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U.S. vs. Developing World

Jul 22, 2021
  • Zhou Xiaoming

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

At a news conference at the G7 leaders’ summit in Britain in June, U.S. President Joe Biden outlined what he said was a contest between the U.S. and China. It was between democracy and autocracy, he said.

“We’re in a contest, not with China, per se ... [but] with autocrats, autocratic governments around the world, as to whether or not democracies can compete with them in a rapidly changing 21st century.”

The assertion is neither factual nor constructive.

The United States and its allies in the West share certain ideological values. These Western powers, many of which are former colonists or neo-colonists, have one important common concern:  maintaining the status quo. The fear of losing their coveted position in the world will prompt them to band together to suppress any forces that they view as a threat to their dominant position on the earth.

However, their interests do not always converge. The Biden administration is far from keen to remove the tariffs Donald Trump imposed on steel and aluminum imports from the European Union on national security grounds. The recent revelation of the U.S. government has been spying on European politicians also testifies to the differing interests and distrust between America and its major allies.

The EU regards China as a partner, yet at the same time calls it a “systemic rival.” It would be presumptuous, therefore, to equate the U.S. strategic interests and objectives regarding China with those of other Western-style democracies.

Presenting the U.S.-China rivalry as between democracy and autocracy also ignores the fact that democracies in the developing world, as defined by the U.S., have little in common with the U.S. Far from being in the same boat, America and poor democracies are on opposing sides that often clash on important issues. For decades, they have relentlessly fought each other for what developing countries consider a fair and just international order, and they have wrangled over issues both view as critical to their national interests such as transfer of technology and official development assistance.

As someone who has been through many debates at the United Nations, I know how confrontational and ferocious their encounters on the floor of the organization can become. It took them three hours just to agree to the change of a single word in an agenda item for the 14th  session of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development in 2016. For three long hours the U.S.-led Western democracies blocked a proposal by Latin American nations, insisting on substituting “debt workout” for “debt restructuring” as they thought it might obligate their countries in reducing the public debt of some developing countries.

In reality, countries identify themselves by their level of economic development. For poor countries, it is their identity as “developing country,” rather than the label “democracy,” that determines where they belong. That explains why India, the world’s biggest democracy by the standards of the West, and China often come together against the U.S. on various issues at the UN. Experts also point out that the current somewhat strained relations between the two Asian countries have nothing to do with ideology. It is down to territorial disputes and, to a lesser extent, great power competition between the two neighbors.

Admittedly, there are ideological differences between the U.S. and China. However, the differences are being so blown out of proportion by Biden as to distort the picture of their relations. In truth, the contest is not about democratic values. Rather, it reflects Washington’s desire to maintain its global hegemony. For over half a century, the U.S. has largely been calling the shots in the world and enjoying the privileges of ruler of the universe. But its global economic, technological and military dominance is now, in its view, being threatened by China’s continued rise. For this reason, Biden called China “the most serious competitor,” and sees the halting of its development as the defining battle of the 21st century for the U.S.

To its great dismay, the Biden administration finds itself unable to deal with China from a position of strength if it goes it alone as its predecessor did. Therefore, as part of its China strategy, Washington seeks to form alliances. By framing the U.S. vs. China rivalry as one between so-called democracies and autocracies, Washington hopes to be able to convince or compel other countries to come on board. The issue of ideology thus becomes a convenient and potentially powerful rallying call for Washington as it clings to its position as the world’s dominant power.

China stands at the forefront of the quest for a fairer and more just international order for developing countries. Identifying itself with other developing countries, it champions their cause, speaking out on their behalf and safeguarding their interests. It pushes for democracy in international relations, maintaining that all countries should be equal regardless of size or power, and that global governance should be the joint business of all.

China’s policy, while reflecting the aspirations of the developing world, is viewed with increasing alarm and fear in Washington as the main roadblock to a permanent global hegemony. In a desperate effort to thwart the emergence of a new international order that Washington believes is being spearheaded by China, it targets, as in a decapitation operation, the Asian country as its No. 1 threat, and it’s determined to do whatever it takes to contain its rise.       

What’s more, China is committed to building a community with a shared future for mankind. As it develops, it provides more international public goods, sharing its development and opportunities with other developing countries. Its recent initiatives include the New Development Bank, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, China-Africa Development Fund and the Belt and Road Initiative—all of which are intended to benefit the world, developing countries in particular.

Under the Belt and Road Initiative, which Washington considers a thorn in the flesh, China has financed more than $130 billion in highways, railways and ports in poor countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America over the past seven years. According to the World Bank, the BRI would help lift nearly 40 million people out of poverty in the developing world by 2030. Another example is that over the past 10 months or so, China has supplied more than 500 million doses of vaccines to other developing countries, against 24 million doses that the U.S. has shipped beyond its borders.

Apparently, the fate of China and that of the developing world are closely linked, and what impacts China’s development will ultimately affect the fortunes of other developing countries. As the teeth will be exposed to the cold in the winter when the lips are gone, Washington’s actions against China have a large bearing on the developing world. Therefore, it is fair to conclude that the contest between the U.S. and China is one between the U.S. and the developing world. 

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