.
China got developing countries to help diplomatically asphyxiate Taiwan.
Toward the end of the tenure of Hu Jintao, who held the top positions in China until 2012, the CCP became more fully convinced that its country was on a steep upward trajectory. After all, China had overtaken Japan as the world’s second-largest economy. At the same time, Beijing saw the Obama administration’s newly announced “pivot” to Asia as an intensification of U.S. efforts to constrict China’s power. Feeling both renewed optimism and deepening alarm, China’s leaders unambiguously abandoned Deng’s low-profile foreign policy in favor of a new, proactive global vision focused on making their country the world’s dominant power.
As they sketched out how their country could achieve this aim, some Chinese experts advocated for a balancing strategy that would “march westward” across the Eurasian landmass in order to offset the United States’ growing concentration of diplomatic, economic, and military efforts in maritime Asia. Others, however, insisted that the global South could again play a crucial role in helping China against its hegemonic rival, especially given that the lack of Western interest in those regions would make the task easier. While crafting this second option under now president Xi, CCP theorists unearthed the counterencirclement concepts developed by Mao decades earlier. And today, as under Mao, strategic elites in Beijing appear to believe that leading a united front in the global South will help counterbalance what they perceive as Western attempts to isolate China and prevent its rise.
One major difference with the 1960s, however, is China’s economic clout. Thanks to Xi’s much-touted Belt and Road Initiative, China’s presence is felt across the world, from Pacific Island states to Africa’s Atlantic shores. Beijing has further supported these countries with loans, investments, infrastructure, and enhanced cooperation in an ever-expanding array of domains. As a result, China has both incentives and potential leverage that it can use to assemble coalitions of developing states aligned in its favor and against the West.
China’s economic investment in the global South will also help bolster the country’s long-term economic growth and prosperity. Africa’s urbanized middle class is expected to grow by up to 800 million people over the next 15 years—a population that could be a massive new source of demand for Chinese firms. The Chinese companies building out information technology networks across the developing world may be able to collect vast troves of digital data from their diverse customer base, which they can use to help train AI algorithms—an indispensable step toward fulfilling China’s ambition of becoming a future world technological leader. Finally, as shown in a May 2022 report published by the National Bureau of Asian Research, China’s investment in African infrastructure may be designed to help turn the continent into an integrated low-cost manufacturing platform, allowing African countries to play for China a role like the one China has played for the West. In sum, Beijing evidently hopes that the countries of the global South may help reduce China’s dependence on U.S. and European markets while creating a viable economic subsystem substantially decoupled from the West.
In some of its endeavors in the developing world, China is already finding success. Consider its efforts to use deeper engagement with the global South to delegitimize what the CCP derides as the West’s “so-called universal values.” Developing countries can vote in international institutions in ways that bolster China’s preferences, and many have done so on human rights resolutions. Many emerging economies are also participating in China-led platforms such as the South-South Dialogue on Human Rights; endorsing Chinese concepts such as the “community of shared future,” the party’s vision of a China-centric world order; echoing China’s preferred narratives; and, in the process, giving Beijing more power over international discourse. Chinese policymakers have been helped, to some extent, by the West’s failings. Some developing countries are disappointed with the U.S.-backed liberal democratic model, which they believe has failed to deliver on its promises. Encouraged by China’s relentless training programs designed to share Beijing’s governing practices, more developing countries could end up choosing to borrow elements of China’s statist, mercantilist, and repressive authoritarian model. In this way, too, countries in the global South may help consecrate China as the arbiter of international rights and wrongs.
Beijing’s expanding influence in the developing world could also enhance its ability to project military power, or, at a minimum, restrict other countries’ military options and freedom of maneuver. China is still cautious about flexing its military might, and it casts its overseas military activities as merely the product of a legitimate need to protect its expanding interests. But in 2017, it established a navy base in the East African country of Djibouti, and it has been harboring plans to set up at least one other foreign military outpost, in Cambodia. China is likely to take further steps to promote its permanent presence near other maritime chokepoints and along vital sea lanes.
Beijing likely enjoys watching Washington’s frantic response to its maneuvers.
None of this means that Beijing will succeed at becoming the dominant economic, political, and military power in the developing world. China may become wary that low-investment returns will drain its resources and therefore pull back from large overseas initiatives. Indeed, its wave of big Belt and Road projects has already receded in recent years and may remain low as the country’s economic growth continues to slow. Beijing will also want to avoid security quagmires that put its interests at risk. But regardless of the difficulties that lie ahead, there is no doubt that China now sees the developing world as a theater of growing strategic significance.
The United States, however, does not seem to have gotten fully up to speed in responding to Beijing’s vision for the global South. For the past decade, successive U.S. administrations have been almost entirely reactive to China’s attempts to increase its influence in developing countries. Its overarching policy in the global South appears to be calling out Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative as an exercise in predatory economics, attempting to cobble together Western infrastructure-building coalitions that are “value-driven,” and sending high-level U.S. officials to South Pacific islands only when these states are discussing security agreements with China. None of these appear to be the elements of a considered strategy. Indeed, planners in Beijing likely enjoy watching Washington’s frantic response whenever rumors of a new Chinese naval base emerge. They might even consider maneuvers designed to divert U.S. financial resources, diplomatic energy, and military focus away from places of great importance.
Instead of casting its strategy for the global South entirely in terms of competition against China, the United States should determine its own priorities. U.S. resources are not infinite, and Washington does not need to be equally engaged everywhere. It should pay greater heed to countries that are near geographic chokepoints and that hold minerals or natural resources essential to future economic and technological progress. The United States should also pay particular attention to places where democracy has started to take root. Accountability, transparency, freedom, and pluralism are of intrinsic value to ordinary people. They also bolster U.S. efforts to compete against China: countries with independent media, nongovernment organizations, and strong civil societies are more likely to detect the detrimental effects of China’s investments and resist its attempts at corruption, co-optation, and coercion.
The United States should still be prepared to invest substantial resources in the developing world. As critics often point out, it is hard to beat something with nothing. Washington should seek to share the financial burdens of these investments with its key Asian and European allies. But it may not need to spend huge sums to gain influence in developing states. Beyond cash pledges, Beijing’s main card in the global South is intangible: the promise of opportunity and respect. There is no reason the United States cannot offer both to countries that have too often felt ignored.