On April 15, Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva concluded a visit to China. Lula’s trip was highly successful—for China. But it should be worrying for the United States.
In stark contrast to his avowedly pro-American predecessor, Lula pledged to work with Beijing to “rebalance” global politics and expressed a desire to settle more trade in a currency other than the U.S. dollar, another interest he shares with Beijing. He also earned criticism for “parroting Russian and Chinese propaganda” after blaming the U.S. for “encouraging war” by providing Ukraine with arms to defend itself against Russia’s invasion.
While Brazil has a long way to go before it can be considered fully in Beijing’s grip, it is just the latest country to inch closer to China in an intensifying diplomatic offensive by the People’s Republic. In addition to Lula, heads of state or government from the European Union, France, Malaysia, Singapore and Spain have visited China since late March, and senior Chinese officials have met with their counterparts in multiple countries. French President Emmanuel Macron in particular raised eyebrows after voicing support for Chinese narratives and releasing a joint statement pledging cooperation in areas such as nuclear energy and food security.
That Beijing engages in diplomatic outreach is neither new nor particularly threatening. But there’s no question that Chinese diplomacy has become more aggressive since Xi Jinping took power. It appears to be further intensifying in his newly consolidated third term in leadership.
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Indeed, China is waging what could be termed a new “great game” for geopolitical dominance. The rules of this game differ from those familiar to most of the hard power-focused international community, however. While China frequently deploys military coercion tactics to back up its extensive territorial claims, it seeks to secure global dominance not by a risky campaign of military conquest—which could have catastrophic consequences for the regime—but by a more subtle and gradual approach of amassing political and economic influence.
Playing by New Rules
This game isn’t new, but China’s approach has shifted in recent years. For decades, the top priority of Chinese diplomats was to ease the concerns of the U.S. and its allies regarding the Chinese Communist Party’s intentions and play up the notion that China’s rise would benefit the U.S.-led international system. This effort served China well for four decades. The U.S. actively enabled China’s rise and encouraged the rest of the world to do likewise.
But as China’s economic and military power surged and America started to awaken to the Party’s threats, Xi and his colleagues began to change their focus from the increasingly difficult job of placating the U.S. to that of presenting China as an alternative world leader and enticing—or in some cases coercing—other countries to embrace its leadership. This shift began in 2008, when China sought to capitalize on the global financial crisis to delegitimize American leadership and present itself as a more “responsible” alternative.
This process accelerated under Xi. By 2017, China had all but abandoned the low-key approach to diplomacy that had persisted since the Deng Xiaoping era. Under “Xi Jinping Thought on Diplomacy,” China now openly calls for “reforming” the international system and seeks to establish what it terms a “community of common destiny for mankind.” At the annual legislative session in March 2023, Xi summed up the new approach in a 24-character slogan reminiscent of Deng’s famous injunction to “hide your strength and bide your time.” Xi’s slogan calls for a more active foreign policy and includes phrases such as “dare to struggle.”
Under this new approach, Beijing continues to expend considerable effort to moderate U.S. opposition to its policies and sow disunity within the American alliance system. But the main thrust of China’s diplomatic efforts has changed from convincing the U.S. and its allies that China means no harm to the international order to actively enlisting countries to help remold or overthrow it.
A Numbers Game
This new diplomatic approach focuses on three types of countries: those, like Russia and Iran, that resent the U.S.-led world order as much as China does; nondemocratic countries like Saudi Arabia that, though aligned with the U.S., have only a limited ideological stake in preserving the norms of the existing international order; and the “Global South,” or underdeveloped countries in Africa, Latin America, the South Pacific and other regions, whose loyalty Beijing seeks to purchase by fulfilling unmet development needs.
In essence, China’s quest for global leadership is a numbers game. In an international system where each country gets one vote in United Nations bodies, the country that manages to attract the most supporters can shape the system from the inside out. The genius of China’s strategy is that most of the world’s countries are underdeveloped, nondemocratic or both. Most countries don’t see eye to eye with Washington on significant issues, as illustrated by the fact that only 33 countries—almost all liberal democracies in North America, Europe and Northeast Asia—have imposed sanctions on Russia despite the U.N. voting overwhelmingly to condemn the invasion of Ukraine.
Many of the countries China targets have traditionally aligned with the U.S. and often don’t trust Beijing. But Beijing doesn’t need their complete loyalty all at once. It sees loyalty as a spectrum and is content to squeeze out wins when and where it can.
In the U.N., for example, China is using its political leverage over developing countries—and over key U.N. offices and personnel—to block actions inconsistent with its interests and degrade and replace the liberal norms that uphold the U.S.-led international system. Beijing doesn’t need these countries to definitively side with China against the U.S., but simply to vote in its favor on certain key issues and slowly build relationships of mutual interest. This strategy is paying off, as demonstrated by China’s undue influence in the U.N. Human Rights Council. The World Health Organization’s pandering to China throughout the COVID-19 pandemic is another case in point.
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China’s ability to entice developing countries to switch diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing, despite U.S. pressure to resist its overtures, is another worrying trend. Nine countries have severed ties with Taiwan since 2016, and five of these are in America’s backyard. In 2016, all but one Central American country had ties with Taiwan. Now only two remain, the rest having defected over to Beijing.
Preserving American Leadership
To preserve American leadership and the current international order, the U.S. must compete with China in the developing world. Many developing countries have significant economic and political needs that require not only investment in infrastructure and industry, but also the active support of a leading global power. These are needs that China is happy to fill. By helping to meet these countries’ economic and political needs, the U.S. can provide them with an alternative to pivoting to China. With all the recent talk about “friendshoring” and “nearshoring” critical supply chains currently stuck in China, there should be plenty of opportunities for investment that will pay off long term.
America must also do a better job of telling its story in the developing world. Despite perceptions to the contrary, the U.S. and its allies remain the most important economic partners of many countries where China is making inroads. Beijing often gains favor in these countries by promising increased trade and investment, but promises don’t always produce results. Since Costa Rica established ties with Beijing in 2007, for example, Chinese investment in the country has decreased by 70%. As of 2021, 79% of the country’s foreign direct investment came from the U.S.
Of course, not all investment is created equal. To compete with China, the U.S. must ensure its investment actually satisfies development needs. But in a world where messaging often carries more weight than facts and results, the U.S. must do a better job of telling its own story, rather than let Beijing dominate the narrative as it often does.
Finally, Washington must preserve American dominance in the economic and military realms. Beijing recognizes the political leverage that comes with hard power, and it exploits this leverage freely. Developing countries fear the prospect of ending up on the wrong side of geopolitical competition and antagonizing a future hegemon. As long as they fear China may eventually overtake the U.S., Washington will have trouble convincing them not to seek favor with Beijing. They are less likely to side with China if they feel secure that the U.S. will remain the dominant power.
This piece originally appeared in Discourse Magazine