China has an image problem, and Xi Jinping’s "wolf warrior" diplomacy is largely to blame. At least that’s how most in the United States and Europe see it. But this narrative fails to recognize the headway Beijing is making in other parts of the world. What many fail to realize is that Beijing is conducting an effective diplomatic offensive in the developing world, and it poses a real challenge to U.S. global leadership.
To be sure, the abrasive tone China has presented to the international community has caused serious problems in Beijing’s relations with much of the developed world. Even many of China’s most important trading partners are increasingly aligning with the U.S., undoing decades of painstaking efforts by a smoother generation of diplomats. This is a weakness in Xi’s diplomacy, and Washington should capitalize on it.
But on a global scale, Xi’s diplomatic style isn’t failing so much as it’s playing a different game with rules unfamiliar to many Western powers. So-called wolf warrior diplomacy isn’t a flaw of Xi’s "New Era" program—it’s a feature of it. Since Xi came to power, China has recalibrated its diplomatic strategy to focus on the developing world, which it hopes to use to change the world order gradually.
This was a radical shift. Since the 1980s, the primary aim of Chinese diplomats was to placate the U.S. and its allies, easing their concerns about the Chinese Communist Party’s global intentions and convincing them that China’s rise actually benefits the existing international system. This policy was successful—the U.S. not only didn’t oppose China’s rise, but it actively enabled it, truly believing the disinformation narrative that engagement would result in democratic and free market reforms.
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But the effectiveness of this U.S.-centric approach to diplomacy started to wane during the Trump administration. By 2017, Xi already pivoted from Deng Xiaoping’s injunction to "hide your strength and bide your time" in favor of assuming China’s place as a major world power in its own right. "Xi Jinping Thought on Diplomacy" aims to "reform" the international system and create a China-led world order, which is ominously referred to in Chinese as a "community of common destiny for mankind."
This is where the developing world comes in. Beijing knows it cannot currently challenge U.S. hegemony through military means. Rather, in a strategy likely informed in part by the CCP's own experience using workers and peasants to overthrow Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist government in China, Beijing hopes to entice as many members of the international community as possible to back its rise as a global leader. In a United Nations system characterized by "one country, one vote," the country with the most supporters often wins, and there are considerably more developing and nondemocratic countries than there are developed Western democracies.
China has worked to entice countries that are less invested in the U.S.-led international order to take its side and help fight its battles in the international community. This includes nations that openly resent the U.S. and oppose its leadership, such as Iran and Russia. China’s harsh anti-American rhetoric and aggressive treatment of Western countries appeal to these countries, giving Beijing credibility in their eyes.
It also includes underdeveloped countries in Africa, Latin America, and the South Pacific, which are not necessarily opposed to U.S. leadership but whose favor Beijing can buy through economic statecraft. China’s tone in dealing with these countries differs vastly from the harshness with which it approaches the West. In the case of many of these countries, state-owned Chinese firms are among the only developers willing to invest in much-needed infrastructure projects. While many developing countries don’t fully trust China and worry about becoming overly reliant on Beijing, cooperation is usually the least expensive and often the only way for political leaders in these countries to fill urgent needs for their struggling populations.
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The U.S. can’t expect to win over rogue states intent on its decline, but it can and must compete with Beijing in the developing world. Already, China is having considerable success securing the votes it needs to block U.N. actions inconsistent with its interests. The greatest casualty has arguably been global human rights norms. China punches well above its weight in the U.N. Human Rights Council despite not even ranking among the top funders of that body. The fact that the world’s preeminent human rights authority is unable to pass a resolution to even discuss the genocide in China’s Xinjiang region shows how effective Beijing’s assault on democratic norms has become.
This is just one of many examples of how Beijing is using its influence over developing countries to overturn global norms and promote its interests in opposition to the U.S.-led global order. It is past time for the U.S. policy community to take China’s influence in the developing world seriously. Many developing countries desire alternatives to Beijing’s enticements, and the U.S. and its allies should develop strategies to compete with China for their loyalty.
This piece originally appeared in the Washington Examiner