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Foreign Policy

Curbing China’s Pacific Influence

Oct 12, 2022
  • Zhou Xiaoming

    Former Deputy Permanent Representative of China’s Mission to the UN Office in Geneva

I remember the Solomon Islands as an idyllic place, covered with leafy coconut trees. The beautiful scenery of the country — etched in my mind during a three-day tour of the archipelago in 1995 — largely remains, but its tranquility has been disrupted by a geopolitical tsunami.

The United States`, together with some of its allies, is hard at work to turn the island nation into a theater for its contest with China. In response to a security pact the Solomon Islands struck with China, U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris and senior officials flew to Honiara one after another to pressure the country’s leaders in person. The governments of Australia and New Zealand voiced grave concerns over the agreement.

President Joe Biden himself hosted the first U.S.-Pacific Island Country Summit at the end of September to beat what was billed as Beijing tilt. The island nation had been “unfairly targeted” and “vilified,” its premier, Manasseh Sogavare, told the UN General Assembly on Sept. 24.

What the Solomon Islands is being put through reflects the Biden administration’s drive to cut China’s growing influence in the developing world. To this end, Washington is resorting to various means, including portraying China as a bad actor, setting up trading blocs that exclude China and sowing discord between China and other developing countries.

Over the years, China has been winning hearts and minds in the developing world. According to a study by Princeton University published in July, of the nine countries in the Middle East and North Africa that the survey covered, all but one had more positive views of China than of the U.S. Other surveys show that China is more popular than the U.S. among young people in Africa. At the United Nations, the great majority of developing countries have consistently sided with China on issues ranging from Hong Kong to Xinjiang to Taiwan, repeatedly frustrating the U.S. More than 100 developing countries have signed on to China’s initiatives such the Belt and Road Initiative and the Global Development Initiative.

All this is interpreted by the Biden administration as China’s growing influence in the global south, and it has caused a great deal of concern and raised anxieties among American elites. As most analysts would agree, China’s growing influence stems from its enhanced economic and commercial relations, rather than security ties, with the developing countries.

This economic engagement with poor countries — or solidarity, as China puts it — is nothing new, however. Back in the 1970s when China’s economy was no bigger than India’s, it funded and built the Tazara Railway, a 1,860 kilometer line connecting Tanzania with Zambia. However, recent years have seen China rapidly expand its reach in the global south as the country ratchets up efforts to build what it calls a community with a shared future for mankind.  

China is now the biggest trading partner for Asian, African and Latin American countries (excluding Mexico) and is the major destination for products from some 40 countries. The infrastructure loans it has extended under the BRI — approximately $1 trillion — have made the country the world’s biggest financier of public works, eclipsing the World Bank. In addition, China is the major supplier of medical supplies and vaccines for poor countries in their fight against COVID-19. These massive investments in the prosperity of other developing countries and building their capacity to confront challenges has earned the country enormous goodwill — or influence, as Washington puts it.

However, Washington fears that China’s influence in poor economies will have a negative impact on the U.S. Funding for infrastructure projects through the BRI complicates Washington’s ability to impose its conditions — as it routinely does under bilateral programs and multilaterally by agencies such as the World Bank. The technology transfers and industrialization China promotes in the global south will lead to the loss of U.S. monopolistic power and erode America’s international competitiveness.

In addition, the development model that China represents may take the shine off America’s battered system and serve as its alternative. In a nutshell, China’s influence, as Washington sees it, threatens America’s global hegemonic power. It is already receding.

It should be said that the Biden administration’s belligerence over China’s popularity in the developing world is based on its obsession with major power competition. It views whatever China does through a geopolitical lens. As a result, it behaves like the man who lost his ax in the story from ancient China. As the legend goes, the man whose ax was lost found every move of his neighbor’s son highly suspicious and concluded that the son was the culprit — until the man unexpectedly found the ax in a valley where he himself had left it and forgotten.  

It is fair to say that the Biden administration’s effort to diminish China’s influence amounts to cutting back on — or attempting to sever —- China’s economic and commercial ties with other developing countries. As such, the scheme stands to hurt poor countries badly.

First, it threatens to starve them of much-needed Chinese investment and access to China’s fast growing market for their products, thus cutting them off from the major global growth engine, which accounted for 38.6 percent of global economic expansion between 2013 and 2021. 

Second, it will work to turn other developing countries into a cauldron for Washington’s confrontation with China. Just as the grass beneath two elephants gets trampled when they fight, poor countries stand to lose when they are placed in the front line of any conflict between the world’s major powers. Washington’s plan to drag developing countries onto its anti-China wagon is akin to having them to shoot themselves in their feet. The Solomon Islands and Samoa apparently knew well the cost of following the White House’s line when they refused to sign on to Biden’s proposal to increase the U.S. military presence in the region. Other poor countries are also increasingly coming to realize that as a source of destruction, Washington’s ambitions to diminish China’s influence goes against their interest.

The Biden administration is attempting to sugarcoat its scheme with incentives such as the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework and similar initiatives for Africa, Latin America and the South Pacific, as well as the G7’s Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment. 

In sum, the mainstream media in the West suggest, all this lacks “meaningful economic engagement.” — far less than the funds China is pouring into the developing world. Moreover, the lion’s share of the U.S. offer is expected to come from private funding, which is highly uncertain. It is clear that the White House’s much-touted partnerships for economic prosperity are intended only to reassert its influence.

It stands to reason that if Washington really cares about the well-being of poor countries, it would welcome any contribution to their social progress and economic development, be it from China or anyplace else. Now that China’s economic engagement with other developing countries has come to be identified in the global south with economic growth and job creation, the Biden administration would be well-advised to stop combating China’s influence. Instead, for the benefit of the Solomon Islands and the rest of the developing world, it should work with China. This is the only right way to go.

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